- The Tech Night Owl Newsletter — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com/newsletter -

Newsletter Issue #553


The ongoing soap opera about the sweaty palms has become unstoppable. As I explain in my main commentary for this issue, Apple has given several explanations for the alleged signal attenuation problems encountered on the iPhone 4.

All I can say right now, not having had the chance to test this phenomenon myself, is that there appears to be far more smoke than clarity on the subject. On the other hand, since the topic is front and center, on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we discussed the alleged antenna issues affecting the iPhone 4, those possible class-action lawsuits, the recent Mac mini update and lots more.

Along for the ride were Macworld Senior Editor Dan Frakes, and Peter Cohen, co-host of the “Angry Mac Bastards” radio show.

You’ll also heard from industry analyst Stephen Baker, of The NPD Group, with an update about early sales of 3D TVs and a possible slowdown in PC industry sales.

When it comes to 3D TV, I think most of you know where I stand. I’m skeptical. Even if they sold 20,000 flat panel 3D TV sets at upwards of one thousand dollars above the purchase price of a regular HDTV, there’s little indication the content providers are rushing to provide Blu-ray 3D discs and broadcast feeds. There’s a little out there, but this may remain a chicken and egg situation that may take a few years to resolve — and it may not happen even then until or unless the consumer electronics makers devise a method to deliver 3D without those dreadful glasses.

This week on our other show, The Paracast, co-host Greg Bishop presents a return visit from former government operative Walter Bosley, who expands not only on his personal experiences, but on a whole range of paranormal subjects. He also responds to some of the comments about his encounters from The Paracast Community Forums.

Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.


Some time back, AT&T ran a series of ads that proclaimed their service would deliver more bars and fewer dropped calls than the competition. Well, maybe they were more accurate on the former than they ever imagined.

Just the other day, Apple, in its latest excuse about the source of alleged antenna woes on the iPhone 4, claimed that the real problem is not the deteriorated reception, but the way signal strength is displayed. In short, they claimed to have been producing too many bars for too little signal.

Worse, this particular problem has evidently afflicted all iPhones from Day One, because Apple used the wrong algorithm to produce the bar display. Instead, they will henceforth be relying on AT&T’s algorithm, which is said to be more honest.

Of course that raises a bigger question, which is how on Earth did this serious defect escape Apple’s notice until they were inundated with complaints about reception problems with the latest and greatest iPhone? Did they not think for one second to test the accuracy of these displays in real world conditions? I’m just asking.

In the end, there will be a software update in the next few weeks intended to rectify this problem. I also suspect, inasmuch as the change isn’t being rushed into production, that Apple will take the opportunity to refine some of the rough edges of iOS 4, and that’s perfectly understandable. They may also want to make sure that you are really seeing the right number of bars this time.

In the wake of this announcement, some of the online critics of anything that emerges from Apple PR are saying that it’s all a load of nonsense — and sometimes the expressions of skepticism are couched in more explicit terms that I will not use, since we are joining a radio network that delivers shows to terrestrial stations covered by FCC rules. No seven dirty words allowed!

Since the fix isn’t in place, I’m going to resist the temptation to judge the extent of the problem. Apple does claim that my iPhone 3GS will exhibit the very same symptom, but since I’m not in the habit of squeezing the bejesus out of it, I wouldn’t know. I do see some variation of signal strength when I hold it in different ways, but nothing that impresses me as terribly drastic, nor is the now-occasional tendency to drop calls any worse.

Surprisingly, Consumer Reports magazine — no friend of Apple — has agreed that there isn’t a design flaw on the new iPhone. A new blog on the subject makes several important observations that the critics — and the ambulance-chasing lawyers hoping for a huge payday — are missing: “Most of the Web sites reporting dropped signals and even dropped calls have demonstrated several techniques, or ‘death grips’ for recreating the problem (which we’ve yet been able to reproduce in a meaningful way). But those almost always require squeezing the phone hard, in an unnatural way. Those grips may also produce sweaty palms from exertion, with the sweat increasing conductivity — and possibly the degree of signal loss.”

In other words, you can force the issue with your “Vulcan Death Grip” if you choose, but otherwise, the extent of signal degradation ought to be normal for mobile handsets where the antennas are of fixed size and located at the bottom of the unit.

The reason those parts are put there, by the way, is to adhere to government regulations that evaluate emissions emanating from the phone. The higher, the greater possibility of some sort of negative impact, such as the potential for causing a brain injury or tumor, although the jury is still out over how much radiation is required before you face the danger of an injury.

There is surely nothing wrong with hands-free use of any mobile device, be it an iPhone, Droid or whatever you prefer. I equipped my car with a Bluetooth interface to provide the added benefit of not being tempted to actually touch the handset while I’m traveling. Using a wireless handset in your hand while driving is illegal in many places, and even low-cost cars nowadays often offer hands-free accessories, dealer installed or otherwise.

In any case, this story about the iPhone 4’s antenna clearly has legs. If the problem afflicted any lesser phone — and it does by the way — you wouldn’t hear much about it. They’re just highly flawed gadgets and you cannot expect perfection. If you get a dropped call on a Droid, no big deal. If it happens on an iPhone, and I suppose it’s Apple’s pretensions of superiority that are at work, it becomes a major issue that can only be remedied by product recalls and class action lawsuits.

After all, it is Apple we’re talking about here. The standard rules do not apply and nothing they do even when iPhone 4.0.1 is out will satisfy everyone. That’s why, even after Apple delivered several firmware fixes to address menu tearing and yellow-tinges on a 27-inch iMac’s display, some demanded more. That was true even when Apple readily agreed to swap the affected units for new ones.

With Apple, it’s perfection or nothing. At the same time, I don’t think this particular crisis, exaggerated or otherwise, was handled as well as it should. We all make mistakes, but why it took the sale of 50 million iPhones for Apple to realize theirs still strikes me as strange however you look at it.


As most of you know, my broadband service is provided by Cox Communications, but it has been troublesome of late. Every single day, there are several short-term service interruptions. Worse, they sometimes occur when I’m streaming one of the radio shows, which can create havoc as you might imagine. Well, that problem will no longer occur once we switch over GCN’s network facilities.

In the meantime, I have tried to find an alternative, which isn’t easy when you consider the fact that there’s not a whole lot of competition for speedy Internet service in most U.S. locales. Some of you are forced to put up with a single provider. Other than a smattering of slow-speed wireless alternatives — and satellite of course — the best I could find was Qwest High-Speed Internet, which is being widely advertised on banners that even display on my sites.

Their offer? Up to 40 megabits downloads, five megabits uploads, and pay just $19.99 for the first six months. Such a deal!

Understand that Cox Ultimate promises 55 megabits downloads, but that speed can only be confirmed via their own benchmarking site. Everyone else I’ve experimented with reports something in the mid-30s at best, but maybe it’s because of the impact of Cox’s use of the new DOCSIS 3.0 protocol, which sends the signal over multiple frequencies to boost speeds.

In any case, I decided to give Qwest a try.

Their solution uses something called ADSL, which simply means in the real world that upload and download speeds are different. Like cable, you have a modem or electronic interface to bring the signal to your computer or router. Although Qwest boasts about using fiber optic cable, that’s only partly true. The fiber is laid to the nearest connection room or terminal facility, and old fashioned copper phone wires are used to bring the signal to your home.

This setup is similar to that used by AT&T’s Uverse, which also provides cable TV as part of their offering. Qwest’s similar TV venture, Choice, was a non-starter, and they now offer DirecTV satellite packages to their customers.

In any case, the installation was completed as scheduled, a process that was confined to the connection interfaces outside of my home, located in an apartment complex. The tech said everything was “good to go,” so I hooked up the DSL modem and waited for the connection lights to flash green.

The Internet display remained amber, and so I called Qwest’s tech support, unfortunately outsourced using reps who are barely conversant in English. I discovered to my surprise that the DSL modem had actually never been configured for my account, so I had to log in to its Web interface to enter a special username and password for the connection to work. I wondered, in passing, why they just tossed the modem into a box and shipped it rather than configure it at the factory or shipping facility. The supplied instructions never hinted at this final connection step.

While I did receive a real connection soon thereafter, it was nothing like the 40/5 service promised. The measured performance by third-party Internet speed tests and the modem’s internal status display showed connection speeds closer to 12/1. That’s just above basic DSL, so I telephoned Qwest support for a fix.

They claimed there was a “server error” and promised a resolution that midnight. They even gave me a ticket number to follow the repair.

When service remained unchanged the following morning, I called them back, only to be told the ticket number did not reflect any fix or promise of a fix. Maybe they figured I wouldn’t actually make an effort to confirm the repair really happened.

This time, they promised to send a technician the following morning, a Saturday. When he arrived, he did some external measurements and said the best he could deliver to my home office was 34/3 or 20/5. Even though the signal to the terminal room was sufficient to deliver full speed, the apartment complex’s internal wiring, not managed by Qwest, simply wasn’t up to the task. He also maintained that he had repeatedly informed his superiors that Qwest shouldn’t be selling their top-tier service to anyone except those who reside in private homes, or in apartments where the wiring was installed and maintained by Qwest.

After I called to complain, I was promised a second look by another technician. This time, he actually swapped the pairs, the wires used to transport the signal from the terminal room, but said performance wouldn’t rise above the level achieved by his predecessor. He also agreed Qwest had no business selling this service to apartment dwellers, and that he had also informed his supervisors about the problem.

This meant, of course, that the “good to go” conclusion of the original installer was bogus. I was also skeptical of the possibility that, across a mere 50 foot phone cable run from the nearest connection pedestal outside my building, speed would drop over two-thirds. Curious indeed.

When I called Monday to cancel service, they claimed to have no record of the two service calls, but agreed to shut down the account and credit me for the money I paid upfront.

To add insult to injury, I received an online bill from Qwest not a week later where I was charged in full for the monthly fee, plus $5.00 for leasing the DSL modem. This despite the fact that the original order clearly specified a $9.99 fee as a “purchase,” and not a lease.

Qwest’s billing support denied such an offer existed, although the receipt I have indeed states, “Standard Modem – Purchase.”

In the interests of being fair about this disaster, I contacted Qwest’s PR people for some sorely needed answers. Their response is that they can only guarantee a claimed level of performance to the connection terminal, and not to one’s home unless they control the wiring. In other words, they are selling services that they may or may not be able to deliver.

When I asked for an actual field demonstration to prove they can really provide 40/5 service to the terminal room or intermediary connection pedestal, they declined for reasons of “security.”

Unfortunately, most customers probably don’t benchmark their Internet connection rates, and since Qwest has shown no indication of altering its broadband service promotion, all I can say is let the buyer beware. Or even better, if you have other options for fast Internet, use them instead.

As far as Cox is concerned, they claim to have isolated the cause of my intermittent connections. I suppose we’ll have to see how it all turns out.


The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis