Архив метки: New York City

How backups, backups, backups protect NYC’s cellular infrastructure

The infrastructure that underpins our lives is not something we ever want to think about. Nothing good has come from suddenly needing to wonder “where does my water come from?” or “how does electricity connect into my home?” That pondering gets even more intense when we talk about cellular infrastructure, where a single dropped call or a choppy YouTube video can cause an expletive-laden tirade.
Recently, I visited Verizon’s cellular switch for the New York City metro area (disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Oath, and Oath is part of Verizon). It’s a completely nondescript building in a nondescript suburb north of the city, so nondescript that it took Verizon’s representative about 15 minutes of circling around just to find it (frankly, the best security through obscurity I have seen in some time).
This switch, along with its sister, powers all cellular service in New York City, including three million voice or voice over LTE (VoLTE) calls and 708 million data connections a day. High-reliability and redundancy is a must for the facility, where dropping even one in 100,000 connections would create more than 7,000 angry customers a day. As Christine Williams, the senior operations manager who oversees the facility, explained, “It doesn’t matter what percentage of dropped calls you have if you are that person.”
As we walked through the server rows that processed those hundreds of millions of connections, I was surprised by just how little digital equipment was actually in the switch itself. “Software-defined networking” has taken full hold here, according to Michele White, who is Verizon’s Executive Director for Network Assurance in the U.S. northeast. As the team has replaced older equipment, the actual physical footprint has continued to downsize, even today. All of New York City’s traffic is run from a handful of feet of server racks.
The key to network assurance is two-fold. First is multiple levels of redundancy at every level of the infrastructure. Inside the switch, independent server racks can take over from other servers that fail, providing redundancy at the machine level. If the air conditioning — which is critical for machine performance — were to fail, mobile AC units can be deployed to pick up the burden.
All equipment in the building is serviced by DC power, and in the event of an external power loss, two diesel generators connected to a large fuel storage tank will take over. The facility is also equipped with battery backups that can sustain the facility for eight hours if the generators themselves don’t function appropriately.
Diesel generators can sustain power to the switch in the event of an external power outage
At a higher level, the switch and its sister share all New York City cellular traffic, but either one could handle the full load if necessary. In short, the goal of the switch’s design is to ensure that that no matter how small or large a problem it might experience, there is an instant backup ready to go to keep those cellular connections alive.
The other half of network assurance is centralization, something that I was surprised to hear in this supposed era of decentralization. Cellular sites in an urban area like New York are often placed on buildings, as anyone looking at roof lines can see from the street. Given those locations, it can be hard to provide backup generators and other failover infrastructure, and servicing them can also be challenging. With centralization, increasingly only the antenna is located at the site, with almost all other operations handled in central control offices and switches where Verizon has greater control of the environment.
Even with intense focus on redundancy, natural disasters can overwhelm even the best laid plans. The telecom company has an additional layer of redundancy with its mobile units, which are placed in a “barnyard” owing to the names of the equipment stored there. There are GOATs (generator on a truck), and COWs (cell on wheels), and BATs (bi-directional amplifier on a truck). These units get deployed to areas of the network that either are experiencing unusually strong demand (think the U.S. Open or a presidential inauguration) or where a natural disaster has stuck (like Hurricane Harvey).
A barnyard filled with animal-named mobile cell infrastructure, including COWs, COLTs, HORSEs, and others
That said, both White and Williams noted that mobile cell deployment is much rarer than people would guess. One reason is that cell sites are increasingly being installed with Remote Electrical Tilt, which allows nearby cell sites to adjust their antennas so as to provide some signal to an area formerly covered by an out-of-commission cell. That process I was told is increasingly automated, allowing the network to essentially self-heal itself in emergencies.
The other reason their deployment is rare is that network assurance already has to handle a remarkable amount of surging traffic throughout the normal ebb and flow of a dense urban city. “Rush hour in Times Square is pretty heavy,” noted Williams. Even something as heavy as a parade through Midtown Manhattan won’t typically exceed the network’s surge capacity.
One other redundancy that Verizon has been exploring is using drones to provide more adaptive coverage. The company has been testing “femto-cell” drone aircraft designed by American Aerospace Technologies that can provide one square mile of coverage for about sixteen hours. A drone capability could be particularly useful in cases like hurricanes, where roads are often littered with debris, making it hard for network engineers to deploy ground-based mobile cells.
I asked about 5G, which I have been covering more heavily this year as telecom deployments pick up. Given the current design of 5G, White and Williams didn’t expect too much change to happen at the switch level, where most of the core technology was likely to remain unchanged.
The trend that is changing things though is edge computing, which is in vogue due to the need for computing to be located closer to users to power applications like virtual reality and autonomous cars. That’s critical, because 50 milliseconds of extra latency could be the difference between an autonomous car hitting another vehicle or a new support pylon and swerving out of the way just in time.
Edge computing in many ways is decentralizing, and therefore there is a tension with the increasingly centralized nature of mobile communications infrastructure. Switches like this one are getting outfitted with edge technology, and more installations are expected in the coming years. 5G and edge are also deeply connected at the antenna level, and that will likely affect cell deployments far more than the switch infrastructure itself.
Edge, internet of things, 5G — all will increase the quantity and scale of the connections flowing through these networks. In the future, a cellular outage may not just inconvenience that YouTube user, but could also prevent an automobile from successfully navigating to a hospital during a natural disaster. It takes backups, backups, and backups to prevent us from ever having to ask, “where does that signal come from?”

How backups, backups, backups protect NYC’s cellular infrastructure

Facebook drops fee on donations, will match $50M/year, adds Mentor feature

 Facebook has always been about friends, but now it’s seeking a broader purpose. So today, Facebook is lending a hand with what it does best: social connections, APIs, and money. At its second Facebook Social Good Forum conference in New York City, the social network just unveiled a slew of new philanthropy-minded features and initiatives. “For all the things that might try to… Read More

Facebook drops fee on donations, will match $50M/year, adds Mentor feature

Read Offline: News.me Automatically Downloads Your News Whenever You Leave Home

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News.me, the newsreader app hatched in The New York Times’ R&D lab and incubated at betaworks, today added a nifty feature to its new iPhone app, which gives readers instant access to their news offline — whenever they leave the house. The new feature, called Paper Boy, allows users to set their home location using their iPhone’s GPS, and thereafter, every time they leave their digs with phone in tow, News.me automatically downloads their social news in the background so that it’s ready to read offline as they go about their day.

For anyone who uses public transit to get to work and is as as a result without WiFi, PaperBoy’s value proposition should be immediately apparent. While there are hundreds of ways to check news sources, many of them only offer their content when connected to the Web. News.me General Manager Jake Levine tells us that, since News.me is located in New York City, the team often uses the city’s subway system to get around, but found themselves without anything to read while in transit.

Paper Boy was designed to eliminate this pain point, and provide subway, bus, and train commuters instant access to their news while on-the-go. Outside of Newsstand apps, Levine says that News.me is the first app to offer this functionality — to support background downloading of news content whenever readers leave their home addresses.

In the beginning, News.me’s social newsreading experience was iPad-only, offering readers an aggregated list of news stories drawn from Facebook and Twitter, curated based on signals from Twitter and bit.ly, viewable in the context of the original tweet or Facebook comment. The startup also offers a Summify-like email digest of news culled from users’ Twitter streams, which picked up quite a few users in the wake of Summify’s acquisition.

News.me’s email digest turned out to be much more in demand than its iPad app, so, in March, News.me launched a new iPhone app that completely rebuilt the app’s mobile experience from the ground up. As Anthony pointed out at launch, the real goal of re-imagining the app was to bring News.me into the realm of a news-based social network.

Leading with a feature called “Reactions,” readers now have the ability to post responses to the stories they find in their streams, with the added benefit of being able to follow other users and comment on their friends’ shared stories. The app offers five pre-written responses — “Ha!”, “Wow”, “Awesome”, “Sad”, and “Really?” — that enable them to respond to news automatically, without having to spend time creating a paragraph-long response.

The startup’s iPhone app is designed to let users share and respond to shared news quickly, while giving them a smaller microcosmic social network in which they can share their thoughts without having to post to their Facebook walls or Twitter streams. It’s an approach to news sharing that puts News.me in competition with Flud, which made a similar play into social newsreading back in December.

Without a doubt, there’s way too much noise on the Web when it comes to news shared across our social networks, and News.me has developed a fairly useful tool for channeling that noise into a signal of top news from our most-used social networks, that is pre-filtered and easy to consume. And since so many of us love to consume news while on the go — when we’re not in the driver’s seat — Paper Boy is a smart, easy way to quench our thirst for news when we lose access to WiFi. (To find it, just head to “Settings”.)

You can find News.me available for download in the App Store here.

Read Offline: News.me Automatically Downloads Your News Whenever You Leave Home

TokBox SDK Brings Video Chat To iOS Apps

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Just over a year ago, video chat startup TokBox shuttered its consumer application and began focusing exclusively on its platform strategy — using its technology to enable video chat on other websites. Today, it’s expanding that effort into mobile.

Specifically, TokBox is announcing a software development kit allowing iOS developers to add face-to-face video chat to their apps. There are other video chat apps, of course, such as Skype and Apple’s FaceTime. But the point here is to incorporate these features into broad swath of apps. CEO Ian Small says that rather than building their own video chat technology, developers can now add TokBox’s in the space of “a weekend hackathon.”

The company has been testing the SDK with more than 20 developers. small estimates that 70 percent of them are adding TokBox features to existing apps, while 30 percent of them are launching new apps where video chat is integral. There has been interest from people making everything from dating apps to games to medical services, Small says. TokBox has also released its own iOS app, TokShow, where brands and celebrities can host video chats.

For now, TokBox’s video chat features are only available on WiFi, but Small says the company already has tests running on 3G and 4G networks, and that it should be adding those capabilities in the next few months. The SDK is part of the company’s existing pricing model — the basic plan is free, then you pay for features like archiving, large-scale calls, and a service agreement with TokBox.

Stepping back from mobile, Small says that 40,000 websites and partners have used TokBox’s platform, and that he’s particularly excited to be signing up partners like American Idol and Universal Music.

“The demand for integrating face-to-face video into an online digital experience isn’t just something that cool people in the Bay or in New York City are interested in,” he says. “It’s starting to penetrate everyday applications.”

TokBox SDK Brings Video Chat To iOS Apps