SMART Letter #41
June 23, 2000

!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*() ------------------------------------------------------------    SMART Letter #41 -- June 23, 2000 Copyright 2000 by David S. Isenberg -- "reliable information on flaky media" -- -- 1-888-isen-com ------------------------------------------------------------ !@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*() CONTENTS > The Myth of Five Nines > Copper Corrupts > Wireless is Worse > TeraBeam isn't Terrible without Five Nines > Conferences on my Calendar, Copyright Notice, Administrivia ------- THE MYTH OF FIVE NINES by David S. Isenberg The telephone companies brag about "five nines." They'd like you to believe that their networks function 99.999% of the time. That means they'll be down a mere 5.256 minutes a year. (Check my arithmetic, please. I've been known to slip a decimal point.) The phone companies use such bragging to spread Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) about other communications technologies. "If you're having a heart attack, you're not going to depend on the Internet," the Bell-heads assert. "If the power goes out, you're not going to be able to notify the Power Company from your PC," they allege. COPPER CORRUPTS Last week I got back from a four-day road trip at 10:00 PM to find that my dial-up phone line, the one I use for email, etc., didn't have a dial tone. So I called Bell Atlantic. They promised to send somebody out the next day between noon and 6:00 PM. By my calculations -- not guaranteed to much precision at all, but directionally correct -- if Bell Atlantic had fixed my line on the dot of noon, they'd owe me about four thousand, four hundred and fifteen years of 99.999% up-time. And if they took until 6:00 PM to fix it, they'd owe me another one thousand, eight hundred and ninety-two years, give or take a few. I think that telco technicians -- the guys (mostly) who wear hard hats and climb poles -- know more about telephone networks than most of us at Bell Labs ever did. Vinnie, who came to fix my phone line, arrived about 2:00 PM. He certainly knew a lot. He tested my line at the demarc on the side of my house, and then he went up the nearest pole in the cherry picker on top of his truck. Yup, he said, the problem was on the Bell Atlantic side. Then Vinnie said he needed to check the box on Grove Street, and he drove away. Half an hour later he came back. He said that a previous repairman had dropped a clipping of copper wire onto that end of my twisted pair. This had shortened my circuit by about two-thirds of a mile. He figured he'd fixed it, so we plugged in the most vanilla 2500 set I had in the closet, where I keep it just in case the electricity goes out while I'm having a heart attack, and went off-hook. I listened. The noise on the line sounded just like my little red AM radio used to sound when the Yankees game was suspended due to thunderstorms. Vinnie listened too. "That's not right," he said. "I'll be right back." He drove off in his truck. Half an hour later he came back. "The cable up on Tamaques was full of water. I drained it," he reported. "Try it now." I listened. The line sounded just like the one AM station I could get on the crystal set I built for my Cub Scout Weblos badge. "That's still not right," Vinnie said. He went up the pole outside my house again. "Try it now," he yelled through my open window. I tried it. It was clean. Vinnie called me on his fanny phone. It sounded great. "I replaced the screws and washers up here," he said. High tech. In 1995, during the ITV fad, Ray Smith, the last RBOC CEO with a personality, said that fiber in the local loop would pay for itself on truck-rolls alone. That must be why my house in the Bell Labs ghetto, half way between Bell Labs Murray Hill and Bell Labs Holmdel, still uses copper loops. In fairness to Bell Atlantic, I have three lines, and I've only had one service call in the last year. So I'm happy to give them the benefit of the doubt -- they only owe me one thousand nine hundred and forty-four years of up-time. Furthermore, maybe my experience isn't typical . . . WIRELESS IS WORSE No wireless mobile network I've used has a 'nine' to call its own. I have a problem with approximately one call out of every two -- so it rates 'one five', or 50%. Sometimes the call doesn't complete. Other times the signal fades or becomes incomprehensible. ("What? Yes, honey, I love you, too. I said I love you. What? I can't hear you. Yes, love you. Goodbye.") Or the call ends before I'm done. (I hate it when I've been on hold for seven minutes and the Continental ticket agent finally answers and I hear, "Thank you for calling Continental. How may I hel . . . *click*.") Often, an incoming call can't find enough spectrum where my phone is, so the call is diverted to voice mail, and I am alerted hours later -- "reap, reap, reap," I've got mail. Nevertheless, I keep (and even love) my cell phone. The so-called Wireless Web is a different animal entirely than the one I tamed in 1996 with my QWERTY keyboard, my mouse and my fifteen-inch screen. The medium, let us not forget, is the message. I just shut off my Wireless Web service. The reason was spam -- junk email sent by entrepreneurially-challenged people who used to be happy watching late-night TV teach them how to place little classified ads in newspapers. Spam isn't annoying at all on a standard, wired terminal. I actually like to search and destroy messages entitled "Earn $10,000 At Home", "Talk to Hot Babes", and "Raise Gerbils for Fun and Profit". I hold down the Cntl key and select each one. Then, with one avenging touch of the Delete key, I blow 'em all straight to the recycle bin. But then spamsters found my Sprint PCS email. Wireless spam is hard to delete. It is a waste of time, attention, and money. So I told Sprint to turn off my email. Now I'm stuck with an almost-new $300 Sprint Motorola Timeport web-enabled but disabled cell phone. It all started with my post-Japan-visit desire to experience the joys of DoCoMony on the Wireless Web. I signed up for Sprint's short message service. It costs $9.99 for thirty (30) messages a month. Messages can be up to 100 characters long. That's thirty-three cents a message. Or, at 14,400 bits per second, it's $4.75 a minute, assuming 100 characters. Talk about premium pricing! To send me a message, you had to send it to That's harder to remember than But one of the cool things about email is that the user is in control, or so I thought. So I set as an alias -- it is easier to remember than I put it on my web site so SMART People who didn't want to talk to me in real time could remember my address if they wanted to send me a message. And that's where the spamsters' reaper harvested it. Then, a couple of times a day my phone would "reap-reap-reap". I'd push the 'Envelope' button, cursor down three lines to "messages", push the 'Select' button on the side of the phone to see that message 1 was from "". Then I'd select the message to read: "Hi! Are you tired of working for the same old b . . . " Then I'd push the 'Clr' button to delete the message and push one more button to confirm the deletion . . . then I'd run the red light narrowly avoiding the father with the baby carriage, only to drift off the shoulder and over the guard rail. Wireless email certainly is convenient. Before the wireless web, I was spam-agnostic. Now I hate it with a militant passion. An email sender who uses a nobody- home return address should be held in stocks on the village green for two weeks. And DUIE (driving under the influence of email) should be punishable by dunking -- I'm guilty as charged. Furthermore, we need wireless services that aren't priced according to some Bell-headed paradigm designed to keep us from using them. And we need user interfaces that aren't designed as an afterthought by electrical engineers. But I love my cell phone, even if it doesn't have a nine to its name. Furthermore, I believe that there are other wireless mobile devices that make it easier to delete spam. And someday there will be pricing plans that don't penalize me for other people's inconsideration. I also believe that the Internet Protocol will tame the unreliable mobile wireless physical layer, to replace unreliable voice services with pretty good email. TERABEAM ISN'T TERRIBLE WITHOUT FIVE 'NINES' Readers of previous SMART Letters know that I have a stake in TeraBeam, the Seattle-based laser communications company that's causing WinStar's and Teligent's stock to tank. Well, I do, and I'm proud of it. And I am proud to say that TeraBeam's management doesn't claim that lasercom is a five 'nines' technology. There's some weather that I shouldn't drive in. There's some weather that make me glad that my airplane is staying on the ground, no matter how bad I 'need' to be there. And there are some weather conditions (e.g., dense fog) that will not get a laser-borne gigabit very far through the air. Would I like to have a gigabit with two, three or four 'nines' or no gigabit? I'll take the gigabit, thank you; hold the myths. In the age of internetworking, I can roll my own reliability. As long as there's a healthy market with multiple competitors (repeat, multiple competitors), bandwidth is bandwidth is bandwidth. If I buy three services on three different physical layers from three different service providers, and if each service is two 'nines', then I should have a six 'nines' probability that one service will always be up. It will cost three times more, but at least I'll be getting what I'm paying for. ------- CONFERENCES ON MY CALENDAR June 26-27, 2000. New York City. Entertainment Internet 2000. I'll be on a panel with some of my favorite fiber and bandwidth companies. The website is thin, but there's info there -- or call 212-336-6000. September 13-15, 2000. Lake Tahoe CA. TELECOSM. Featuring George Gilder, Clayton Christensen, yours truly, and a cast of geniuses, troublemakers, and people who got rich by listening to George. This thing sells out, folks -- a word to the SMART. ------- COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Redistribution of this document, or any part of it, is permitted for non-commercial purposes, provided that the two lines below are reproduced with it: Copyright 2000 by David S. Isenberg -- -- 1-888-isen-com ------- ADMINISTRIVIA [to subscribe to the SMART Letter, please send a brief, PERSONAL statement to (put "SMART" in the Subject field) saying who you are, what you do, maybe who you work for, maybe how you see your work connecting to mine, and why you are interested in joining the SMART List.] [to unsubscribe to the SMART List, send a brief unsubscribe message to] [for past SMART Letters, see] [Policy on reader contributions: Write to me. I won't quote you without your explicitly stated permission. If you're writing to me for inclusion in the SMART Letter, *please* say so. I'll probably edit your writing for brevity and clarity. If you ask for anonymity, you'll get it. ] ** David S. Isenberg, inc. 888-isen-com 908-654-0772 ** -- The brains behind the Stupid Network -- **