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Pounding the Pavement

9 min read

MAURICIO LIMA/AFP

Paul Green asserts that the local phone companies [referred to formally as ILECs, for incumbent local exchange carriers] should start deploying fiber to a customer's home or else slowly wither and die [see Speakout, "Paving the Last Mile With Glass," December, pp. 13-14]. In an industry struggling to keep subscriber lines, spending US $2000 to $2500 per customer for a possible positive return in four or more years sounds like an idea that died with the dot.com boom.

Working for an ILEC, I can tell you without reservation that we should build and plan for an 18-month future and that's pushing it. Long term is not something that any industry seems to plan for anymore, and in my view, it is slowly killing the tech fields. Every dip in stock prices seems to change policy negatively, while an increase does nothing but benefit the shareholders.

In an industry struggling to keep its subscribers, spending US $2000 to $2500 per customer [on fiber] sounds like an idea that died with the dot.com boom — Philip Sandell

My other comment is on regulation. Green states that the ILEC should install the fiber. By present regulatory policy, we must allow a competitor to resell our services to the customer at a rate cheaper than the ILEC may sell it at. Is Green affiliated by any chance with a CLEC [competitive local exchange carrier]?

Imagine running a company where you put out all the new equipment but have to cede control to someone else who pays you back less than needed to repay the investment. MCI's crack accounting team is not doing the accounting at the ILECs. We have to use real numbers since we are checked by the PUCs [public utility commissions] in the states we serve. When regulation on the ILEC is equal to regulation on the cable companies, meaning that the cable companies have competition, we will see change. Until this occurs, it is better for the ILEC to wait and see instead of invest and lose.

I would love to start a competitive cable company in Oklahoma City and require Cox Cable to let me use its installed network at less than it costs them to install it. Imagine...choosing your cable provider from a list greater than one name.

Regulation and the lack of investment in the future of the network and in employees is going to kill the telecom companies before any cable company does the job.

Philip Sandell Oklahoma City, Okla.

Did I interpret the article to mean that my future telephone connection will be solely optical fiber, without copper? This would be a disaster, unless the fiber carried enough power to operate the telephone. How would I call the power company to inform them of a power failure, or the police or fire department to inform them of an emergency?

Here where I live, power failures are frequent, but telephone failures are rare. I cannot recall the last telephone failure. Is the answer that I should use a cellphone exclusively and abandon the wired phone?

Matthew W. Slate Sudbury, Mass.

A fiber-based last-mile connection would shift the responsibility for powering the instrument from the phone company to the customer. This will not only increase the cost of the basic telephone instrument (for adding both the power supply and the optical interface), but it will decrease the reliability of the service because telephone service will be interrupted when electrical utility power fails. The customer, of course, may add a back-up power supply, but again at significant additional expense. Fiber-optic-based telephone systems are worth considering, but the lack of inherent emergency availability needs to be addressed.

David E. Mertz Oak Brook, Ill.

I would urge the phone companies, if they change over to fiber for wideband signals, to include a copper pair just to provide power to the equipment. The wire can be very thin if a reasonably high voltage is used. An alternative, which may become practical in another decade or two, is to transmit enough optical power to run the conversion equipment.

Alfred J. Cann Brookfield, N.H.

Paul Green responds: At least half the many comments I received on either my Speakout or the parent white paper (available by contacting me at pegreen@earthlink.net ) raised the perennial local powering bugaboo. To me, several trends reduce this concern to second order, at best: increasing availability of cellphones and wireless PDAs; the routine inclusion of eight-hour local-battery backup with fiber to the home (FTTH); the fact that manufacturers with fiber cables that include copper pairs are finding few takers; and the increased use of battery-supplied, fiber-fed digital loop carriers between central offices and premises, so that power failures bring the phones down, too.

Philip Sandell makes a related point, with which I entirely agree, namely that the current dog-eat-dog environment for the telcos not only dissuades them from providing centralized FTTH power but more generally produces what he calls an 18-month planning horizon. He says they should "wait and see instead of invest and lose"; yet they are already investing (in copper digital subscriber lines just to stay in the broadband access game), and they are losing. Why not press the Feds to declare FTTH "nondominant," and, accordingly exempt from unbundling, move from DSL to glass?

Judging Microsoft read "The Microsoft Decision" [Spectral Lines, December, p. 9]. We all wonder why Bill Gates's wallet has gotten so fat and why he has been able to rip off the world's computer buffs with such an inefficient operating system as Windows. It is only because the world's technocrats have been able to build faster and faster systems to keep up with the enormous inefficiency and waste of computer memory and capacity required by the Windows operating system.

What other alternatives are there for the individual user? Linux, yes. But it has yet to become popular enough even to be called a competitor. The technical support is limited. The compatible software is limited.

It is a matter of dollars. When you see what Microsoft has just accomplished in China alone—several million Chinese students all on Microsoft-driven terminals! Where does a competitor have a chance when almost all computers come with the latest Windows software and as many integrated software support packages as Microsoft can dream up? Hardly ever is another major software available or included.

I was really upset by the editor's tacit compliance with the idea that some Microsoft board members be appointed to a panel to help govern the company's compliance with the court ruling. If I've ever heard of the fox guarding the chicken coop, this is it. Does the editor believe that Enron, WorldCom, and Qwest board members would think and act responsibly not only to their own stockholders but to their competitors in such a case?

Glen Barcus Brooklyn Park, Minn.

The editor responds: The actual words in Spectral Lines regarding Microsoft's appointing some of its board members to a panel overseeing the company's compliance were, "It's a start, anyway." Barcus is incorrect in interpreting this as a blanket endorsement of this approach.

Instant Messaging What's all the hubbub about this new thing called wireless IM ["IM Means Business," November, pp. 28-32]?

I have used a two-way text pager (Motorola Pagewriter on the SkyTel network) for years. It indeed enhances productivity, with queries made of people and auto-reply systems without the time and expense of a phone call. I can do these things in relative silence, even answering customer questions during meetings. I can send and receive e-mails, as well as messages from other users. I can even send them in infrared to a nearby user, device, or printer.

Many IM services are already in place, including package tracking, flight status, sports scores, wireless games, and so on. Information overload? Sure it can happen. That is what the on-off switch is for. It also helps that the paging system will hold my pages until I return online.

I see the addition of the IM services (AOL, ICQ, MS IM) as the "Me Too!" players in this game. What took them so long to figure out this was a viable technology?

Chuck Bland Sacramento, Calif.

Misuse of "Exponential I am writing to correct your use of the term "exponential" in a recent article. I have noticed an increased colloquial use of the term in recent years by the nontechnical public. Often it is used to mean "growing quickly" or even "greatly increased." It makes sense that this would happen, as the word has been used in the general media (often without definition) to describe the incredible growth of technology and in particular the Internet. IEEE Spectrum should utilize the correct mathematical definitions.

In "Reap the Wild Wind" [October, p. 36], I believe the author meant that energy content of wind grows geometrically, and not exponentially, with wind speed. Geometric growth is the condition where the dependent variable is proportional to the independent variable raised to a fixed power. In the article, the wind energy grows as the cube of the change in wind speed.

Exponential growth, on the other hand, is the situation where a fixed base is raised to the power of the independent variable. Compound interest, Moore's Law, and diode-forward current as a function of voltage are all examples of exponential (or approximately exponential) functions.

Thank you for the excellent coverage of issues like wind and nuclear power. Power generation and distribution are extremely relevant and often forgotten aspects of electrical engineering. After all, something must power all those computers the rest of us are making!

Rod Hinman Natick, Mass.

An (Un)Happy Customer I, too, started using the Sony Ericsson T68i cellphone ["Smile for the Cellphone," November, pp. 50-51] after AT&T made the GSM [Global System for Mobile Communications] network available in our area, by switching from a TDMA [time-division multiple access] phone. Although the T68i has neat features, including a camera, I learned quickly that you cannot send text messages from the United States to other countries and vice versa.

After an hour on the phone with AT&T customer service, I learned that this service is not supported. I have asked AT&T to reconsider this or they may lose me as a customer. With Cingular's GSM service in the past, I had no trouble sending text messages between two GSM countries.

Victor Abalos abalos@pacbell.net

Computer Scientists Rule I loved Tekla S. Perry's article about Stanford University's John Hennessy ["RISC Maker," November, pp. 33-37], but take exception to one comment: "He is the first computer scientist to head such a large and diverse U.S. university." Alan Merten, president of George Mason University (GMU, Fairfax, Va.) is also a computer scientist. He holds an M.S. from Stanford and a Ph.D. from Wisconsin, both in computer science. GMU may not be as famous as Stanford, but it is a substantial university (24 000 students) that is becoming increasingly well known and recognized.

Jeremy Epstein jepstein@webmethods.com

Electronic Elections I'd like to expand on how Brazil's electronic voting, first introduced in 1998, is conducted ["Brazil Holds All-Electronic National Election," November 2002, pp. 25-26]. Voters use boxes with a display that has a keypad plus three function keys—green to confirm a vote, red/orange to correct it, and white to abstain.

After being identified as eligible (on another box with a keypad that enables the voting box to function), the voter enters a kiosk and faces a display showing an invitation to vote. After keying in the candidate's assigned number (or abstaining by pushing the white key) and seeing the complete name and picture of the chosen candidate appear on the display, the voter would press green or red/orange keys. If more than one position was to be voted on, there would be another invitation to vote. When voting is completed, the Portuguese word for "end" appears.

A Brazilian voter casts his ballot in Sao Paulo by pressing the "confirm" button.

A percentage of these vote-recording machines have a small printer coupled to them (all will have, in the next election) to print the vote, which could be seen (and again confirmed) by the voter. The printed vote then falls into an urn, making possible a hand recount for later verification of the vote's correctness.

Votes are also recorded on a floppy disk (there would be more security issues in using a network) that is carried after all have voted to a separate totalizing station where overall totals are calculated.

Of course there are issues of reliability. If a machine fails, another machine can be substituted or traditional paper-ballot voting used. The equipment, made very simple to increase reliability, was thoroughly tested.

On 27 October 2002, the second round for election of the president (and governors in some states) took place. Interim results were available the same day, official results the next morning. The opposition-party candidate was elected president; elsewhere victory was mixed for incumbent and opposition parties. The opposition in Brazil has been very vocal in recent years; however, there has been little reaction against the use of the machines. So the system is reliable and its use is definitive. I would say the United States could learn from it.

Luiz Pinto De Carvalho luizpcar@telecom.uff.br

Clarifying the Hybrid Car Picture I would like to clarify some points made in Willie D. Jones's article, "Hybrids to the Rescue" [January, pp. 70-71].

General Motors built more than 1000 EV1 [electric vehicles], starting in 1996, most of which it leased. While the 1997-model EV1 with its original batteries had a range as low as 80 km in worst cases, many of these cars were retrofitted with better lead-acid batteries, which upped the practical range to over 130 km. The 1999 EV1 with nickel-metal hydride batteries has a practical range of 160-200 km. Life expectancy of these batteries is 10 years.

Contrary to the article, owners have not had to "replace the [lead-acid] batteries periodically, at a cost of US $10 000 or more," since the vehicles were leased and any replacements (and all maintenance) are covered in the lease.

Regenerative braking is incorporated in all of the production EVs—it is not an advantage of hybrids over battery EVs. In the case of the EV1, it extends the range about 25 percent. The author states that "regular hybrids can improve fuel economy by up to 400 percent." If this is with respect to conventional cars, which in the United States are required to average 27 mpg [8.7 L/h], that means the hybrids achieve up to 135 mpg [1.7 L/h]!

None of the hybrids on the market claims any such mileage. At the most, mileage is in the 50s (for the Toyota Prius) and 60s (Honda Insight).

William L. Sprague wls22@earthlink.net

Willie Jones responds: Sprague provides a valuable look into the world of EVs. I'm sorry if I gave the impression that regenerative braking is unique to hybrids. And as for that 400 percent, I had in mind the 15 mpg or so of the SUV, the top-selling class of auto in the United States.

Corrections In the Dark Horse box in "Energy Woes" [January, p. 58], rather than refer to thyristor-controlled capacitor banks, it would have been better to specify a unified power flow controller (UPFC), consisting of gate-turnoff switches and transformers. The Sen transformer, a concept that the Electric Power Research Institute (Palo Alto, Calif.) hopes to test this year, could have a 5:1 cost advantage over the UPFC. We also regret misspelling Mr. Sen's first name, which is Kalyan.

The photo at the bottom of p. 31 [January] should have been identified as that of Avaya CEO Don Petersen.—Ed.

Readers are invited to comment in this department on material that was previously published in IEEE Spectrum, and on matters that are of interest to engineering and technology professionals. Short, concise letters are preferred. The Editor reserves the right to limit debate. Contact: Forum, IEEE Spectrum, 3 Park Ave., 17th floor, New York, NY 10016, U.S.A.; fax, +1 212 419 7570; e-mail, n.hantman@ieee.org .

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