Bye Bye AT&T

My cell phone contract finally has run it’s term and I have jumped to Verizon. Thursday a new Samsung Droid Charge was delivered and I’ve started loading apps on it. I have not yet ported my old cell number, just in case I hated Android. So far, Android seems to generally work, although have had some frustrations getting my address book synced. More to come…

Life’s little communication technology improvements

Just checking in on a few changes on how I do things in my life…

I stopped paying DirectTV $130/month last fall in favor of options like Netflix and Amazon streaming video. My experience has been about 5% negative (I can’t watch Bill Maher on HBO anymore) and about 95% positive. I NEVER see only the second half of a movie because it started an hour ago, I have watched a VAST number of movies and shows I never imagined, and my library of videos I own had grown because I no longer see $130/month to DirecTV as my TOTAL source of videos, so I’m more open to buy $20 videos anytime I want. It’s also WAY more fun to watch TV shows with no commercials and in batches of whole seasons in a few weeks. Yes, on occasion, the streaming video has a glitch, but my HD DirecTV also had technical glitches, that never could get fixed (like sound drop outs on some channels). My $70 Roku player box has been just excellent.

I also stopped my $35+/month AT&T phone land line and replaced it with VOIP service though It’s WAY cheap, like a few bucks/months, and my voice mails are emailed to me wherever I am. My whole VOIP service costs less that a single feature like call frowarding did from AT&T, and the feature set is similar to what a major phone telemarketer would have.  A phone number costs a buck or two per month, depending on the area code and prefix (I currently have SIX numbers, just for fun and experimenting). I ported my old home and business land line numbers for $25/each, and it costs $1.50/month + $1.50/month for E911. only one line in my house needs E911. Minutes cost like a penny per minute for inbound and outbound. They have some packages, but I think it may be cheaper ala cart for me. I did have to buy a $50 VOIP gateway device too, which supports 2 POTS voice lines (or voice and fax) but still $5/month vs. $35/month is a pretty large difference. Not quite a trip to Maui but hundreds of bucks per year for something else. I’m experimenting with Google Voice right now, which currently has FREE inbound and outbound calling, although it does not directly support SIP phone service, so is not really a land line replacement. And yes, my VOIP line does E911 too, and knows my home address if I call 911. VOIP also only works if you have broadband Internet, but I have 25+ Mbps of Comcast broadband service for other things, like working (frequently) at my Palo Alto office from my home via VPN and remote desktop on Windows. Paying $75/month for high speed data transport, which supplies voice phone, video conferencing (skype) music (Pandora), and video streaming is well worth the cost. With current gas prices, I probably save $75/month in costs for not commuting to work every day, and I drive a Prius.

My latest experiment is in cell phone service. I’m NOT a big voice user of my cell phone, like a couple hundred minutes of voice, a few hundred texts, and typically 120 MBytes of data per month. I don’t stream audio or video to my phone, but I do make pretty frequent use of email, web browsing, and apps that access server data. When at home, I use VOIP service, like skype or VOIP via SIP, so don’t generally use cell minutes at home. I WAS paying AT&T around $100/month for things like tethering and gigabytes of data, but being realistic about my usage, shifted to paying about $60/month for service that matches my real usage.

Recently, I was having a desire to play with Android app development, and the Android emulator runs just terribly. So, for $150 I picked up a Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V phone running Android 2.2. A service plan with 300 minutes of voice, unlimited texts and unlimited (not really) data is, drum roll please $25/month, with NO contract, using the Sprint network. Even though you’re not officially supposed to, you can run a little app from the app store to turn on the Android WiFi hotspot. I also own a little pay-as-you-go mobile data USB modem, so no longer have a need to pay AT&T real bucks to OCCASIONALLY have mobile data access. I’ve found Android apps to almost do everything I did with iPhone apps, and then some. There are a few iPhone apps that still have no matching Android app. Like for example, I just found a new iPhone app that allow me to test my hot tub chemistry by dipping the test strip and then snapping a picture of the colored pads against a white backgound, and the app figures out the test results by analyzing the colors. I current use a Lamotte ColorQ device, which works just excellently, but tracks no history and is a lot larger and more involved than a little bottle of test strips. As I’m one of the many color blind males of the world, deciding on the test strip color by eye is problematic for me. The $150 LG phone has the SAME screen resolution as my iPhone 3GS, and in generally gives me what seems like 90+% of the goodness of my iPhone. The UI is not quite as smooth as the 3GS (perhaps no GPU), but still generally is pretty nice. The LG Optimus V has less than great battery life, like charge it every day, but I basically have to do that with my iPhone too. The iPhone also has better fingerprint resistant glass, so find I have to wipe the screen more often. I have to ask myself if wiping the screen more often is worth the 2.5x times month cost of the 3GS, and would have to say no. Of course the LG has removable batteries, unlike the iPhone, and uses a microSD card for storage expansion, unlike the iPhone, and uses a standard microUSB cable, unlike the iPhone’s special cable. What I think I’d like is a $500 phone, with Virgin Mobile $25/month service OR, for the mainstream cell companies to offer REAL usage based plans, without inflated prices. If you calculate the REAL costs for minutes, messages, and data, by comparing the delta prices of different plans, assuming they never sell at a loss (a good bet), it’s easy to configure a $25/month plans thats meet many of our needs. See my back of enveloper calculations below. I think many cell phone companies work really hard to configure plans that maximize the amount they charge for service they never have to deliver, or charge you an outragous amount for trivial resource usage, text messages come to mind. A text message is a few hundred bytes of data, that has no real-time deliver requirement (unlike voice) and yet many cell comapnies charge the same for a single text message as a minute of voice, which consumes a hundred times more resources on the phone network. Only being 10 days into my experiment, I’m still using the iPhone currently as my primary cell phone, but am strongly considering saying good-bye to AT&T cell service.

Speaking of CHEAP cell phone service, for occasional use. I gave a friend an unlocked Nokia GSM phone a year and a half ago, and got a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go plan, and then added $100 to the account, which makes it not expire for a year. The really magic part is once you add $100, all future credits also don’t expire for a year. Minutes are $0.10/min so $100 is 1000 minutes, and my friend had used like a few hundred minutes in a year, and we added $10 to her account, essentially giving her occasional use cell phone service for another year for $10, with $0.10/minute rates. A perfect match for her usage. This makes me think the cost of just having the number is tiny, as her phone could be turned on and ready to recevied calls for a year, for $10/year. My VOIP phone numbers cost a buck or two per month also. I see the Walmart Family Phone plan offers non-expiring buckets of data, $40/gigabyte I believe, so $0.04/megabyte. The historic data usage on my iPhone for the last 18 month has been about 120 megabytes/month, so my phone data SHOULD cost me about $5/month, based on the prices Walmart can sell T-Mobile data services for. AT&T sells I believe 2 Gbytes for $25 as a monthly iPhone plan ($0.0125/Mbyte), so $0.04/Mbyte is not all that low margin. For a long time I payed AT&T $25/month for 2 Gbytes, and really only used 120 MBytes/month, and assume AT&T knows this. The Walmart on T-Mobile data rate is never a service payed for but not used, so feel it’s cleaner data. On my high speed cable modem, which is about $75/month, for a cap of I believe 250 Gbytes, it works out to $0.0003/Mbyte for wired cable modem data. This sets a lower bound on data transport costs across the backbone. If we work all the math forward now… If I use 300 minutes of voice, that’s generously about 100 KBytes/min so 30 MBytes of data, say 300 text messsges as genersouly a KByte each, so abother 0.3 Mbytes, plus 120 Mbytes of Internet data, for about 151 Mbytes of data per month, at the Walmart contract with T-Mobile price of $0.04/Megabytes gives, about $6. Lets’ say the voice data, being real-time costs 5x as much, so 5 * 30 = 150 + 120 + 1 = about $11 of data. So why does AT&T charge $40 for the 450 minute plan, with no data and no text? Sprint which I believe aquired Virgin Moble a while back, has obviously done this math, and created a rate plan. Still, I would like to have a plan with a realistic fixed cost to cover the FIXED costs, like the phone number in the database and the inactive idle time. And then, I’d like non-expiring buckets of voice/text/data, or perhaps just a unified bucket of data with some adjustment multiplier for real-time voice data. And making my phone use WiFi when I’m at home (data at $0.0003/Mbytes instead of $0.04/Mbytes)  instead of the cell network seems like just an obvious optimization, which I see T-Mobile supports on some some phones with some plans. Did I mention, at my office in Palo Alto, there is almost no AT&T cell coverage, and at the same time I’m surrounded by WiFi bandwidth. We often have to go ouside to make phone calls on our iPhones.

I’m not making these changes to be cheap (I work as an software engineer in Silicon Valley), I’m making them because they are part of the technological evolution of things, and a desire to have better services. A redistribution of funds spent yes, just like I no longer spend thousands of dollars per year for always on Internet access. I had ISDN data service from about 1994 (somebody pinch me, I’ve had always on Intenret access in my home for 17 years now?). In about 1995,  I stopped cable TV service in favor of DirecTV, and now new technology is replacing old, again. Dedicated voice land line service, obsolete. broadcast Satellite TV, obsolete. Unified video/video/data over one high speed transport, here now. Narrow cast on-demand video, here now (lets see what happens if everybody adopts it). Paying cell phone companies $0.10 for 140 bytes of text data, obsolete, paying cell phone companies $0.10 for 50 kilobytes/minute of voice data, nearing the end of it’s life.


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Personally, I’m skeptical of the new $35 computer from India

I hate to rain on what is claimed to be an advance in cheap computers for kids, but need to inject a little reality…

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Booting Windows 7 from VHD not all it’s cracked up to be

I recently upgraded the hardware for my primary workstation and thought it would be an interesting opportunity to use VHD booting. I used the SysInternals P2V utility to write my old disk to a remote VHD. I then ran things from a VM for a while, while I shuffled around my hardware.

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My PG&E SmartMeter was installed

Like is planned for millions of homes in California, my home now has an electronic time-of-use electric power meter. It took the very polite man from PG&E about 5 minutes to install, and he even knocked on my door first so I could shut down computers.

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Christmas at my sister’s

Here is everybody from my Christmas.

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Two iPhone hardware failures in 4 months

Back in July 2009, my almost 2 year old HTC TYTN II Windows Mobile phone was beginning to show signs of the battery wearing out. As AT&T had just sent me an offer to upgrade to an iPhone for the discounted price (and a 2 year contract extension) I decided to go for it.

Overall, I find the iPhone a love and hate relationship. It’s does have a better web browser than any previous phone, but I did give up some things I’ve had for years on every previous phone. Read the rest of this entry »

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How exactly do I test a hot tub GFCI

Winter here in Northern California is approaching and I was pondering about keeping my  portable spa filled and running or shutting it down until Spring. It rarely goes below freezing in the winter here. but it’s often really wet and rainy.

Being the techno nerd that I am, it seemed like a good time to verify the safety of the spa electrical service by checking the operation of the GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter). All GFCIs have a little test button, you press it and they should trip. Yes my spa GFCI has a test button, and yes it trips when I press it. It’s good to do this test on a regular basis, like every month, as water and electricity can be a fatal combination.

After pressing the test button and resetting the GFCI, I didn’t exactly feel any safer. Did this test actually prove the spa was protected from electrical ground faults? Well no, it just proved the GFCI could trip when the test button was pressed, and verified the internal operation of the GFCI. It didn’t verify the grounding to the spa or what the current setting actually was or if it worked correctly on both hot leads of split-phase 230V service.  Read the rest of this entry »

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My mouse slowly moves across the screen by itself

Some months ago, I started dating a woman who one day complained her office computer mouse was creeping across the screen all by itself. Since she knew I was a computer expert, she asked if it could be a virus, to which I said “not impossible but not probable”. I told her the same thing seemed to happen on my computer occasionally, and I was pretty confident my system has no viruses.

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Windows never blanks display or sleeps

Ever since last spring sometime my Windows Vista system would not blank the screen or go into sleep mode. I was rather busy with other things so just lived with it. I upgrade to Windows 7 a few months ago and still had the problem.

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