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Summary:

The sky is falling again in cellular land, and this time Siri is to blame. At least that’s the assessment form this opinion article in the Washington Post this morning claiming Siri’s piggy ways will destroy our cellular networks. But this assessment is wrong.

siri-is-great

The sky is falling again in cellular land, and this time Siri is to blame. At least, that’s the assessment from an opinion article in the Washington Post  Friday morning claiming Siri not only unleashed a huge new pattern of data consumption on mobiles, but that in return, her piggy ways destroy the experience for the rest of us because of the shared nature of cellular networks.

From the article:

And building new capacity isn’t cheap. Everyone — not just the first-class passengers — ends up paying for it. So prepare for higher cellphone bills. And in the meantime? Prepare to sit and wait. That call to Grandma might not get through until the congestion clears.

Other alternatives might be less palatable, especially to anyone who wants immediate downloading gratification. We could stay off the grid or utilize fewer data-intensive functions. Or we could put some traffic cops on the beat to regulate our data demands and limit the traffic snarls and bottlenecks.

But if you think Siri is somehow responsible for the data overload, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Siri is the first generation of interfaces that will make it seamless and easy for us to surf the web from anywhere, and on any device or vehicle. So the author’s problem is one that’s only going to get bigger. Thankfully, it has a solution — one which he seems to ignore.

Paul Farhi, the author of the piece, makes a couple of errors (or maybe omissions is kinder) that are worth pointing out to the policy wonks in D.C., especially as they contemplate bills that would gut the FCC’s ability to make spectrum policy in the U.S. for the sake politics. Onto the problems:

Siri as data hog

Siri, the natural language processing service Apple introduced on the iPhone 4S, doesn’t consume the data Farhi says it does in his article when he says, “Siri’s dirty little secret is that she’s a bandwidth guzzler, the digital equivalent of a 10-miles-per-gallon Hummer H1.” Siri consumes very little data in sending your voice back to the servers to figure out what you want the phone to do, but what it does is make it that much easier to surf the web. Farhi seems to understand this, but his first characterization is blatantly false. Siri isn’t guzzling data; she’s making it easier for us to do so. We’re the guzzlers.

The airwaves as highways

The second problem with the article is more complicated. Farhi uses the popular highways analogy for how we send cellular traffic and explains that building out more infrastructure takes time. (One reason is because it takes about 10 years on average to get spectrum into the hands of carriers thanks to the politics associated with spectrum auctions.) But what he misses, and what is crucial to his point, is that there is more than one set of wireless highways. There are multiple types of licensed airwaves that are used for everything from satellite radio to cellular, and there are unlicensed airwaves where data is currently sent using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and soon, WiGig.

When we’re talking over the air, there’s not one single highway to get us from Point A to Point B; there are multiple spectrum bands, technologies and costs associated with them. In this age, using wireless is like engaging in multimodal commuting. You use cellular to drive to the train station and the high-speed rails of Wi-Fi fly downtown. Meanwhile, you’re sharing those rails and highways with thousands of other commuters in neighboring airwaves that are the equivalent of bikers, skateboarders etc.

We can keep Siri and still call grandma. Here’s how:

That’s where Farhi missed a big opportunity to tell D.C. that instead of focusing on cars and the single highway, it should look around at all the other technologies out there. Stop listening to the carriers, who actually do have spectrum they can deploy if they want to work a little harder and spend a little more, and start thinking about how Wi-Fi or white spaces broadband (Super Wi-Fi) can play a role in taking congestion off over the air data networks.

Passing a spectrum bill that allows for more unlicensed airwaves would be a start, as would leaving the FCC to deal with the highly technical issues surrounding spectrum auctions. Pushing the FCC to investigate special access fees would also help, as it might lower the rate of bringing a fiber pipe out to areas so ISPs can support large-scale Wi-Fi or white spaces networks. But first, we have to understand how the wireless and cellular networks work, so we can propose viable solutions instead of blaming applications that make our lives better for congesting our network.

Since many of those solutions will require action (or inaction) from Congress and the FCC, the Washington Post missed a golden opportunity to educate its readers about possible solutions and push the debate forward with mobile operators about using Wi-Fi more strategically, making it possible for rural areas to use unlicensed airwaves to create broad coverage areas without paying an arm and leg for a gigabyte and helping Congress understand how the industry actually works.

  1. Daniel Sieradski Friday, January 27, 2012

    Here’s what I don’t get about Siri: Why did Apple kill of the basic voice recognition service that allowed you to dial contacts, check the time and change the song you’re listening to? Now you have to have a data connection just to voice-switch to Shuffle (which sucks for us subway commuters). Why not reduce Siri’s bandwidth load by leaving the most basic phone navigation commands on the phone instead of requiring everything to go to the cloud?

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    1. Agreed. They could and should do this. As a fellow subway commuter, where a lot of my down time is, Siri is pointless. Additionally, the delays for basic commands get longer and longer (esp. in lower Manhattan) that I don’t bother with it much. I do like that it exists and I look forward to Apple improving on it. But for now…. not so much.

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      1. I agree with the fact that simple Siri enabled phone functions should work without a data connection, but I will rip Siri (and the iPhone that surrounds it) out of your hands if you use it on the subway.

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    2. If you are off-line, or just don’t like Siri… then turn her off (in phone settings). Normal (offline) voice functions are still in iPhone 4s.

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      1. I think I’m misunderstanding…Does the iPhone 4s have or not have voice dial without Siri? I think that Siri would be a great tool, but I also don’t want to give up basic functionality to use it.

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  2. “But if you think Siri is somehow responsible for the data overload,” — you obviously haven’t seen Android Voice Actions, available back in mid-2010. I’ve been using voice to send texts, search the web and launch navigation for a year or more already. So why the worry now?

    Don’t interpret that statement as an Android fanboy trying to correct anybody–rather I’m just pointing out that voice as data and the concept of voice actions killing your neighbor’s cellular data connection is bunk.

    Granted, Siri is pretty slick and marketed to consumers rather than enthusiasts, so maybe it’s the growth of voice-as-input that is driving concern.

    Okay all that aside, it would be pretty awesome to see a new network operator rolling out Super Wi-Fi at the scale of mobile carriers, and offering a subscription (or ad-supported service) as an additive solution to tiered data from a mobile carrier.

    Other than AT&T’s touted 29k Wi-Fi hotspots, there’s not much in the way of a national Wi-Fi network. Your points are right on.

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    1. Voice Actions do not get voioce data sent back to the phone … they are not analogous. With Voice Actions, your voice is recognized on the phone and the instructions are executed on the phone. With Siri, voice data is transmitted, and the server recognizes it and then sends voice data back to the phone where the local Siri app sends that data to the phone’s speaker. This is fundamentally different to the Android approach, which does not rely on voice data being sent or received over the air. This article is similarly filled with technical assumptions based on uninformed observation without an understanding of the underlying tech.

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      1. Misleading answer there James. While the limited set of Actions handled by voice can (conditionally) get processed locally on an Android device, more functionality equivalent to Siri’s gets sent back to Google’s servers for processing in the same way. Submit any voice input search into either system, and there’s a round trip to the cloud and back.

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  3. Realistically, I can’t foresee anything getting better without standardization. Before worrying about unlicensed spectrum, The FCC needs to step up and force standards beginning with LTE. LTE phones should be interoperable across all standard LTE networks. LTE networks should be interoperable across any given frequency band. Then pick a standard for white space broadband and require all network build-outs to conform. The success of the US GPS system is due to the fact that all the GPS chips in all the smartphones and dedicated GPS units are built to a standard. A Verizon phone sees the same satellites in the same way as an AT&T or Sprint phone. The same should be the case with LTE and other new technologies. There will be winners and losers amongst the network hardware manufacturers and network carriers and innovation may be slowed (or, more likely, required to be backward compatible just as an HSPA 42+ T-Mobile phone works with HSPA 7.2 towers). But the winner will be the consumer.

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    1. Rurik Bradbury Friday, January 27, 2012

      Yep — while the US was in the dark ages with GSM/TDMA/iDen hotchpotches, Europe had a golden age with standardized GSM.

      It was only Apple making carriers less relevant that forced them to aggressively build out data pipes to compete. The FCC should do consumers a favor and push interoperability of LTE as far as possible.

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  4. Jared Parmenter Friday, January 27, 2012

    Thank you, Om. The WaPo piece was incredibly reactionary and misleading. As panic wells up, Om steps in to set the record straight.

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    1. Or, his friendly colleague, Stacey does :)

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    2. Rurik Bradbury Friday, January 27, 2012

      If only the people of Washington would read Stacey and Om as much as they read tech-illiterate WaPo journalists or tech-dissembling lobbyists in WaPo op-ed pieces… then DC might come with better policies instead of just protecting dinosaurs.

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      1. They protect dinosaurs because the dinosaurs lobby them for protection.

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  5. This siri as high consumption story bugs the hell out of me.

    The data consumed by the 4s has nothing to do with Siri and is not even dainty related.

    Think about this: every time I take an picture with an iCloud-enabled iPhone (which is a bit difficult to set up on phones, but is on by default on new ones), I upload a few megabytes of data. Take 10 photos? That’s 15+ megabytes.

    Now add iCloud music streaming – every time I click on a song that is in the cloud, I download a 4-8 mb file.

    That’s where the data is going. Please set the record straight!

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  6. Confusing cause and effect. Just because Nuance tells you it doesn’t send all that much data (without actually telling you how much) you take their word over an independent stuy that shows an increase and attribute it to Siri making web browsing easier! And then turn that around to it isn’t Siri’s fault – or users fault. The logical fallacies are mind boggling.

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    1. AlanL, For an independent study how about Ars’ look at Siri specifically. It came to the same conclusion. http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2011/11/how-data-heavy-is-siri-on-an-iphone-4s-ars-investigates.ars

      As for logical fallacies, I suppose this is a guns don’t kill people, people kill people argument in some ways. Siri, the service, doesn’t guzzle a lot of data. However it does make it much more pleasant for me to use the web and guzzle data on my own. However many factors including the increase in web page size, mobile apps themselves and even the way devices are designed now are increasing my tendency to use the web while mobile. So having Siri take all the blame is silly.

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    2. Rurik Bradbury Friday, January 27, 2012

      Even without a study like Ars that supports Stacey’s claim, common sense says that short bursts of talking via Siri take less bandwidth than hours of telephone yakking (BTW with LTE both voice and data travel as data packets).

      And when it comes to voice commands vs touch, using a video player app *without* voice control will suck up 100x more bandwidth than a web browser looking up a nearby sushi place *with* voice control. So Siri is a non-issue.

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      1. but the iPhone is not on LTE yet.

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  7. Wow Google more than doubled my age from 27 to 65!

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  8. In your effort to discredit the Post and pat Siri on the back, you either didn’t understand the article you quote or purposefully ignore it. The Post didn’t initiate the claim that Siri is a bandwidth hog … they link to the study done by Areiso that PROVES Siri is a bandwidth hog. And the Post didn’t miss opportunities to educate its readers about potential solutions … they mention a few but then go on to state, correctly, that ANY major change in the way spectrum is allocated or used will be extremely disruptive, and that there will be enormous battles about who is going to change their underlying framework, and foot the bill for same, in order to let the other guys continue as normal. Just because you have a couple of untested, undeveloped ideas of your own doesn’t mean this simple truth won’t arise.

    In fact, ANY online application that passes BINARY data will consume MORE bandwidth than ANY application that passes TEXTUAL data. Your complaints don’t make Siri’s voice consume any less bandwidth.

    Onward, fanbois. And remember, just because an argument sounds good in your head, or around an apple martini bar with your Apple-sporting buddies doesn’t mean it will resonate with potentially thoughtful readers.

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    1. Where in the Areiso study does it mention Siri? It mentions the iPhone 4S, not the apps that it uses.

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    2. Please direct me to any line in the Areiso press release that mentions Siri. I can’t find it.

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  9. How about looking at real data. Siri is using more bandwidth and has been show to suck up data. Sure iCloud does this as well, bit people don’t realize that playing around with siri is killing their data plans. As for and increase in usage because of siri, sure at first until the novelty wears off. After that it’s just the normal level of usage bit the increased consumption due to siri. Apple and the carriers are most likely in bed together on these new features as both make out in the end.

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  10. I’m sorry, but I must take issue with the notion of broadly expanding the use of unlicensed spectrum merely to accommodate users’ desires for ever-expanding bandwidth. The reality is that use of unlicensed spectrum ALWAYS has some type of collateral damage – some potentially catastrophic (e.g., unlicensed 900MHz meter reading inadvertently opens garage doors, and Murphy’s Law says it will be the one with the vintage Mercedes in it!); some not so much (e.g., lots of annoying cross-talk). Moreover, the FCC already has it’s hands full enforcing encroachments on licensed spectrum. The potential damages from substantial expansion –and the attendant irresponsible use — of unlicensed spectrum is a quagmire we don’t need to wade into just so that indiscriminate bandwidth hogs can become even more indiscriminate!

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