Monthly Archives: February 2017

Wireless network in Afghanistan

In May 2017, Afghan Wireless announced a milestone—the company had launched the first 4G LTE service in Afghanistan. That service is now live in Kabul, and the company plans to extend 4G LTE to the entire country within the next 12 to 18 months.

Building or upgrading a reliable , where road access is limited and power is no guarantee, poses a unique set of challenges. The job has been made far more difficult by the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, which lasted for 13 years from 2001 to 2014, and ongoing fighting among Taliban insurgents, the Islamic State group, and remaining troops.

On Wednesday, a truck bomb exploded in central Kabul, killing 80 people and wounding hundreds. Such violence reshapes many aspects of daily life for Afghanistan’s 33 million residents. For Afghan Wireless, it also presents major operational hurdles.

Access to spectrum is extremely limited, because the government and military have reserved so much of it for their own use. For its new 4G LTE network, Afghan Wireless plans to operate at 1800 GHz. Mike Hoban, chief technology officer at Afghan Wireless, says the company is looking forward to future spectrum auctions so it can purchase additional licenses for its next upgrade to LTE-Advanced.

Lately, Afghan Wireless towers have become popular targets for insurgents and thieves, requiring the company to post three to six guards at every single tower they install to keep watch around the clock. “We’ve lost a lot of towers,” says Amin Ramin, managing director of Afghan Wireless Communications Company.

The company was founded in 2002, just after the U.S.-led war began. Since then, its reach has grown considerably from the 34 towers the company used to launch a nationwide 2G network to originally serve around 50,000 customers.

For one early project, Afghan Wireless wished to link northern Afghanistan to its network in Kabul. To do that, they wanted to install a microwave tower in Salang Pass, a mountain pass that serves as a gateway to northern provinces.

Even once the company has built new roadways, the roads wash out on a regular basis, requiring it to rebuild some roads every year. And Ramin says most of the diesel fuel they use to power generators for each tower comes from Iran or Pakistan. Some of that fuel has a very high water content, which destroys the generators.

Still, the company has managed to construct an expansive network consisting of 1,400 towers that serve more than 5 million Afghans from all 34 provinces. Ramin says about 65 of those towers provide backhaul, and in some cases are separated by as many as 200 kilometers.

As the company upgrades its services to 4G, the network will require even more towers. Ramin says that for towers that directly serve customers, a 2G network could function if the towers were placed 6 to 7 kilometers from each other. But for 4G, the towers may need to be as close as 100 to 300 meters.

Hoban says this is particularly true in Afghanistan because the walls of homes and buildings are extremely thick, which makes it more difficult for signals to get through. “It’s local brick, it’s local cement, and they’re thick as hell,” he says.

To build out 4G LTE, Ramin says Afghan Wireless will install 150 new towers in Kabul, and as many as 500 across the country. Much of the network is built on equipment from Huawei, a Chinese manufacturer. Today, the company also operates 350 Wi-Fi hotspots for customers in Kabul.

Hoban says Afghan Wireless’ 3G network averages around 35 megabits per second per sector, and he hopes to boost that to 75 megabits per second this year with 4G, and then up to 175 or 200 megabits per second next year by rolling out 4G LTE-Advanced. A typical base station serves three sectors.

In addition to serving its customers, Afghan Wireless also claims to be the largest private employer in Afghanistan, with more than 8,000 employees across the country. That workforce includes more than 300 women, Ramin says, which makes it the largest private employer of women in Afghanistan. The company provides training and tuition assistance to employees.

The internet is not the opioid crisis

The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you (unless you’re hit by a distracted driver) or leave you ravaged and destitute. But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence — your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art — in a state of perpetual distraction.

Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.

Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.

No, not like Prohibition. Temperance doesn’t have to mean teetotaling; it can simply mean a culture of restraint that tries to keep a specific product in its place. And the internet, like alcohol, may be an example of a technology that should be sensibly restricted in custom and in law.

Of course it’s too soon to fully know (and indeed we can never fully know) what online life is doing to us. It certainly delivers some social benefits, some intellectual advantages, and contributes an important share to recent economic growth.

But there are also excellent reasons to think that online life breeds narcissism, alienation and depression, that it’s an opiate for the lower classes and an insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged, and that it takes more than it gives from creativity and deep thought. Meanwhile the age of the internet has been, thus far, an era of bubbles, stagnation and democratic decay — hardly a golden age whose customs must be left inviolate.

So a digital temperance movement would start by resisting the wiring of everything, and seek to create more spaces in which internet use is illegal, discouraged or taboo. Toughen laws against cellphone use in cars, keep computers out of college lecture halls, put special “phone boxes” in restaurants where patrons would be expected to deposit their devices, confiscate smartphones being used in museums and libraries and cathedrals, create corporate norms that strongly discourage checking email in a meeting.

Then there are the starker steps. Get computers — all of them — out of elementary schools, where there is no good evidence that they improve learning. Let kids learn from books for years before they’re asked to go online for research; let them play in the real before they’re enveloped by the virtual.

Then keep going. The age of consent should be 16, not 13, for Facebook accounts. Kids under 16 shouldn’t be allowed on gaming networks. High school students shouldn’t bring smartphones to school. Kids under 13 shouldn’t have them at all. If you want to buy your child a cellphone, by all means: In the new dispensation, Verizon and Sprint will have some great “voice-only” plans available for minors.

I suspect that versions of these ideas will be embraced within my lifetime by a segment of the upper class and a certain kind of religious family. But the masses will still be addicted, and the technology itself will have evolved to hook and immerse — and alienate and sedate — more completely and efficiently.

Apple Experiencing

Apple is not alone. Other aging tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon and Alphabet, the parent of Google, and younger players like Facebook have also managed to post strong growth despite their tremendous size. The secret to their vigor, according to analysts and investors, is the vast amount of data they have about customers and their ability to sell all sorts of products to those customers.

“This handful of companies is writing the operating system for the new economy,” said Brad Slingerlend, lead portfolio manager of Janus Henderson’s global technology fund. “The bigger companies are both able to collect data and use that data to build into adjacent businesses.”

For Apple, which is far more dependent on hardware sales than other tech leaders, the recent performance is all the more impressive after its dismal 2016, when quarterly revenue fell for the first time in 13 years and the company’s sales in China dropped through the floor.

In the most recent quarter, which ended July 1, Apple actually sold 2 percent more iPhones than it did during the same period last year, defying the usual sales slump that occurs before its new phones are introduced. The business in China stabilized.

The iPad, a product line that was collapsing amid the rise of big-screen smartphones, rebounded, with the number of tablets sold increasing 15 percent as Apple cut prices at the low end and added features at the high end. The company’s redesigned iMacs and MacBook Pros also gained market share in the slowly declining personal computer industry.

In a harbinger of the company’s future, digital services — the App Store, iCloud, movie and music downloads, and the Apple Music streaming service — have become the second most important category for the company, growing 22 percent to $7.3 billion in the quarter. With 1.2 billion iPhones sold and millions of new customers joining the iPhone ecosystem each year, Apple is in a position to increase its income from services much faster than from accessories like the Watch.

“Wall Street is waking up to the reality that the next great product might not be an Apple car or the TV or the Watch,” said Trip Miller of Gullane Capital Partners, which loaded up on Apple shares when they were below $100. “The services business is the next great product.”

Mr. Miller, who also owns stock in Alphabet and Amazon, said that part of what makes these companies so powerful is their strong balance sheets, with seemingly limitless cash and borrowing capacity. That has allowed Alphabet to slowly build YouTube’s advertising business and move into self-driving cars.

Even Facebook, which could sell more ads on its social network than it is willing to put into the news feed, is generating so much cash that it can afford to slowly increase ads on Instagram and its Messenger network while absorbing losses from its Oculus virtual reality business.

Apple’s sales have tended to be more cyclical, with big upgrades to its iPhones typically occurring every two years. The company is a year behind schedule this time, with its last major update in 2014. That has investors excited about the potential for a large spike in demand when the new phones come out this fall.

“Any product they release this year would be successful. There is pent-up replacement demand,” said Amit Daryanani, a hardware analyst with RBC Capital Markets. “Most of us are modeling 11 to 12 percent revenue growth in 2018, a super cycle.”

But he said such growth is unlikely to continue in 2019, when excitement about the new iPhones has faded.

Still, Apple’s financial heft is likely to get it through any rough patches. It had $45 billion in revenue last quarter and is now sitting on $262 billion in cash and marketable securities.


China’s Internet

Thursday a new way of shutting down websites and cutting off the country’s internet users from the rest of the world. The censorship drill targeted tools that many in China use to thwart the country’s vast online censorship system, though internet companies said it also hit some sites at random.

One Beijing online video company watched as its app and website went offline for about 20 minutes without warning. The way it was disconnected — the digital tether that connected its service to the rest of the internet was severed — suggested more than a mere technical outage, according to the leader of the firm’s technology team, who requested anonymity for himself and the company for fear of reprisals.

Chinese officials did not comment on the test, and there was no indication that they would use the system again. But if they do, it may not be a total surprise.

China has embarked on an internet campaign that signals a profound shift in the way it thinks of online censorship. For years, the China government appeared content to use methods that kept the majority of people from reading or using material it did not like, such as foreign news outlets, Facebook and Google. For the tech savvy or truly determined, experts say, China often tolerated a bit of wiggle room, leading to online users’ playing a cat-and-mouse game with censors for more than a decade.

Now the authorities are targeting the very tools many people use to vault the Great Firewall. In recent days, Apple has pulled apps that offer access to such tools — called virtual private networks, or VPNs — off its China app store, while Amazon’s Chinese partner warned customers on its cloud computing service against hosting those tools on their sites. Over the past two months a number of the most popular Chinese VPNs have been shut down, while two popular sites hosting foreign television shows and movies were wiped clean.

 The shift — which could affect a swath of users from researchers to businesses — suggests that China is increasingly worried about the power of the internet, experts said.

“It does appear the crackdown is becoming more intense, but the internet is also more powerful than it has ever been,” said Emily Parker, author of “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are,” a book about the power of the internet in China, Cuba, and Russia. “Beijing’s crackdown on the internet is commensurate with the power of the internet in China.”

China still has not clamped down to its full ability, the experts said, and in many cases the cat-and-mouse game continues. One day after Apple’s move last week, people on Chinese social media began circulating a way to gain access to those tools that was so easy that even a non-techie could use it. (It involved registering a person’s app store to another country where VPN apps were still available.)

Still, Thursday’s test demonstrates that China wants the ability to change the game in favor of the cat.

A number of Chinese internet service providers said on their social media accounts, websites, or in emails on Thursday that Chinese security officials would test a new way to find the internet addresses of services hosting or using illegal content. Once found, these companies said, the authorities would ask internet service providers to tell their clients to stop. If the clients persisted, they said, the service providers and Chinese officials would cut their connection in a matter of minutes.

The Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

Studies suggest that anywhere from tens of millions to well over a hundred million Chinese people use VPNs and other types of software to get around the Great Firewall. While the blocks on foreign television shows and pornography ward off many people, they often pose only minor challenges to China’s huge population of web-savvy internet users.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has presided over years of new internet controls, but he has also singled out technology and the internet as critical to China’s future economic development. As cyberspace has become more central to everything that happens in China, government controls have evolved.

It is difficult to figure out the extent of the new efforts, since many users and businesses will not discuss them publicly for fear of getting on the bad side with the Chinese government. But some frequent users said that getting around the restrictions had become increasingly difficult.

One student, who has been studying in the United States and was back in China for summer vacation, said that her local VPN was blocked. She said she had taken the period as a sort of meditation away from social media and left a note on Facebook to warn her friends why she was a “gone girl.”

A doctoral student in environmental engineering in at a university in China said it had become harder to do research without Google, though his university had found alternative publications so that students did not always need the internet. He has since found a new way to get around the Great Firewall, the student said, without disclosing what it was.

Close observers of the Chinese internet said some VPNs still work — and that China could still do a lot more to intensify its crackdown.

“We do think that if the government has decided to do so, it could have shut down much more VPN usage right now,” said a spokesman for VPNDada, a website created in 2015 to help Chinese users find VPNs that work.

“If the government had sent more cats, the mice would have a tougher time,” said the spokesman, who declined to be named because of sensitivities around the group’s work in China. “I guess they didn’t do so because they need to give some air for people or businesses to breathe.”

China’s online crackdowns are often cyclical. The current climate is in part the result of the lead-up to a key Chinese Communist Party meeting, the 19th Party Congress this autumn. Five years ago, ahead of a similarmeeting, VPNs were hit by then-unprecedented disruptions.

Much like economic policy or foreign affairs, censorship in China is part of a complicated and often imperfect political process. Government ministries feel pressure ahead of the party congress to show they are effective or can step in if a problem appears, analysts said.