Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Operation Chokehold

So Fake Steve Jobs has announced Operation Chokehold, a wireless flashmob in which disgruntled AT&T customers are to use data-intensive apps for an hour in protest at the poor service and reduced investment AT&T provide on their network. At time of writing, Operation Chokehold has 3,000 fans on Facebook - a small fraction of the ∼82M AT&T Mobility subscribers in the U.S. Fake Steve has latterly wondered whether it is illegal (using the "it's now out of my hands" defence, popular with people who don't understand what incitement means), and seemingly back-pedalled, considering aloud whether people might try a shorter duration or physical flashmob of AT&T stores instead. It would appear that the FCC (the U.S. agency responsible for regulating national and international communications) has weighed in, declaring a wireless flashmob to be irresponsible and "a significant public safety concern".

How is it a concern? Due to the way the phones work, you don't need to the capacity to support all of the users, all of the time, in order to provide a reasonable service. Think of running a file-sharing service like DropBox or Humyo. If you offered up to 10GB storage per customer and have 10,000 customers, then you need 100TB of storage, right? Wrong. That's the maximum that could be used, but let's say in practice you find average use to be 100MB/customer. It turns out that 1TB of storage would be the minimum you'd need to satisfy current demand, if you had even 1.5TB then you'd comfortably support the current customer base while allowing for some future use spikes or growth. The question most businesses ask then is not how risky it is to drop below 100% capacity, but how much risk they can accept in their buffer over average capacity. The mobile phone network operates in the same way. To avoid dropped calls you don't need the bandwidth to support 100% of the phones operating 100% of the time, you need to support the average number of phones the average amount of time, plus a little extra for (hopefully foreseen) additional demand.

The argument by AT&T and the FCC against the wireless flashmob then is that because the network is oversubscribed as an accepted business risk, it would actually be possible for the concerted operation of a large number of users to cause disruption to the network. This eventuality is evinced every year in the early morning of January 1st, as people phone or SMS each other with New Year greetings. People making legitimate calls during this time could be disconnected or unable to place a call at all—while that would undoubtedly make the protest noticed by AT&T it's that aspect of it which makes it a potential public safety concern. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the network doesn't have either dedicated capacity or priority quality of service (QoS) treatment for 9-1-1 calls, but it's possible still that some 9-1-1 calls might not get placed correctly. That's especially true if the caller's handset can't even connect to a tower, which could happen if nearby towers were all saturated with phones making data connections. While it's possible to mitigate that risk (dedicated cell towers for 9-1-1 service, which emergency calls are handed over to) it would be very expensive to implement. There's no business need for AT&T to specially support emergency calls, as they don't make any money from them, so they'd only do that if the FCC mandated it.

But then there are all the non-9-1-1 emergency calls—people phoning their local doctor or hospital, and "business critical" calls made by people who somehow think that their business is critical. Even the day-to-day running of government is at least partially conducted over the regular phone networks, as was seen when the pager traffic from New York on September 11th 2001 got posted to WikiLeaks. These calls are all lumped in with the regular calls, because they are regular calls. The only way to mitigate the risk of dropping these is to increase the capacity of the network, which is exactly the thing that people are saying AT&T don't do to a satisfactory level. If the contracts on AT&T Mobility are anything like the contracts on UK phone networks, then subscribers don't have a service level agreement (SLA) with the provider, so there's no guarantee of provision. The sticking point is the level of expected provision doesn't match that. If the providers operated multi-tier subscription services like the broadband providers do in the UK, then they probably would do QoS management so that preferential customers get better call service—again, assuming the customers can connect to the cell tower in the first place. But again, that's a business issue, and if the guy participating in Chokehold has a more expensive plan than the girl trying to phone the hospital, his connection will win.

Will Chokehold fulfil its goal of making AT&T invest more in its infrastructure? I don't know. Will it actually disrupt public safety services such as 9-1-1? I doubt it. Is it a scale model for a terrorist attack on the communications infrastructure of the US? Certainly not. Much easier to jump down a manhole and snip the cables to the data centres.

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