Team Telecom

30 August 2019


Telecom companies were all the rage last week in the United States. Unless you’ve been hiking the Appalachian trail, deep sea fishing in Australia, or floating in Fiji’s blue lagoon, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of the news lately. In case you do live a very exhilarating life, with no access to the internet, TV, or a newspaper (or maybe, you just simply missed this headline), let me walk you through what’s been going on. Last Thursday, 12 of the nation’s largest telecom companies joined forces with U.S. attorney generals from all 50 states (plus Washington D.C.) to take a stand against robocallers and telemarketers. Bravo!

So, who’s involved?

Basically, every phone company you’ve ever seen advertising on television. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Comcast, T-Mobile, and Charter Communications (Spectrum) are all teaming up. Plus, a few you may be less familiar with, including: CenturyLink, Frontier Communications Corporation, Bandwidth Inc., Consolidated Communications, U.S. Cellular, and Windstream Services. Since state attorney generals are responsible for the identification and prosecution of illegal and fraudulent robocallers, they were in attendance, as well. Oh, and of course, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the picture too. In June, the FCC even passed some new legislature, allowing companies to block robocalls by default, rather than making us pay extra for it. Thank you, FCC!

Wait, how bad is the problem actually?

Get ready for some shocking statistics. In just the last month, Americans received 4.7 billion spam and robocalls. Even worse, there have been over $285 million in year-to-date losses reported from these scams. That’s tragic. Meanwhile, according to Consumer Reports, 70% of people have just stopped answering the phone all together if they don’t recognize the number. This is rather unfortunate for businesses, like doctor’s offices, who rely on the phone for scheduling appointments. It’s either time to upgrade to a new, tech-savvy scheduling platform or figure out this phone issue. Luckily, there is a plan, so we don’t need to say goodbye to phone scheduling, just yet.

What’s the plan?

Together, team telecom plans to integrate call-blocking technology into existing network infrastructure, at no additional cost to all of us. It’s called STIR and SHAKEN. To me, it sounds like the settings on a blender, while many others are getting strong James Bond vibes from the name. I am not sure who developed the technology, but I think we have a James Bond or smoothie super fan on our hands. You’re probably wondering by now, what does it mean though? Solid question. It stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisted (STIR) and Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENS (SHAKEN). That’s a bit of a stretch of an acronym, but we will roll with it.

Let’s say, I make a phone call on my Sprint phone to my colleague who has AT&T. There are two providers involved in the phone call (Sprint and AT&T). In the STIR/SHAKEN method, both providers in a call are held responsible for preventing robocalls. When a call is made, the initial provider will authenticate the calling party and validate that they are authorized to use the number they are calling with. Then, the call is sent over to the terminating phone’s service provider where it is verified again. If the information from both parties matches, then the call will go through. If not, goodbye fake caller. If you are not happy with my surface level illustration of the STIR/SHAKEN method, check this out.  There will also be supplementary call blocking and labeling tools available to customers who want further protection.

Obviously, telecom companies should not be taking all the blame for the flood of robocalls in recent years. In case you forgot, there are scammers on the other end of the phone, using fake caller ID information and a number they don’t own to make thousands of calls at the same time. What a wholesome past time!

Now, this got me thinking. There must be other issues that telecom companies run into that don’t involve illegal activity and international scammers, right? Particularly, problems that affect the customer’s experience, like robocalls. With millions of customers at varying degrees of phone-attachment or addiction, telecom companies must be on top of digital, electrical, or mechanical issues before they reach the end user. Otherwise, they are in trouble, which leads me to my next question.

Do telecom companies run into any other problems?

Well, noise is a bit of a bully for telecom companies. Noise can come from both inside the cable (crosstalk) and outside the cable (induced). In general, from a telecom perspective, we are mostly concerned with noise that comes from outside the cables. Induced noise falls into two categories, as well – steady state noise and impulse noise. Steady state noise is continuous and at the same frequency, like a general and steady hum, whereas impulse noise is wild, spontaneous, and unpredictable. Impulse noise is randomly occurring, short bursts of sound.

Today’s cellular service uses data that’s digital. These data services are made of bits (plus and minus voltages) that can be easily affected by noise. For steady state noise, it’s no problem. Digital data services can handle it without affecting the customer. For impulse noise, it’s a different story. Random noise spikes of impulse noise can knock out data bits. If data bits are knocked out, the customer may experience not only a slowdown in service, but also pixilation, which is totally unacceptable. How are you supposed to binge-watch the latest season of your favorite Netflix series if there is pixilation? Nope, we just can’t have it.

Over the years, data rates have been getting faster and faster. As a customer, we love this, but from a noise perspective, it’s not the greatest. With faster data rates, the same length impulse noise spike will knock out more data bits than before. Even worse, better architecture and compression protocols now allow bits to carry even more information than previously thought possible. Sounds like a good thing, right? Wrong. The same length impulse is knocking out more data, in this respect too. It seems like the better telecom companies get, the more noise fights back. It’s a rough world out there for team telecom.  

Luckily, there’s an answer to this problem too. Unfortunately, the name is not as fun as STIR/SHAKEN, but important, nonetheless.

So, what is it?

Good grounding and bonding, of course.

Since impulse noise comes from outside of the cable, it’s always going to be a sign of bad grounding and bonding. If everything were bonded properly, the impulse noise would just go straight to the ground (via the cable’s shield), thus, not interrupting the transmitted signal.

As a telecom company, you are (hopefully) already ground testing. Clearly, you want to not only protect the people involved, but also the equipment, which makes ground testing an obvious choice for safety reasons. As issues with noise arise, though, the need for ground testing becomes even more clear, as we struggle to keep up with the demands for higher data rates. When customer satisfaction and company reputation are on the line, you start to sweat. Don’t worry though, with the proper considerations and preparedness, good grounding and bonding is on the horizon.

You’re probably wondering what those considerations are, right? How can you get a good ground? Well, that, my friend, is next week's blog topic. Stay tuned.

- Meredith Kenton, Digital Marketing Assistant, Megger Valley Forge