Thursday, August 30, 2012

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Ask for Frank.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nearly half of U.S. consumers don't feel need for 4G LTE speed

Survey finds that 47 percent of U.S. consumers don't believe they have a need for the speedier wireless networks.
Even though Apple's next iPhone is widely expected to feature  4G LTE connectivity, a new survey finds that nearly half of U.S. consumers feel they don't need the speedier wireless networks.
Nearly 47 percent of those surveyed by market analyst Piper Jaffray don't feel they need access to a 4G LTE network, while another 26 percent said they thought all 4G LTE networks were largely the same. The purpose of the survey was to determine whether Sprint's smaller 4G LTE footprint would negatively affect the carrier's ability to sell the new iPhone, widely referred to as the iPhone 5.
"The answer was a somewhat surprising 'no,' Piper Jaffray Senior Analyst Christopher Larsen wrote in a research note. "We think this shows that despite all the 4G advertising, consumers aren't really focused on it. This is good for Sprint as the LTE coverage laggard of the three national iPhone carriers."

The survey also found an ambivalence about the networks, with 51 percent of respondents indicating that either they didn't know who had the best 4G network or that all 4G networks were the same. Of those who did have an opinion, Verizon Wireless was deemed by most to have the best 4G network, followed by AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
"While Verizon appears to be the winner here, the fact that most customers don't have an opinion about the best 4G network is also good news for the remaining carriers," Larsen wrote.

Less than half of those surveyed said they were not planning to buy the next iPhone, which is widely expected to be unveiled late next month. Of the 55 percent apparently contemplating an iPhone purchase, 44 percent indicated they would choose Verizon as their carrier, compared with 29 percent for AT&T, 14 percent for Sprint, and 13 percent for T-Mobile (which isn't expected to offer the new smartphone).
"Based on the survey results, we believe that Verizon will continue to win share, but we don't think the lack of a substantial 4G LTE network will materially hurt Sprint when the iPhone 5 is launched," Larsen wrote.
Earlier this month, Verizon added 34 new markets to its 4G LTE network and now serves more than three-quarters of the nation in a total of 371 markets.
Steven Musil

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Police Can Activate GPS Location Tracking If It’s Disabled

Source: Information Week    August 21, 2012 

Can police access the GPS data on your phone? According to a recent court ruling, they can not only access it, but activate GPS location tracking if it’s disabled.


Consumers currently enjoy little privacy protection from the GPS location information broadcast by their smartphones or automatically added by latest-generation cameras to their digital photographs.
But many legislators, consumer rights groups, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, are seeking clear guidelines about how police, application developers, online marketers, and other third parties can collect and share consumers' GPS data.
As that suit implies, many legal questions remain unanswered, and law enforcement practices are relatively ad hoc. Here are seven things we do know about the unfolding GPS data privacy debate.
1. Consumer Electronics Store Location Information
By default, numerous devices store GPS data in numerous ways. "While smartphone users may realize that their devices have the capability to track their whereabouts, what they may not know is that other devices, such as new cameras, also have the capability to know their location and add location information to a photograph," according to a new report from Kroll Advisory Solutions. Known as geotagging, the location-data-tracking feature recently caught a member of hacking group CabinCr3w by surprise, when he posted a provocative photograph of his girlfriend holding a written taunt to the FBI. The bureau then reviewed the EXIF-encoded GPS coordinates in the image, which corresponded with the girlfriend's house.
2. No GPS Sharing Notification For Consumers
Currently, consumers enjoy few protections on their GPS data, and remain unaware when such information is shared by third parties. "Part of the problem lies in the many different entities involved--wireless carrier, operating system provider, application developer--who may all have access to the consumer's personal information," according to Kroll. "A consumer may have some control through device settings and discretion in what types of applications he or she chooses to use on the device, but these measures cannot guarantee that data will not be shared with third parties."
3. International Approaches Vary
Different countries have been taking markedly different approaches to GPS data privacy. "Earlier this year in Mexico, revisions to federal law--dubbed the Geolocalization Law--provided law enforcement with a powerful ability to request and utilize real-time geographic data from mobile service providers in a wide variety of cases," according to Kroll. "On the opposite end of the spectrum, the European Commission's Article 29 Working Party released an opinion stating that geolocation information is personal data." As a result, in Europe such information can only be collected, shared, or stored with people's express consent.
4. FTC Urges Congress To Protect GPS Data
With the increased use of devices that track GPS data by default, in March the FTC released a report, "Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers," that urges Congress to protect mobile data, including mobile device users' geolocation data. To increase data transparency, the agency is also recommending that legislators craft a law that would require third-party data brokers to disclose to consumers all information that they hold on them.
5. Congress Debates Geolocation Data
Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would set clear standards for GPS data privacy. Last year, for example, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act. In a statement, they said the proposed law "requires the government to show probable cause and get a warrant before acquiring the geolocational information of a U.S. person, while setting out clear exceptions such as emergency or national security situations or cases of theft or fraud." Wyden and Chaffetz later attached their bill as an amendment to the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which earlier this month appeared to have been defeated--at least for this year--by a Republican filibuster.
6. Malware Taps GPS Data
Always pushing the envelope, malware-coding scammers have also begun tapping geolocation data to lend their emails a greater air of authenticity. Earlier this month, for example, London police issued a warning over scamware that purported to be from the Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU), which locks a PC and then demands a fine for it to be unlocked. "This is a fraud and users are advised not to pay out any monies or hand out any bank details," according to an alert issued by London police. "This scam is now affecting many countries in Europe and further afield, with each email tailored to include the branding of that country's law enforcement agency."
The FBI also issued its own warning about the scam. "This malware is doing the rounds across a lot of different countries," said Brian Honan, an independent security consultant based in Dublin, in a security newsletter from the SANS Institute. "It is coded to use geolocation to detect which country the infected computer is in and to use the logos ... of the relevant law enforcement organization for that jurisdiction."
7. Police Can Activate Phone GPS Location Tracking
Can police access the GPS data on your phone? According to a recent court ruling, they can not only access it, but activate GPS location tracking if it's disabled. That's one takeaway from last week's U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruling in a case involving Melvin Skinner, who was convicted of drug trafficking--and sentenced to 20 years in jail. Skinner argued that the GPS data tracking, which DEA agents used to track a motor home he was driving that was filled with 1,100 pounds of marijuana, violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search. In addition, according to a close reading of the court ruling, it turns out that police may not have merely tracked Skinner, but actually instructed his prepaid phone provider to activate the GPS functionality. The court, however, ruled that the DEA had acted lawfully.
But according to Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties for the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University, the court erred--by applying the wrong statute. "The court authorized real time tracking based on a provision of the Stored Communications Act," said Granick in a blog post. But GPS data isn't stored data, which means that the DEA, which had failed to get a warrant, actually conducted "an illegal search," she said. Interestingly, "the Justice Department recommends that prosecutors obtain a warrant to get GPS location information from mobile communications service providers," according to a blog post by Gregory T. Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. But the DEA failed to do so for GPS data, which means that Skinner might be able to suppress the evidence.
Again, the related debate and uncertain ruling continue to highlight how, at least in the United States, important legal questions surrounding the collecting, storing, and tracking of GPS data remain unanswered.

ooVoo Adds Four-Way Video Chats to Android App

ooVoo today released a new version of its mobile application for the Android platform that boosts the number of live feeds that can be seen at a time to four. iPhone and iPad too!

The ooVoo app has always allowed users to conduct group video chats with up to 12 people, but chat windows were limited to one video feed at a time. 

Now, users can see four, live, high-quality video feeds in a single panel. 

The same four-way video chat feature has also been added to ooVoo's iPad app. In addition to the improved group video chat, the new application also includes group messaging, push notifications, and integration with the native Android address book. 

ooVoo messaging and video chats work over 3G, LTE 4G, and Wi-Fi.

 by Eric M. Zeman - - 8-21-12

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pinterest app for Android announced

Popular social network Pinterest announced Tuesday a new mobile application for Android. The app lets users search for, pin, re-pin, and like or comment on posted pins. The app is available for free in the Google Play store.
Along with the Android app, a universal iOS app that includes a new iPad version and an updated iPhone version was pushed out on Wednesday.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Why you can't take your unlocked iPhone 4S to another U.S. carrier --- actually you can!

Ok...Every one let's bury the myth! iphone 4s can be unlocked and used on any gsm carrier....
Verison and Sprint.....In order to use the sprint and verizon iphone it must be unlocked and jail broken. This is what allows it to be used on any gsm carrier. Also the gevey ultra s chip produced by apple and berry.! Allows a instant unlock for the ATT iphone 4s. For the sprint and verizon version it requires that you jail break first.

CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains how wireless operators have manipulated the market to ensure you can't take your iPhone 4S to any other U.S. carrier you want.
If I can unlock my Verizon iPhone so I can use it on a local carrier's network while I'm on vacation in Europe, why can't I pop in a SIM card to that same unlocked phone, and use it on AT&T or T-Mobile when I get home?
In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain why the term "unlocked" doesn't really mean "unlocked" when it comes to the iPhone 4S.
Why a Verizon Wireless unlocked iPhone 4S won't work on AT&T

Dear Maggie,
I have a Verizon Wireless iPhone 4S. But I think the service is too expensive. I'd like to get a prepaid SIM card and use it on AT&T or T-mobile. I unlocked my iPhone 4S a few months ago when I traveled to Europe. And I used a SIM card from a local carrier while I was there. But when I came home to see if I could get a prepaid SIM from AT&T or T-Mobile, I was told by sales associates at Verizon and AT&T that even though my iPhone 4S is unlocked, I can't put a U.S. carrier's SIM card in it. Is this true?

That doesn't make sense to me! When I am abroad, my unlocked iPhone 4S will work on any other GSM carrier, so why won't it work like that on a GSM carrier in the U.S.?
If I cancel my contract and pay the cancellation fee, I should be able to use my phone on other carriers. Please tell me I'm not stuck with Verizon for as long as I have this iPhone!

Dear JD,
Here's a short answer to your question. Unfortunately, the iPhone 4S that you bought from Verizon only works on Verizon's network here in the U.S.
(Credit: Apple)
I completely agree with you that this makes absolutely no sense given the fact that hardware components in an iPhone 4S from Verizon are exactly the same as the components in an iPhone 4S from AT&T and the same as the unlocked iPhone 4S sold throughout much of the world.
This of course is different from most other device launches, where carriers build different devices for different markets and even different carriers, depending on whether they are a CDMA carrier, like Verizon and Sprint are in the U.S. or whether they're a GSM carrier, like AT&T, T-Mobile, and most other operators in the world.
In theory, this should mean that a so-called "unlocked" iPhone 4S from any of the three major wireless carriers in the U.S. or the unlocked version available from Apple should work on any GSM network and any CDMA network. (Remember it has components that can handle both types of networks.)
But the reality is that the iPhone 4S is never really "unlocked." The carriers, which sell these phones directly to subscribers, require that the devices remain locked to their networks. This means that it's very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to use an iPhone 4S from Verizon on any other carrier's network in the U.S. And iPhones sold for other carrier networks in the U.S. will not operate on Verizon's network.
The Verizon and Sprint versions of the iPhone 4S are programmed to predominantly operate on CDMA networks. They can be "unlocked" for international use, which means that certain SIM cards can put in them to get access to foreign carrier's network. But if you try putting in a SIM card from AT&T or T-Mobile to an unlocked Verizon or Sprint iPhone 4S, you'll get an error message.
Marc Weber Tobias, a contributor to Forbes, wrote back in December that he tried this with a Verizon iPhone he purchased at full price from Best Buy, but was meant for the Verizon network. He explained how he had to jump through a series of hoops just to get his device unlocked from Verizon. He used his unlocked iPhone 4S just fine in Europe, but when he tried to insert a prepaid SIM card from a carrier that uses AT&T and T-Mobile's network, he got a message saying he was using an unauthorized SIM. But then he popped in his European carrier SIM card and his phone connected via the foreign carrier to AT&T's network.

While unlocked iPhones bought from Apple or from AT&T can accept any SIM card for access to any GSM carrier, including T-Mobile in the U.S., these phones can't be activated on Verizon or Sprint.
It's true that Verizon and Sprint use a different fundamental network technology from what AT&T and T-Mobile use. But keep in mind that the iPhone 4S is exactly the same in terms of hardware regardless of carrier. This means it has a CDMA radio as well as a GSM radio.

But on the "unlocked" iPhone, which can be bought at full price from Apple, and on an unlocked AT&T iPhone, the CDMA portion of the phone is disabled and unusable.
Unfortunately, I haven't heard of a way for consumers to change this. I'm sure some people have tried. But even if you're successful in breaking the lock on the device, there's a good chance that some of the services may not function properly. This means that you may not be able to send or receive text messages or visual voice mail may be broken.
At any rate, it's not an easy hack and it may render your device useless. To sum up, I'm sad to say that if you buy an iPhone 4S from Verizon, you're pretty much stuck using it on Verizon. This may be why the resale value of a used iPhone 4S from Verizon or Sprint is still less than for an AT&T version of the same device.
What about using my Sprint iPhone 4S on Virgin Mobile? They use the same network.

Dear Maggie,
I just discovered your column. Thanks for all the informative stories. Here's my question. I am a Sprint customer with an iPhone 4S. I've noticed that Virgin Mobile, which uses Sprint's network, now offers the iPhone. The price of the Virgin Mobile service is $55, which is a lot less than what I pay now. Could I cancel my service with Sprint, pay the early termination fee and take my iPhone 4S? After all, don't they use the same network as Sprint?

I'd rather not buy another iPhone 4S.

Dear Ray,
This is a great follow-up question to the question I just answered from J.D. As I described in the previous answer, the short answer is "no."
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
I have to admit as a consumer I find this fact incredibly annoying. You are absolutely correct about the relationship between Virgin Mobile and Sprint. Virgin Mobile is a prepaid brand that uses the Sprint network to deliver service. It's even owned by Sprint Nextel.
The only major difference in terms of the service is the fact that Virgin Mobile only uses Sprint's network. It doesn't have access to any of Sprint's roaming partners, so it's footprint is slightly more limited that Sprint's coverage. And the Virgin Mobile iPhone cannot roam overseas, since Virgin doesn't have any roaming partners.
Other than that, Virgin Mobile uses the exact same radio frequency and the exact same network to delivers services for its customers as Sprint uses to deliver to its subscribers.
So why can't a Sprint iPhone 4S operate on Virgin Mobile's network? The short answer to the question is because Sprint and Virgin Mobile would rather lock customers into those services rather than allow customers to decide for themselves if they want a prepaid service or a subscription service.

As I explained in the previous answer, even though every version of the iPhone 4S sold in the U.S. market uses the same exact hardware, individual carriers lock the phone to their own specific services. And that means that Virgin Mobile, even though it's owned by Sprint and uses the same network as Sprint, has its own lock for the iPhone.
This prevents consumers from doing exactly what you want to do, which is to take a device that you have paid for and use it on another network, that offers the exact same piece of hardware.
One easy explanation is that Virgin Mobile and Sprint want to keep customers locked into their services. But a Virgin Mobile spokeswoman said there is more to it. She said that none of the phones that operate on Sprint's network can be used on Virgin Mobile. She said that this is largely due to the different back-end systems running each brand of service. After all, Virgin Mobile is a separate brand. It's also not a brand that was developed by Sprint. It was acquired by Sprint a few years ago.
Still, the "locks" the carriers impose on the iPhone 4S seem ridiculous to me. An iPhone 4S from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or even Virgin Mobile should work on any network that supports and sells the same iPhone 4S. As I said before, the hardware is exactly the same. The carriers know how these devices will behave on their networks. So there is no worry that bringing this device from another carrier will adversely affect the network. The only reason carriers block other iPhone 4S's from being used on other their networks is because they want to make it more difficult for consumers to quit their service and go someplace else.
Carriers are using these software locks to force customers to stick with their service. They don't want subscribers to be able to bring their own devices or re-use the same exact device from another carrier on their own networks.
What this means for consumers is that if they want to switch carriers they have to repurchase the exact same piece of hardware to use it on another network. Like the early termination fees that lock customers to a particular service, this type of device "locking" is nothing more than a way to quash consumer choice.
Unfortunately, the situation isn't likely to get any better when the new iPhone 5 is released. For one, carriers will likely continue to put software locks on their devices. But the new iPhone is also likely to support 4G LTE. And even though Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T are each using the same 4G LTE technology to build their next generation networks, the band plans and frequencies used by each carrier are different. And this means that one device may not have the componentry to access all 4G LTE networks.
But that's a completely different topic, which I have covered in previous Ask Maggie columns.
I'm sorry I had to deliver such bad news. I hope I didn't ruin your weekend.
Marguerite Reardon

Monday, August 13, 2012

The coming wireless spectrum apocalypse and how it hits you

Small carriers are worried about getting snuffed by the deep pockets of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, and they want help. What judges and regulators decide to do could impact your wallet for years to come.

Wireless spectrum's David vs. Goliath saga(Credit: James Martin/CNET)
C Spire Wireless, a small, southern wireless provider formerly known as Cellular South, has an ambitious plan to build a fast, 4G LTE network to reach its 900,000 customers. To do it, C Spire bought $192 million worth of 700 MHz wireless spectrum, which is considered some of the most valuable wireless spectrum that's still available because it can travel long distances and penetrate obstacles.
But there's a problem. C Spire claims it hasn't been able to use this spectrum and hasn't been able to deploy its 4G network. It says the bigger carriers, especially AT&T, have used their market power to ensure chip designers and device makers make equipment compatible with their flavor of the technology, leaving smaller carriers in the cold. And without devices and network gear, C Spire says it's been sitting on a costly resource it can't use -- and thus can't deliver to you, the consumer.
"We will deploy our 4G LTE network," said Eric Graham, C Spire Wireless' senior vice president for strategic relations. "But the fact that AT&T is using a different band plan [that is, a set of technical standards for equipment] in the 700 MHz spectrum has slowed things down. At least initially we'll be using other spectrum other than the 700 MHz spectrum we bought for 4G. But eventually, we are going to need that spectrum to add more capacity to our network."
In the wireless industry, it seems, you can never have too much spectrum. Even AT&T and Verizon Wireless, which together control about 70 percent of the wireless market, say they need more of it. But even if you have enough spectrum, as C Spire argues, the big guys can use their leverage with suppliers to make it darn difficult for you to use it.
"As we transition to 4G LTE, spectrum is a key part of the strategy and survival of every carrier. And it's the duty of the regulators to ensure that we don't end up with a market of spectrum haves and have-nots."
--Kathleen Ham, VP of federal regulatory affairs, T-Mobile
Can you imagine what would happen if the industry giants further solidified their hold on the market by hoarding even more spectrum? Bad things, those underdogs would assure you, starting with higher costs for consumers and fewer innovations. And that, they say, is why regulators and judges need to intercede.
"We are at a critical time in the evolution of the wireless industry," said Kathleen Ham, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for T-Mobile, in an interview with CNET. "And as we transition to 4G LTE, spectrum is a key part of the strategy and survival of every carrier. And it's the duty of the regulators to ensure that we don't end up with a market of spectrum haves and have-nots."
But how many competitors are needed in a market? Are two enough, or perhaps three? It's this question that the Federal Communications Commission is trying to answer as it looks at some of the biggest in front of it today. T-Mobile, whose proposed $39 billion deal to merge with AT&T last year was rejected by the the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice, says the FCC has already spoken to this point. And if it wants to preserve more competition, it had better establish policies that back that up.
"If the government turned down our deal [to merge with AT&T] because it wants us to continue to compete in the market," T-Mobile's Ham said, "then we need access to spectrum."
This fight over spectrum is the battle through which nearly every major move by the wireless carriers must be viewed. It's the reason that AT&T was willing to pay $39 billion to buy T-Mobile last year. It's also what's driving AT&T and Verizon Wireless to change their pricing models, eliminating unlimited data and creating share plans for data usage. It's why the failure of Philip Falcone's LightSquared is devastating not just to investors but to smaller wireless providers.
It's why the largest wireless operators are spending millions of dollars each year in lobbying to make sure rules for new spectrum auctions are written in a way that favors their interests, and it's why there has been so much wheeling and dealing around Verizon's move to buy wireless spectrum from a consortium of cable operators.
The companies that come out ahead with valuable spectrum today will be able to dictate what happens in the market as carriers move to 4G LTE services that will provide broadband-like data speeds to wireless consumers. And that scares the daylights out of smaller competitors.
Big carriers with muscle
Getting your hands on spectrum doesn't mean you're on easy street. Even carriers that have spectrum they want to use can still be muscled out of the market when AT&T and Verizon throw their weight around.
Because those two companies collectively control the majority of wireless subscribers in the country, smaller carriers say AT&T and Verizon are able to manipulate standards groups and control suppliers to the point where smaller providers are unable to get access to handsets and other network gear that's commercially available at high volumes to AT&T and Verizon.

C Spire says it's been a victim of these tactics. In April, it filed an antitrust lawsuit against AT&T and its suppliers for trying to run it out of business. In the lawsuit, C Spire alleges that AT&T collaborated with chip makers and standards bodies to create specifications for devices that run only on its sliver of 700 MHz spectrum.
This is a problem for smaller carriers like C Spire, because they need to use the same specifications for their handsets and networking equipment that a bigger player such as AT&T uses in order to get products to sell to their customers. Without the scale of a company like AT&T, these smaller players simply can't get manufacturers to build devices at a low enough cost and in a timely enough manner to compete against AT&T.
"AT&T has been abusing its position as a dominant buyer of the Lower 700 MHz wireless devices," C Spire's Graham said in a telephone interview.
For its part, AT&T says it created this "spectrum island" for technical reasons. AT&T argues that there are interference issues with the slice of 700 MHz spectrum that smaller carriers like C Spire own, and so to protect its wireless customers, AT&T developed its own "band class."
An AT&T representative declined to comment on the litigation. But the company has said publicly that C Spire couldn't prove that it didn't have legitimate technical reasons for developing its own standard for its wireless spectrum.
Consequences of a concentrated market
C Spire is only one of dozens of smaller providers throughout the U.S. trying to compete with the nation's two largest wireless providers. And the courts and the FCC are being asked to intervene and ensure competition where, not to put too fine a point on it, a relatively unfettered market has been unable to do so. And, as we said before, imagine the pickle C Spire would be in if the bigger companies were able to hoard even more spectrum?
It's a similar situation to when a large company or university, which already owns big chunks of real estate in prime neighborhoods decides to buy even more property. The fear is that the big owner will force out the mom-and-pop shoe store and replace it with a Foot Locker. The same fear exists with wireless spectrum. Smaller carriers will not only be prevented from buying spectrum, they may also be forced out of business by bigger players that control the standards used in handsets and network equipment. And they may refuse to strike roaming agreements that would allow smaller carriers to offer a wider footprint of access on their networks.
This regulatory dilemma is coming to a head just as the FCC reviews the biggest transfer of wireless spectrum outside of a merger in the agency's history.
Last year, Verizon announced a $4 billion bid to buy 20 MHz of valuable Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) spectrum from a consortium of cable companies called SpectrumCo. Verizon, which already owns about 20 MHz of AWS spectrum, says it wants to use the additional cable spectrum as backup spectrum for its 4G LTE network.
Verizon has already begun building its LTE network using a nationwide license of 700 MHz wireless spectrum. And it intends to use its AWS spectrum as well as the cable operators' AWS spectrum to add capacity to that network as it grows, especially in dense urban areas.
But competing carriers say that Verizon already has enough AWS spectrum in many markets. Competitors such as T-Mobile and MetroPCS initially accused Verizon of "warehousing" spectrum. They say other carriers could put that same spectrum to use much more quickly than Verizon intends to use it.
"Verizon's plan to acquire spectrum from the cable companies will allow Verizon to further dominate and control the nation's airwaves."
--U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)
In July, T-Mobile struck a spectrum-swapping deal with Verizon. If Verizon's deal with cable operators is approved by regulators, T-Mobile will buy some of Verizon's AWS spectrum holdings in certain markets. As a result, T-Mobile has now withdrawn its opposition to the cable deal.
Others who have been critical of this deal say the FCC and Justice Department, which is also reviewing the deal, still need to impose some conditions on the merger to protect consumers. In a letter to the DOJ and the FCC, U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in late July pressed the government to adopt conditions that would ensure the partnership between Verizon and cable providers does not harm consumers .
"Verizon's plan to acquire spectrum from the cable companies will allow Verizon to further dominate and control the nation's airwaves," Franken wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "I am concerned that this transaction poses a serious threat to consumers and to competition that will ultimately result in higher prices and less choice for consumers. If your agencies do approve this deal, I urge you to only do so if you are able to adopt stringent conditions to protect competition and the public interest."
The FCC's big opportunity
Other stakeholders, such as the Rural Carrier Association, a Washington DC-based lobbying group, expect regulators to approve the deal. And like Franken, they are pushing for conditions. In fact, Steve Berry, the head of RCA, thinks that the FCC can use the Verizon-cable deal as a springboard to impose conditions that will prevent Verizon from gaining too much control over spectrum in any given market. And he thinks carefully crafted conditions could also prevent interoperability issues such as the one that C Spire faces with AT&T.
"The FCC has a unique opportunity with this deal to make a win-win-win for Verizon, the cable operators and the rest of the industry," Berry said. "This is the largest spectrum deal that the FCC has ever considered, and it makes sense for the FCC to set some competitive policy parameters."

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson
Speaking at an industry event in June, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson urged regulators to speed up spectrum license transfers. "By 2013 demand [for wireless data services in the U.S.] will outstrip supply. ... This isn't a problem that is six to eight years from now. It's happening now."
(Credit: CNET/Marguerite Reardon)
Verizon has already signaled it's willing to make concessions to get the deal completed. In April, the company said it would sell 700 MHz spectrum in the lower A and B blocks if the deal with the cable operators wins approval from regulators. And at the end of June, it said it had struck a deal with T-Mobile USA to sell big chunks of AWS spectrum it already owns to T-Mobile, if the deal with SpectrumCo is completed.
RCA's Berry said that this deal with T-Mobile must be examined more closely to make sure that Verizon is still not "warehousing" spectrum in markets where it could be used immediately by other carriers.
"It's not a cure-all," he said. "But clearly it gets some of the spectrum in the hands of competitive carriers. Even so, the FCC needs to look very closely at this."
Why this is important
There's no question competition keeps prices in check and spurs innovation. But how many competitors are needed in a market? Many believe that a scenario with two players in a market, a so-called duopoly, is just one competitor shy of a monopoly. And policy makers at the FCC have done what they can to avoid such a scenario.
Some consumer advocates say the concentrated power of AT&T and Verizon have in the market has already resulted in higher prices for data services. Two years ago, AT&T eliminated its $30 unlimited data plan, replacing it with a tiered offering. Verizon Wireless followed a year later with its own tiered offering. Now both AT&T and Verizon Wireless have introduced new "share plans," which allow people on the same family plan to share buckets of data or allows individuals to use their data across multiple devices.
The plans are meant to encourage users to bring additional devices, like tablets to the network, but they will also increase pricing on data services. As part of these new plans, Verizon has cut in half the amount of data it's offering to consumers at roughly the same price. Verizon now charges $50 for a 1GB data plan that also includes unlimited voice minutes and text messages. Its previous plan offered 2GB of data for $30 a month, and voice minutes and text messaging were sold separately. AT&T offers similarly priced plans
Even though AT&T and Verizon are bundling in unlimited voice and text messaging with the new share packages, consumers are still paying more and receiving less data than they were allotted under the previous plans.
"The cheapest option Verizon now offers smartphone customers is $90 for half as much data as $80 buys you today," Michael Weinberg, an analyst at Public Knowledge, wrote in a blog post last month. "And in less than 12 months, $30 has gone from buying you unlimited data to not even covering 1 GB...There does not appear to be very much competitive pressure keeping carriers from raising prices for customers -- which is part of the reason that we are against even more consolidation in the market."
Meanwhile, competitors such as Sprint and T-Mobile, along with regional carriers like Leap Wireless and MetroPCS, have not introduced share plans. And they are keeping unlimited data plans, although some like T-Mobile slow down service after a certain threshold is reached. Sprint is the only major carrier that offers unlimited data with no limitations for smartphone customers.
T-Mobile has publicly criticized Verizon's new pricing plan, stating that it doesn't offer consumer enough choice and penalizes customers who exceed their limits.
"What wireless customers really want is worry-free plans," said Harry Thomas, director of segment marketing for T-Mobile. "They don't want to have to do a lot of calculations to figure out if someone is going to go over their monthly data limit due to excessive usage."
But there's an increasingly contrarian viewpoint that says, wait a minute, the government should not be in the business of intervening for market laggards. Yes, we couldn't finish this piece without giving an enthusiastic proponent of free and unfettered markets his two cents.
Eli Dourado, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argues that "duopoly can be consistent with vigorous competition." He uses the digital camera market as an example. Nikon and Canon are the only two major players selling DSLRs on the market. And "despite the dominance of these two firms, the price of DSLRs falls every year, and quality continuously goes up."
Now a little background: The Mercatus Center is one of the most influential conservative think-tanks. It gets significant financial backing from the conservative libertarian-leaning Koch Family Foundations. And democratic strategist Rob Stein described the Mercatus Center as "ground zero for deregulation policy in Washington."
He argues in a recent blog post that it may simply be unreasonable to expect several competitors to remain in the wireless market, because the fixed costs for operating these businesses is so high. It takes billions of dollars to buy wireless spectrum and build and maintain communications infrastructure. The same is true for other industries, such as commercial jet aircraft manufacturers. Today there are effectively only two competitors: Boeing and Airbus.
"Would we really want there to be more commercial jet producers? There would be a whole lot of duplication of costs, and the price of jetliners and air travel would increase, not decrease. We're better off with a duopoly, and in fact we get duopoly precisely because vigorous competition between the jumbo jet giants keeps everyone else out."
It's a fair point. But there is no guarantee that companies that find big savings by consolidating will pass those savings onto consumers. In fact, when there are only one or two players in the market, there is little incentive to drop prices when the business gets more efficient.
"As a result, when thinking about carrier consolidation, you are essentially faced with two choices," said Public Knowledge's Weinberg. "One is to allow rapid consolidation in the hope of gaining efficiencies of scale, but at the same time recognize that the mo/duopoly you create will eventually have to be regulated as such or broken up. The other is to engage in a lighter level of regulation today that ensures that there is competition in the wireless market, and that said competitive market is capable of largely regulating itself."
"The option that does not exist is to allow the formation of a monopoly or a duopoly," he added, "and assume it will then act in the best interest of everyone else."
Marguerite Reardon

Wireless spectrum: What it is, and why you should care

Wireless spectrum in layman's terms and tells why it's so important to what's happening in the wireless market today.
There has been a lot of talk over the past year about spectrum shortages, spectrum interference, companies proposing mergers just to get their hands on spectrum and even spectrum auctions that will help bail the nation out of debt.
But what exactly is wireless spectrum? And why are people in the wireless industry talking about it in apocalyptic terms?

These are good questions, so let's step back and explain what wireless spectrum is, why it's become increasingly scarce, and what regulators are supposed to (or not) do about it.
All wireless communications signals travel over the air via radio frequency, aka spectrum. The TV broadcast you watch, the radio program you listen to, the GPS device that helps get you where you're going, and the wireless phone service you use to make phone calls and check Facebook from your smartphone -- all use invisible airwaves to transmit bits of data through the air.
The easiest way to understand what spectrum really is and how it provides services is to look at your radio. When you tune your radio to 93.9 FM, you are tuning into a station that is broadcasting at 93.9 megahertz. If you want to a listen to a different station, like one that only plays country music or jazz, you turn the dial to another frequency like 104.7 FM. And a different radio station will be transmitting over that particular frequency on a different setting on your radio dial. No two stations transmit over the same spectrum at the same time in the same area, because if they did, they'd cause interference with one another.
And because wireless signals only transmit over a certain distance, you won't be able to tune in a radio station you like that broadcasts out of New York City when you are in Philadelphia or Chicago or anywhere beyond the distance that those broadcast signals can travel via spectrum over the air to your radio.
Wireless spectrum's David vs. Goliath saga(Credit: James Martin/CNET)
Mobile phones work much the same way. Wireless operators, such as AT&T and Verizon, cannot transmit wireless signals over the same frequencies in the same markets at the same time.
The Federal Communications Commission is the government agency that keeps track of who's using which slivers of spectrum. The agency grants companies licenses to use the spectrum. In the mobile phone market, the FCC has auctioned off spectrum, generating billions of dollars in revenue for the government.
The FCC also decides which frequencies of spectrum can be used for which purposes. For mobile phones, it has allocated spectrum generally between 700 MHz and 2.6 GHz. Most of the spectrum in this range has already been allocated for use. This means that when a wireless company wants to add more spectrum to its service to boost its capacity, it may well be disappointed: there isn't much more available spectrum that can be used.
Spectrum is the lifeblood of the industry. And as more consumers buy smartphones, which according to the FCC, use 24 times more data than a traditional cell phone, and tablets, which can consume 122 times more data than old traditional phones, there is a greater need for spectrum. The question is, where's it going to come from? Much of the best spectrum for transmitting mobile signals has already been licensed to wireless carriers, or it's being used by TV broadcasters or government agencies, which hold the rights to these licenses. As a result, the industry and the FCC have declared a spectrum shortage.
The FCC is working on ways to free up additional spectrum:
  • with other government agencies to hand over spectrum for commercial use.
  • with TV broadcasters to develop incentive auctions that will allow TV stations to put their unused or underused spectrum up for sale and get a cut of the proceeds.
  • and in various ways to change the rules for certain blocks of spectrum used for things like satellite communications so that they can be used for mobile broadband services.
In the National Broadband Plan presented to Congress in 2010, the agency set a goal of freeing up an additional 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband use by 2020.
But the process to free up additional spectrum has been slow, and it's unclear whether the agency will meet this goal. What's more, many industry insiders believe 500 MHz by 2020 is still not enough spectrum to fuel such a fast-growing industry.
With an essential resource in high demand and low supply, FCC commissioners are also staring at a classic regulators' quandary: When they do auction off this additional spectrum, should they allow the market to sort itself out in the Darwinian sense and allow the spoils to go to the highest bidder? Or do they intercede, in the process protecting small carriers and protecting, in theory, consumer choice? And would it even matter if they did?
These are the questions with which the FCC is currently wrestling. There are no easy answers, but the policies that the agency sets today will have a lasting effect well into the future, whether those policies result in fewer competitors or they help preserve the many wireless competitors that exist today.

Marguerite Reardon

Friday, August 10, 2012

Unhappy about Verizon unlimited data plan? Ditch it for prepaid

Customers with unlimited data are not pleased that they must pay full price for phones to keep their unlimited service in the future. CNET's Marguerite Reardon lays out the alternatives.
To say that Verizon's unlimited data smartphone customers are unhappy about changes in the company's new pricing structure is putting it mildly. But what's a disgruntled subscriber to do?
In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer advice to a Verizon customer about the carrier's new service plans, which will require him to pay for a new smartphone at full price to keep his unlimited data plan. Should he ditch Verizon or suck it up? You'll find some alternatives below.
Also in this edition of the column, I explain why I think smartphone screens will only get bigger and bigger.

Can I really stick it to Verizon?
Hello Maggie-san,
I have a year left on my wireless contract, so I still have plenty of time to weigh my options before my contract is up. But I am one of those few customers still holding onto an unlimited 3G data plan from Verizon Wireless. And I'm really annoyed that the company has changed its policy about unlimited data.
I have the iPhone 4S and I plan on keeping my phone for a while. I'm pretty certain that Verizon isn't likely to do something consumer-friendly, like, say, continue to grandfather in the unlimited plan folks. So I am starting to weigh my options. Should I keep my unlimited plan and buy an unsubsidized phone from Verizon? Or should I give up the unlimited plan and just get a subsidized smartphone from Verizon with a tiered plan?
I'm really annoyed that Verizon is making it hard for me to keep the unlimited data plan, so I am tempted to leave them. If I do, I'm not sure if I should go to AT&T, Sprint, or maybe a prepaid provider that also offers the iPhone. I'd love to hear your thoughts, Maggie!

Dear Ike,
You're right that Verizon isn't likely to change its policy toward unlimited data plan users anytime soon. The reason is simple. Verizon gets absolutely no benefit by allowing people to keep their unlimited data plans. Users of such plans don't pay any more than the most basic data customer, and they have the potential to use a lot more network resources.
Verizon's 4G LTE network is now available to more than half the U.S. population.
Verizon's 4G LTE network
(Credit: Verizon Wireless)
My guess is that Verizon is betting on the fact that it has one of the biggest, fastest, and most reliable networks in the market, so most subscribers will opt for the subsidized phone and move to a tiered plan.
To be honest, Verizon's bet is probably a good one. Network coverage and reliability are the two most important things in choosing a wireless provider. The fact is that if you can never finish a conversation because your calls are constantly dropped, or you can't get access to the data network to look up a location of a nearby restaurant when you're standing on a street corner in 32 degree temperatures, then what's the point of having a smartphone at all?
Sticking it to the man
But that doesn't mean you have to keep Verizon if you don't like how they treat their customers. If you're really fed up with Verizon and you want to teach Big Red a lesson, then by all means shop around for another service. As a consumer, I think the best way to let a company know you aren't happy with their service is to take your business elsewhere. If enough subscribers ditch the service, then the company is forced to make a change.

So where should you go if you leave Verizon? You can check out AT&T and Sprint to see what they offer. If it turns out you are a huge data user and you can't find ways to get usage below 2GB a month, then Sprint's unlimited data plan may be a good fit for you. Just keep in mind that Sprint's 4G LTE network is not as extensive as Verizon's network. And even though Sprint's 4G LTE network will be in more places a year from now, I still don't expect it to match Verizon's network.
The same is true of AT&T's network. The company is currently building out 4G LTE, but I expect Verizon to maintain its edge over the competition a year from now. That said, you won't even be in the market for a new smartphone and service for another 12 months. So you have plenty of time to evaluate network coverage.
What about Prepaid services?
If you'd like to continue using your iPhone 4S, you might want to consider a prepaid service called Page Plus Cellular, which uses Verizon's 3G network. But it offers its prepaid service plans at a fraction of the price Verizon charges.
The main drawback to this service is that it uses only Verizon's 3G network. So if you wanted the new iPhone, which is expected to operate on the faster 4G LTE network, you won't get those speeds on Page Plus's network. That said, 4G LTE devices will still operate on Page Plus's service, but only at Verizon's 3G speeds.
Other prepaid providers,such as Virgin Mobile, or some regional carriers, like Mississippi's C Spire, may also get the new iPhone. And these providers could also be good alternatives for you. The new iPhone is expected to have 4G LTE, and these other providers may offer 4G LTE connectivity on their own networks. But just as I mentioned with AT&T and Sprint, these carriers won't likely have the same extensive network coverage as Verizon has with its 4G LTE network.
The main benefit of going with a prepaid service is that it's cheaper than the conventional postpaid service plans over the life of a traditional two-year cellular contract. I also have written about this in the Ask Maggie column. In some cases, you can save nearly $1,000 over a two-year period by buying your smartphone at full price and paying for a low-cost prepaid offering.
Moment of truth
So what should you do? It all depends on how angry you are at Verizon and what you're willing to give up. As I mentioned, Verizon has the largest and most reliable wireless network in the market. It also has the largest next-generation 4G LTE network in the U.S. Even though other players are building their own 4G LTE networks, I expect Verizon to stay ahead of competitors for awhile.
If you can't live with these sacrifices in network coverage, reliability, and 4G speeds, then you should probably just suck it up and get a tiered service plan when your unlimited contract expires. I don't know what kind of data user you are. But chances are you're not using enough to really justify the cost of buying a phone at full price just to hang onto your unlimited data plan. It's very likely that you use less than 2G of data, and if you're an average customer, you're probably using less than 1GB of data each month.
The first thing you need to do is figure out how much data you think you actually need. Since your contract isn't up for a year, you have plenty of time to track your data usage and even play around with apps that can compress some of the data your device is consuming. You might also want to fiddle with different settings on your phone in an effort to see how much data you can conserve each month. For example, maybe you can seek out Wi-Fi more often or only update apps when you're in a Wi-Fi location instead of updating anywhere you are.
If you figure out how much data you actually need, then you can choose a tiered plan that offers the most value for your usage patterns.
I hope this advice is helpful. Good luck!
Marguerite Reardon