My mobile phone saga

I’ve used ATT for mobile service since 1995. In 2004, Cingular acquired the ATT wireless network and it’s been downhill ever since. My office is in downtown Dallas, where you’d think even the worst wireless company would have cell towers. At times over the last week my phone said “no service” while at best it might show two bars and “extended area” or “roaming” on the display.

A call to Cingular’s customer support revealed the reason. To encourage ATT users to pay for new Cingular phones and contracts, Cingluar has been progressively turning off and dismantling the network of ATT cell towers. I was also told I needed to “upgrade” right away or face an additional $4.99/month fee for continued use of the ATT network. They also insisted that I couldn’t go to another carrier without paying a $175 early termination fee. This was odd since my last ATT contract expired in 2004, prior to the Cingular takeover. I’d been on month-to-month since then. The Cingular customer support rep insisted I had a current, unexpired contract. After double-checking my files, I called back and asked for details about the contract. Strangely, they said they couldn’t tell me when the contract was signed. I finally asked them fax me a copy of the alleged contract. After putting me on hold for a long time, they finally admitted there was no contract.

Turns out I’m not the only one with these problems. The Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights (FTRC) has filed a class action lawsuit against Cingular (PDF format) for false advertising, breached contracts, and assorted other things. They have a summary of the lawsuit on their website.

I always dread shopping for phones. While there are lots of choices, they all suck. I’d like to get a Linux-based phone. Most are only available in Asia and of the ones available in the US, none of the major carriers offer them yet. The most obtainable ones are Motorola’s but they use some kind of hardware Digital Restrictions Management to defeat the GPL protected right to modify the software. You can modify the software all you want but the phone won’t run the modified software (RMS hopes to fix this sort of thing with the GPLv3 but Linus hopes to avoid fixing it by retaining the GPLv2 on the Linux kernel). There’s a lot of hype about Trolltech’s mobile phone called the Green Phone but a) they’re not easy to get b) no major carrier is going to offer them and c) if you check Trolltech’s site, they say the Green Phone isn’t really intended for use as phone. They are strictly intended as development hardware. The FAQ says “inserting a SIM card obtained from a GSM network operator should safely enable basic phone functionality.” “Should” and “basic” being the operative words. Aside from those problems, I’m going to be really tempted to get one of the Green Phones if they turn into something real. A fully hackable Linux phone would ΓΌber cool.

So no Linux phone. I’d prefer to avoid a Windows based phone, so that lets out most of the Smart Phones. LG has some phones that look good on paper but every one that I’ve tried so far has horrible voice quality. The non-Linux Motorola phones look cool but I keep reading user complaints about them.

I want bluetooth, Linux support, and reasonable battery life. I want a time / caller ID display on the outside of the phone that’s visible at all times without having to press buttons (this turns out to be suprisingly rare on the lastest generation of phones). A camera is nice but not a requirement. Initially I thought it would be nice to have iPod-like music capabilities. But…

It turns out the term “MP3” no longer refers to a file format. An “MP3 phone”, is simply any phone that can play a music file of some unspecified file format. Almost every alleged “MP3 phone” I looked at was not able to play MP3 files. In most cases they can only play DRM’d WMA files. The Nokia N91 is supposed to but, suprise, it’s not available from any major carrier. If the N91 were available, I expect it would be my first choice right now. I looked at the LG Chocolate but it has the same crappy voice quality as the other LG phones (and doesn’t play MP3s, only WMAs). I found a few Nokia and Samsung phones that could play actual MP3 files but most were only available through Verizon, who deactivates features like that in order force customers to purchase DRM’d music and ringtones through their VCAST service. In the end, I decided to just ignore the MP3 feature since it was evident none of the phones provide anything useful here (yet).

So, what did I end up with? I narrowed it down to the Samsung SCH-A930. The voice quality is better than most of the phones I tried. It has a very bright, high contrast blue OLED panel on the outside of the phone with the time on it (always on). It has bluetooth, a reasonably good 1.3MP camera, decent battery life. It can play the usual WMA audio files (I’ve heard there’s a hack out there to turn MP3 support back on). It has GPS support (which Verizon has deactivated of course, except to deliver your coords on 911 calls). It also looks different and better, I think, than most of the other of phones I saw. I picked up a USB cable on eBay and Bitpim (GPL) works great for shuffling data to and from my Linux box. I also stuffed a 1GB Micro-SD in it.

Is 1984 Arriving a Few Years Late?

If you haven’t seen the documents yet, Wired Magazine has published the complete text of the AT&T documents (PDF format) detailing their assistance in one of the Bush administration’s illegal spying operations on American citizens. Among other interesting things revealed in the documents; AT&T was splitting off traffic at MAE EAST, MAE WEST, and other major peering points. The NSA is not just spying on AT&T customer traffic without a court order, they are effectively spying on all Internet traffic; even you reading this blog right now. You may recall the administration claiming that only a “very small fraction” of their network intercepts were between people in the US and those were caused by a “technical glitch”. Oops. From the released documents, it looks like AT&T put a lot of work into designing and deploying the “technical glitch”.

Wired’s actions are particularly commendable given that the Attorney General was quoted today threatening to prosecute journalists who print leaked information. I think the last administration that considered prosecuting journalists was Nixon’s.

Ironically, with the level of incompetence that has been shown by the current administration, I have a suspicion that not only will all their spying produce no useful results, but they’ll probably do a bad job of securing their system and it will end up being used by spammers and other Internet criminals.

I found myself reading all this and thinking, I should really be using encrypted email more often. I can only recall someone using my GPG key to send me email a handful of times and I don’t think I’ve sent encrypted email much more often than that. Would it matter? I read the other day that in the UK, they’re trying to force individuals and organizations to hand over their encryption keys. Amazingly, that hasn’t happened in the US yet, even though we otherwise seem to be leading the way on giving up privacy protections and individual rights these days.

I Finally Have Broadband Thanks to Paragon/ATT Cable

Saturday was the big day. The Paragon Cable/ATT installers showed up around 10:30am and a few hours later we had a working cable modem. The cable modem is one of the newer RCA types (it’s the one at the bottom of the page next the 3Com Sharkfin). I also picked up a Linksys BEFSR81 Cable/DSL router to act as firewall, router, and 10/100 8-port hub. The Linksys router is pretty cool, allowing a one machine DMZ as well as port-forwarding, DHCP, NAT and several other features you wouldn’t normally expect on such an inexpensive little box.

The install went relatively smoothly. After reading some of the att@home horror stories (or here or here) from other Linux users, I’d moved our real boxes to another room and brought an old clunker from the office and put Windows 98 on it – in case they insisted they only supported Windows or had to install their mutant version of IE. As it turned out though, the installer was reasonably knowledgable about things. He knew what Linux was and had even used it himself. He said I could sign a waiver saying I declined installation support and could then use any OS I wanted. We went ahead and used the W98 box for testing but he provided all the info needed so we could configure the Linux boxes. Third-party routers like the Linksys are another thing att@home theoretically doesn’t support but the installer thought it was a cool box and had never used one before so he wanted to see how to set it up to work with the cable modem too.

I spent a while at a list of bandwidth testing sites trying to get some idea of how fast the new setup was. The slowest download speed I got was around 700Kbps but most tests showed 1.5 – 2.0 Mbps. Not bad for $39/month. Unfortunately, att@home throttles the upload speed to 128kbps to discourage users from running any type of servers but it’s still a lot better than dial-up. :-)

The only strange part of the whole thing is that our home dial-up connection was the last analog modem that I used and heard on a regular basis. I think I’ve listened to modem connect-tones nearly every day of my life for at least 20 years. It’s going to be strange getting used to not hearing them. Made me start thinking again that someone should try to preserve some of those wonderful sounds. Perhaps an archive with WAV/MP3 files of all the classic connect tones – those strange tones the high-end US Robotics models used to make only when they connected with another USR; the old 300 and 1200 Baud connect sounds; the first DSI V.32 and V.32bis connect sounds. Hmmmm… better stop before I get all nostalgic for the good ol’ days.

More on Broadband

I’m posting todays news from Mozilla 0.7. This version is another incremental improvement over v0.6. This version finally includes SSL support and it seems to work. On Windows NT, it crashes maybe once per hour or so. On my Red Hat 6.1/Intel box it has crashed a couple of times. On my newer Red Hat 7.0 box (my main workstation), it has been running for several days under heavy usage with no crashes. I haven’t found any sites that break it yet. It still sucks up a lot of memory but seems a bit faster than v0.6.

While I suspect I haven’t seen the last of my Verizon DSL billing problem, I am one step closer to getting decent Net access at home. This is a Good Thing. I seem to be the last person left on Earth who has to access The Net through a dial-up modem. I described my Verizon DSL horror story previously. I’ve also tried contacting ATT about their wireless broadband service. It sounds cool – high speed Net access plus local and long distance phone service. The downside is that it doesn’t use Ethernet to connect to the computer like DSL or Cable Modems. It has some sort of special hardware that requires a USB connection and they only provide drivers for Windows 95/98. We have a Linux/Intel box and a Windows NT4 box at home and I’m not inclined to downgrade either of them. I called a few other wireless boradband service providers such as Broadbandnow but they don’t provide service in my area (or provide it only to business or apartment complexes). I’ve also called our local cable company several times over the last year or so and they always say they’re going to offer cable modem Net access but it’s always a few months away.

Well, I called the cable company yesterday and they said they were scheduled to start providing Internet service as of next week. They took down some info from me and I’m on the list to get it installed. I don’t know how fast it will be or what kind of hardware they offer or if I’ll get static or dynamic IPs. And I’d prefer DSL but anything beats dial-up. I just hope the installers don’t make any trouble for me because of my Linux box.