Prepaid cell phones by themselves are not a problem.
What is a problem is the ease that these phones can be used as anonymous prepaid cell phones.
What is the difference between prepaid cellphones and anonymous prepaid cell phones? There is not physical difference. When you buy a prepaid phone at 7-11, Walmart, etc. you just pay for them as with any other purchase. There is not registration, no ID check, etc. And the phone doesn’t work yet.
Then you have to register the phone with the provider, sometimes a subsidiary of one of the major 4 carriers, sometimes an independent like TracFone, which is actually the largest provider of prepaid services in the US. At that point the provider asks for you identity. But the transaction is done either over the phone or by Internet so it is perfectly easy to give a false identity. But what if you don’t have the time or aren’t creative enough to dream up a false name and address? TracFone is there for you! As the screenshot above shows, the ever thoughtful TracFone has a line on their registration page that says “If you wish to skip this step, please click here”.
OK so some people want anonymity. Tiger Woods for example. I understand. I am even a card carrying ACLU member. But did you ever Google “prepaid cellphone crime”? You get 88,000+ hits on this combination of topics. Just like on Law & Order, prepaid “throw away” phones are the communications media of choice for criminals.
Overseas, prepaid phones are the media for choice for terrorists too. Indeed, the 2004 Madrid train bombings were detonated by prepaid cell phones.
Other countries have banned anonymous prepaid phones by requiring registration of all users and equipment. Such countries include Japan, Greece, and Mexico.
Now strict registration of cell phones has its downside too. Studies have shown that communications is necessary for homeless individuals to get jobs and back on the road to recovery. Cell phones are also a safety issue and there are users with legitimate safety issues who might not be able to walk into a Verizon Office to offer normal documentation.
But rather than sweeping this issue under the carpet, why don’t we start a dialogue among the cellular industry, law enforcement agencies, and FCC to explore practical ways to control the use of the large number of anonymous prepaid phones.
Video on Prepaid Cell Phones
TracFone no longer uses the form shown that gives users the option to “skip” giving personal information. However, it is not clear if Tracfone requires real information or just accepts whatever input the user types in. If TracFone wishes to address this point we will gladly post their response in full without editorial comment.
From the summary, here are some of the issues that we shall discuss today:
- FCC lacks internal policies regarding commissioner access to staff analyses during the decision-making process, and some chairmen have restricted this access. Such restrictions may undermine the group decision- making process and impact the quality of FCC’s decisions.
- In addition, GAO identified weaknesses in FCC’s processes for collecting public input on proposed rules. Specifically, FCC rarely includes the text of a proposed rule when issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to collect public comment on a rule change, although some studies have noted that providing proposed rule text helps focus public input.
- Additionally, FCC has developed rules regarding contacts between external parties and FCC officials (known as ex parte contacts) that require the external party to provide FCC a summary of the new information presented for inclusion in the public record. However, several stakeholders told us that FCC’s ex parte process allows vague ex parte summaries and that in some cases, ex parte contacts can occur just before a commission vote, which can limit stakeholders’ ability to determine what information was provided and to rebut or discuss that information.
The report raises questions about the objectivity of technical analysis from my former OET colleagues:
• Establishing that each commissioner, including the chairman, has equal responsibility and authority in all commission decisions and actions, and has full and equal access to all agency information pertaining to commission responsibilities.
• Balancing commissioner access to staff analyses with the ability of the chairman to direct resource expenditures. For example, although individual commissioners can request information or analyses from NRC staff, if the request requires significant resources to fulfill and questions of priority arise, the office or the commissioner can request the chairman resolve the matter. If the chairman’s decision is not satisfactory to the requesting commissioner or the office, either can bring the matter for a vote before the full commission.
This is very different than recent practice at FCC.
On the NPRM issue, my former OET colleagues actually have probably the best record in the agency for including rules with NPRMs. I used to joke that the former Common Carrier Bureau produced NPRMs without rules and NOIs without questions.
Faithful readers will recognize the ex parte reform has been a recurring theme here. The Commission’s 10/28/09 workshop on these issues shows that these issues are getting top level attention although there has been no substantive action yet. Indeed, our 8/25/08 petition for review of the staff dismissal of an ex parte complaint still has not been acted on and remains totally “out of sight, out of mind” on the Commission’s present website.
We will talk soon about other issues in the report. I strongly recommend that you read it as it contains a wealth of useful background material.
To be held:
February 25th 2010 -- 4:00pm - 7:00pm
Registration & Networking starts 3:30pm, Event from 4:00pm - 7:00pm
Venue: Synopsys Inc., Bldg 2, Sunnyvale CA
In 2009 the FCC began talking about the potential of a "spectrum crisis" which threatens to impact the ability to support projected growth of mobile wireless and even puts some elements of the National Broadband Plan at risk. At the same time Congress introduced bills in both the House and Senate which if enacted would set in motion a spectrum inventory effort intended to determine current usage. Clearly the question of how to use spectrum more efficiently is going to become an important topic in the near future. A proposed solution is the use of "cognitive radio" which intelligently adjusts operating frequencies to leverage unused "white spaces" in the existing spectrum. For companies seeking opportunity in the emerging market numerous technical questions abound:
* In what sense is there a "tragedy of the commons" or even a "spectrum crisis"? Are these mostly politically-driven ideas?
* Just what is cognitive radio?
* Who are the current players in corporate, academia, and government?
* Is this all new, or there existing radio technologies which can be studied and perhaps augmented to suit?
* How might "white spaces" be best used, and could real-time spectrum auctions be useful?
* What are the current economic, social, and political constraints which will guide the cognitive radio market? What legislative and policy changes might change these constraints over the next few years?
* What legislative and policy changes might affect these constraints over the next few years?
To help provide insight and guidance WCA has formed the Cognitive Radio SIG. Their first event will be moderated by Lloyd Nirenberg, Ph.D. and will have a panel of experts with experience in the technical, economic, and political elements of cognitive radio.
Our featured panelist will be Michael J. Marcus Sc.D., Director, Marcus Spectrum Solutions. He was formerly a policy maker with the FCC. At the FCC, Dr. Marcus was leader of cognitive radio initiative, Docket 03-108, proposing several unprecedented applications of "smart radios" to allow more intense use of spectrum and new types of radio services. He also was Senior Technical Advisor and key player in FCC Spectrum Policy Task Force, and chair of its working group on Unlicensed Systems and Experimental Licenses resulting in a wide variety of proposals to change spectrum policy.
Moderator: Lloyd Nirenberg, CEO, Shannon-Bayes Venture Corp.
-- Michael J. Marcus Sc.D., Director, Marcus Spectrum Solutions
-- Dewayne Hendricks, CEO, Tetherless Access
-- Charles Brown, Founder & President, Flying Circuit Inc.
-- Jeff Stern, SVP and GM for Government Solutions, TerreStar Corp.
Please plan to join us on Thursday February 25th for what promises to be an interesting and informative event. Seating at this event is limited! Register now for this exciting event!!
Early-bird: $10 before 14-Feb-2010
Late-reg: $15 before 24-Feb-2010
At-the-door: $20 (Cash-only please)
Apple Promotional Video
The article then asks, “So why are some big airports switching to the free Wi-Fi model, while others continue to charge a fee?” It turns out the reason is COMPETITION. Airports can attract more travelers with free Wi-Fi.
Here’s a site with info on Wi-Fi availability at airports.The rest of the story ...
James H. Quello, former commissioner (1974-1997) and chairman of the Federal
Communications Commission (1993), passed away on Jan. 24 at the age of 95 in Alexandria (FCC bio MSU Quello Center bio). Chmn. Genachowski issued a statement saying
It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of former Commissioner Jim Quello. Jim was a friend and a beloved Commissioner of this agency for more than two decades. Known as the 'Dean' of the FCC -- and 'Boss' to the many staffers who worked for him -- he was a role model to generations of FCC employees and advocates for his decency, personal charm, and commitment to his work. He leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of service to the FCC, the communications industry, and the American people.
I would like also to say how much I respected Chmn. Quello by describing two incidents that show his character.
1) As I have described elsewhere, my “reward” for persevering and getting the spread spectrum/ISM band rules (now 15.247 and the basis for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, and a host of other products) adopted in 25 years ago, was to get caught up in a “bloodbath” in OET’s predecessor organization which attempted to dismiss Chief Scientist Robert Powers, his deputy Margaret “Peggy” Reed (now Greene), and myself a few months later in the Fall of 1985. There is some uncertainty about precisely why this happened, but it was the first FCC reduction in force (RIF) in 10 years, it affected only 3 people, and there would not be another one for another 10 years.
At that time, Comm. Quello was the longest sitting commissioner, and like the other long term commissioner, the beloved Robert E. Lee, he took a special interest in the FCC staff and its welfare. Thus in the fall of 1985, he was the only FCC commissioner who would agree to meet with me to discuss my situation. He listened carefully and then gave me good fatherly advice on how to move on and make the best of the situation. I will always remember the time he spent with me and his kind words at the time - they were very helpful in recovering from this traumatic event and getting on with my career.
2) I have also described elsewhere how I got FCC to take initiative in the 60 GHz area in the early 1990s. Yesterday I received the January 2010 issue of IEEE Microwave Magazine and the “focused issue feature” is an article on “Siliconization of 60 GHz”. This article focuses on the growing commercial use of this band in both home and office environments. So what does this have to do with James Quello?
Unlike the case of Wi-Fi’s origins, the internal FCC controversy over 60 GHz was at the initialization stage, not the rule adoption stage and that happened during the Quello chairmanship. I never interacted directly with Chmn. Quello over this issue, but as an excellent manager he selected talented assistants and let them do their job. In this case his outstanding chief of staff, Brian Fontes, readily agreed to hear my proposals for initiating a 60 GHz rulemaking along with the concerns of those responsible for such rulemakings who opposed any initiative. Within a few days, I got the go ahead from Quello’s office to start the rulemaking. Did Chmn. Quello get personally involved, or was it just that he chose the right staff and trusted them - I do not know. But as we see more and more 60 GHz commercial products, maybe we should think of this as the “Quello band”. (An example of a 60 GHz HDMI link for home use.)
The James H. and Mary B. Quello Center for Telecommunication Management & Law at Michigan State University, their alma mater, is a fitting memorial to this great man. He will be missed.
The rest of the story ...
Your Blogger's Suggestions Doing Well
In the voting on the FCC suggestion site, your blogger's suggestions seem to be doing rather well.
The top suggestions so far deal are the following:
- Require at least one FCC Commissioner to be an engineer - 30 votes
- Get rid of the BPL - 25 votes
- Automatically renew an Amateur Radio License for a full 10 year term when the operator upgrades - 19 votes
- Get rid of rules that cannot be enforced such as the GMRS license requirement - 18 votes
But the next highest vote is the suggestion shown at the top of the pagee. If you agree, could you surf over to the website, signin in with either your Facebook/Google/Yahoo etc. account or you can create a new UserVoice account, and consider voting for this suggestion and others you find of value. Better yet, input your own ideas.
I received the following reply from Steve Crowley to a previous blog post which I shall repeat here:
"Relatedly, in September, the FCC received a Petition for Rulemaking from a proponent of wireless technologies intended to reduce cell phone use that might cause distracted driving. As far as I know there was no Public Notice from the FCC. I wonder if there have been similar filings, given the current elevation of the issue of distracted driving? Thus, I support your proposal to publish lists of all Petitions that have been filed. The Petition I am referring to can be found on the proponent's web site: http://www.trinitynoble.com/pdf/FCC_Petition_4_Rulemaking.pdf"
This complements well a suggestion by Richard Weil that I have commented on at the FCC site. You might want to support that suggestion also.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet has approved the following 2 spectrum bills:
HR 3019 Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act of 2009 - Amends the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Organization Act to require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to post on its website detailed transition plans from each federal entity that is eligible for payments from the Spectrum Relocation Fund for costs related to the reallocation of frequencies from federal to nonfederal use. Requires the federal entities, to the fullest extent possible, to provide for sharing and coordination of eligible frequencies with commercial licensees. Requires federal entities to complete spectrum relocation within one year of receiving relocation payments.HR 3125 Radio Spectrum Inventory Act - Amends the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Organization Act to require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create and maintain an inventory of each radio spectrum band of frequencies used in the United States Table of Frequency Allocations from 225 megahertz to 10 gigahertz and report to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and to the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the House of Representatives. Sets forth provisions concerning national security.
Interested readers may recall that I favor the spectrum inventory but am concerned that without some parallel work on clarifying the meaning of "harmful interference" that it will be a waste of time and resources.
Backers of the bill:
- What do you think will happen after the inventory is done?
- How do you want FCC and NTIA to determine if apparently vacant spectrum can be used without causing harmful interference?
HR 3019 has some interesting provisions for independent review of agency transition plans for reallocations. This is the first time I recall any proposal for some independent oversight of NTIA and federal spectrum management - a move in the right direction. Section 2(b)(6)(B)(ii) sets up a "Technical Panel" to review agency relocation plans. Section 2(b)(6)(C) provides
‘‘The Director of OMB, the Administrator of NTIA, and the Chairman of the FCC shall each appoint one member to the Technical Panel, and each such member shall be a radio engineer or technical expert not employed by, or a paid consultant to, any Federal or State governmental agency. NTIA shall adopt regulations to govern the workings of the Technical Panel after public notice and comment, subject to OMB approval, and the members of the Technical Panel shall be appointed, within 180 days of the date of enactment of the Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act of 2008."
The precedent of having an outside watchdog for federal government spectrum activities is a good counterbalance for the chummy atmosphere within the windowless IRAC meeting room.
The rest of the story ...
Texting Enables Instant Philanthropy
Faithful readers are aware that this blog has been critical of the cell phone industry and its trade association, CTIA, on numerous occasions. While your blogger continues to believe that the specific criticisms of the past were well deserved, this week it is time for praise for their leadership in enabling the "instant philanthropy" that has raised at least $5,000,000 so far for earthquake relief in Haiti. (As of 5 PM, 1/14
It appears that people are more willing to donate money if you can do it instantly without paperwork. Also the cellular carriers appear to be waiving any fees associated with such texting. It is clear that AT&T and T-Mobile are not collecting any commission off such donations. Presumably the other major carriers are also collecting commissions, but that is harder to confirm. (T-Mobile and VZW have not updated the top level of their their websites to link to this issue, possibly because of an inflexible approach to web design.)
T-Mobile is going beyond the texting/donation issue by announcing
"For current T-Mobile customers who are trying to connect with loved ones in Haiti during the aftermath of the country’s devastating earthquake, T-Mobile USA is enabling phone calls to Haiti without charges for international long distance through January 31, 2010, and retroactive to the earthquake on January 12, 2010. Additionally, T-Mobile customers who may already be in Haiti will be able to roam on T-Mobile’s partner networks in Haiti (operated locally in Haiti under the names Voila and Digicel) free-of-charge through the end of the month. In both cases, T-Mobile will remove these charges from customer bills accordingly. T-Mobile has also taken steps to assist with the restoration of the wireless communications infrastructure in Haiti – a key component in supporting the overall humanitarian and recovery efforts. T-Mobile has pledged its support to donate wireless equipment such as generators and phones."
The Miami Herald reports that AT&T "is donating $50,000 to Telecoms Sans Frontieres, a humanitarian organization that has sent an emergency team with satellite mobile and fixed communications equipment to Haiti". (BBC page on TSF - with videos.)
So our admiration to the cell phone industry for this outstanding job in responding to the disaster in Haiti!
mocoNews.Net reports that the amount raised for the Red Cross alone so far is $22M. They add,
One problem with using cellphones is that it takes awhile for the money to get from the carriers to the people in need. However, given the dire circumstances in Haiti, a handful of carriers, including Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA, said they will pass along the money as soon as possible.
VZW has already sent $3M and T-Mobile will forward the money this week. Both are, in effect, forwarding money they have not received in normal billing cycles.
The rest of the story ...
On January 6, FCC at long last started to take action on the long standing issue of cellular "signal boosters" or bidirectional amplifiers. The current management can't be blamed too much for inaction because they inherited this mess and are at least taking action to start solving it. But there are key lessons to be learned here on both FCC procedures and the cost of inaction to many different parties.
Here are some excerpts from the public notice initiating this docket:
By this notice, we seek comment on three Petitions for Rulemaking and two Petitions for Declaratory Ruling (collectively, Petitions) regarding the proper use of signal boosters on frequencies licensed under Parts 22, 24, 27, and 90 of the Commission’s Rules.
On August 18, 2005, Bird Technologies, Inc. (Bird Technologies) filed a Petition for Rulemaking to amend section 90.219 to outline specific technical and operational requirements for the use of signal boosters by Part 90 licensees.
On November 2, 2007, CTIA, the Wireless Association (CTIA) filed a Petition for Declaratory Ruling (CTIA Petition) regarding the proper use of signal boosters in Commercial Mobile Radio Services (CMRS).
On September 25, 2008, Jack Daniel DBA Jack Daniel Company filed a Petition for Declaratory Ruling seeking clarification of the Commission’s rules regarding signal boosters.
On October 23, 2009, the DAS Forum (a membership section of PCIA-The Wireless Infrastructure Association) filed a Petition for Rulemaking in response to the CTIA Petition stating that a rulemaking proceeding is needed to address the marketing, installation, and operation of signal boosters used in the Cellular Radiotelephone and Personal Communications Services.
On November 3, 2009, Wilson Electronics, Inc. (“Wilson”) filed a Petition for Rulemaking asking the Commission to commence a proceeding to amend Part 20 of its rules to establish standards for the certification of signal boosters for subscriber use on CMRS networks by developing equipment certification requirements to ensure boosters are available to the public.
So FCC has a series of petition on a technical wireless issue going back almost 5 years. None of these have been on public notice or were even publicly disclosed by FCC. Indeed, there was little indication other than press coverage that this issue existed. While the CTIA petition was on its website, the other petitions were nowhere to be seen. It is for this reason that your blogger has urged FCC to publish lists of all petitions that have been filed. Note that this suggestion is doing rather well in the voting on the FCC reboot FCC site. (Feel free to add your own vote!) Some quiet staff review time to decide whether a petition is redundant or not within the Commission's jurisdiction makes sense, but there should be weeks, not years!
We note that the NPSTC (a well respected federation of 13 public safety member organizations) 1/06 Newsletter had a lead article entitled "In-Building Coverage BDA Rule Changes Needed Today". Yet the previous FCC management was unable to act. So 2 private firms as well as CTIA and NPSTC urged Commission action years ago and nothing happened.
The recent PN says
When properly installed, these devices, which can either be fixed or mobile, can help consumers, wireless service providers, and public safety first responders by expanding the area of reliable service to unserved or weak signal areas. However, as articulated in the Petitions, improper installation and use of these devices can interfere with network operations and cause interference to a range of communication services.
This is partially correct. But the issue is not just installation. Some manufacturers' amplifiers are designed to prevent oscillations which are the dominant cause of interference to cellular systems. Wilson Electronics states in its petition that all of its amplifiers have used such a design since 2006. But because of FCC inaction this is not a universal practice. So the result of inaction on the CTIA petition has been both the continuing sale of designs that are capable of causing interference, the loss of sales to manufacturers making better (more expensive) amplifiers, and capital formation problems for new companies that seek to make noninterferring equipment. So it has been a lose/lose situation for everyone involved except those making cheap equipment capable of causing interference.
Of course, if CTIA and its membership had been more pragmatic and tried to negotiate a compromise with the amplifier manufacturers to ask FCC jointly for reasonable technical standards then this problem would be much closer to solution. So there is enough blame to go around.
But the key thing to learn here is that the 3000 pages of FCC Rules deal with a highly technical jurisdiction and that they need fine tuning on a regular basis to address problems that were not considered when they were written or new technologies that might be implicitly forbidden. This is not as exciting to the 8th Floor as other issues like broadband and broadcast ownership and content but it also needs timely attention on a continuing basis. The Commission must find a way to keep working on all parts of its jurisdiction all the time and not get sidetracked by the problem du jour. So while Docket 10-4 has now started on its way to resolution, we must find a way to prevent future logjams like this.
The rest of the story ...
Last week FCC opened the public version of reboot.fcc.gov including a call for suggestions in response to 47 issues. Here is the scorecard of suggestions received as of10:30 AM EST 1/11. The questions "How can the data released on FCC.gov/data be better formatted so as to be more useful to the public?" is by far the most popular. Perhaps being first in the list is a major contributor to this lead.
In any case, vox populi, vox dei, we hope you check up on the suggestions, vote on those that are there, and input your own. Oddly, using your Facebook account is the easiest way to sign in to input information or to vote. No, you can not sign in using your FCBA membership or even your FRN. That says something about the grassroot approach being used here!
Spectrum policy is too important to be left to lobbyists and lawyers!
The rest of the story ...
Wireless Design Special Issue Published
The December 2009 issues of both Wireless Design and ECN (formerly Electronic Component News) contain the insert shown above, "A Year in Wireless".
This includes a group of articles entitled "Leading Industry Alliances Speak Out" with articles from the heads of alliances dealing with Wi-Fi, WiMAX, ZigBee, and Bluetooth as well as an article by your blogger entitled "2009 Regulatory Review: The Year of Rebuilding and Preparing for New Initiatives" (p. 11-12).
An interesting package and recommended reading.
May 9, 2010 will be the 25th anniversary of the FCC's adoption of the First Report and Order in Docket 81-413 - the rules that laid our the rules that became Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, many of the cordless phones sold in the US, and a variety of niche products that enhance our lives. In the next few months we will have several posts on how this all came about and its impact on today's world.
A Dutch team based at
TU Delft/Delft University of Technology has completed a book on the background of this decision and the early history of Wi-Fi focusing on the factors that stimulated innovation. (NCR's Utrecht Engineering Centre played a key role in early 802.11 standards formulation and its Vic Hayes, a coauthor of the book, was the founding chair of the group.) The book should be published later this year by Cambridge University Press.
The 2008 George Mason University "Unleashing Unlicensed" conference also has a great deal of information on why this decision came about. The paper presented by Vic Hayes and Wolter Lemstra from TU Delft is a good preview of the coming book.
A shorter history, "A brief history of Wi-Fi" was published in The Economist in 2004.
Some people think this decision was the just FCC reacting in a dilatory way to a petition from industry - adding no value and just slowing down progress through mindless regulation of technology. It wasn't. While the then Hewlett-Packard initially supported it, all other significant corporate interests at the time were against it. (The part of H-P that was involved then is now part of Agilent, not the present H-P. It was supportive and then just lost interest in the topic with a corporate refocusing.)
The FCC initiative that resulted in these rules were an internal FCC initiative that came out of Carter Administration and then Reagan Administration belief that deregulation would stimulate economic growth.
In occasional posts over the next few months we will review where this decision came from and lessons it offers for the present day.
The rest of the story ...
of the significant achievements of the Reagan FCC
- though I doubt if anyone thought so at the time."
Mark Fowler, FCC Chairman 1981-87, 4/08