Adventures in Escalation

A while back, I was given a hand-me-down iPad Mini as a thank-you gift for doing some pro-bono technical work for a cash-strapped professional colleague.

This iPad Mini has WiFi, GPS, and cellular capability. I’ve been a Bell Atlantic / Verizon customer for 27 years. However, I don’t own a cell phone, so I don’t have any cell phone service in my name. That meant I could only use the iPad’s wireless features when I was in range of a convenient WiFi base station. In particular, one needs cell service to use GPS so that street maps can be downloaded on demand.

While I don’t have a cell phone, my brother does, and it occurred to me it might be reasonable for him to add my iPad Mini to his existing Verizon cell phone account (just $10/mo) so that my device could be used in emergencies on the infrequent occasions when I’m away from home.

So my brother instructed his Verizon service rep to put my iPad device on his account. I sent along the requisite mobile device ID numbers and Verizon SIM card number.

But lo! The Verizon service rep said my iPad Mini couldn’t be entered into their system. Verizon was rejecting my device ID. But it wasn’t just my own device. The Verizon service rep said this had happened a number of times with other customers with similar Apple devices.

So I said I would research the issue to learn what was going on.

Thus begins my adventure.

Over the course of the past week, I’ve spent about five hours with no fewer than seven Verizon representatives in three states trying to diagnose the glitch, which seems to have pretty much everyone vexed, perplexed, aggravated, frustrated and mystified.

Initially we had at least three plausible hypotheses in the air, with none of them conclusively ruled out.

Christine Berberich, President New England Region Verizon Wireless

Last Tuesday, I spoke on the phone with three high-level executives at Verizon Wireless Regional Headquarters for New England. Christine Berberich, the President of the New England Region of Verizon Wireless assured me in no uncertain terms that she was committed to solving this problem. But I soon feared it would turn out to be a major undertaking involving the negotiation of inter-carrier inter-operation agreements between AT&T and Verizon.

Jane Kelley, Director of Sales New England Region Verizon Wireless

It seems there are subtle and obscure technical reasons why mobile devices like my iPad Mini may not be compatible with the cell tower equipment of all domestic carriers. According to Jane Kelley, Regional Director of Sales for Verizon Wireless, some Apple device models evidently have transceiver chips that only work with some carriers and not others. So an iPad Mini that was built with a transceiver chip for AT&T may not work compatibly with Verizon, and vice versa.

If that’s the problem, then the only realistic solution would be for AT&T and Verizon to negotiate an inter-carrier inter-operation agreement allowing devices to traverse a competitor’s network so that a customer can use a device that was originally built for a different carrier’s network. This is like praying for an Act of God.

We pray for Acts of God to reverse the hellish situations caused by the Other Guy. In this case the Other Guy is none other than the US Department of Justice.

Forty years ago, there was one high-functioning telephone network known as the Bell System, in which everything was carefully and conscientiously designed to work compatibly with everything else in the network. The Bell System was the highest functioning high-technology system ever conceived, designed, and engineered on the face of the planet.

As a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff in the Network Planning Division of AT&T Bell Labs, I took pride in my role of Systems Engineering to ensure that, as the network gracefully and systematically evolved with the measured introduction of new technology, everything continued to inter-operate flawlessly from end to end across the entire nationwide telecommunications network. That was the driving philosophy of Systems Engineering. In those days, it would have been an unforgivable blunder to introduce new technology into the network that did not inter-operate compatibly with the existing network infrastructure.

And then came the US Department of Justice who declared that a high-functioning, highly integrated communication system where everything worked compatibly with everything else was against the law! A high-functioning, highly integrated system, declared the DoJ, was an Illegal Monopoly. And they mandated the breakup of the Bell System, to be replaced by fierce competition between non-cooperating organizations who were sternly instructed not to collaborate or collude to preserve the legendary unity and functionality of the tightly-integrated Bell System.

So here we are today, with multiple incompatible technologies, such that Apple evidently had to build two versions of the iPad Mini, one that only talks to AT&T cell towers, and another that only talks to Verizon cell towers, each talking a different “language” on different frequency bands from the other.

Way to go, US DoJ, you fulfilled our dire prediction of 30 years ago that breaking up the Bell System was the dumbest idea the government ever came up with since Prohibition and before being trumped by the idiotic decision to invade Iraq in search of non-existent WMDs.

And the irony, of course, is that the US Government is itself a monopoly. But our bumbling government is not exactly a high-functioning monopoly like the Bell System. Nope. Our US Government is an idiotic dysfunctional monopoly that can’t seem to think its way clear to do much of anything right.

So what is Christine Berberich to do? Jane Kelley estimates it will take five years for Verizon and AT&T to successfully negotiate an inter-carrier inter-operation agreement so that any customer’s traffic can be transparently handled by any other carrier, with routine monthly “settlements” to balance the books (as had long been customary in traditional domestic telephone service).

And this will also take an Act of God because such an agreement between competing carriers would have to be approved by the US DoJ, the FCC, and the Department of Commerce. These Federal agencies will need Divine Guidance to see their way clear to undo the atrocious blunder the Federal government committed 35 years ago when they broke up the Bell System and created this problem-plagued situation, rife with competing carriers with mutually incompatible network architectures, frustrated customers, and vexed technical personnel who sincerely want to serve their customers and who have to routinely apologize that they are hamstrung by an obstacle-ridden network architecture that’s beyond their power to conscientiously engineer in a manner that serves the public interest, convenience, and necessity.

Barry Kort

(Retired) Distinguished Member of Technical Staff

Network Planning Division (1968–1987)

AT&T Bell Laboratories

Originally published at on March 13, 2015.

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