Tales of the Sausage Factory

Brief Update on Wireless Microphones: Where Mike Marcus and I Disagree

As Mike Marcus pointed out in the comments on my previous wireless microphone piece and on his blog, he and I disagree on the advisability of allowing prisons to jam cell phone communication.

Let me begin by saying that Mike has both tremendous engineering chops as well as a thorough understanding of the FCC and the politics therein. He worked there for some ungodly amount of time in the Office of Engineering and Technology, and was a critical force in pushing the 1989 rule changes to Part 15 that made the unlicensed revolution possible. His comments are not to be taken lightly here.

Where Mike and I disagree is not so much on the primary data but on how much weight to assign things. This is not uncommon in the messy world of policy, and is why even people generally aligned with one another can disagree strongly on important matters of policy (and why I hate the tendency for people to start calling each other nasty personal names over such disagreements). That’s why it’s important to see where and how we disagree.

In addition to his blog post, Mike also consulted for the state correction facilities on their Petition for Rulemaking (“Prison jamming Petition” or “PJP”). Read through that and his blog post and we come up with the following:

1) We both agree this is a hard engineering problem. Whereas I am more skeptical (based on the folks I’ve talked to) that this can be done in a way that is effective, affordable, and without interference, Mike thinks it is possible for some prison environments. I stress this last because, as the PJP points out, even the most optimistic projection for the current level of technology makes it doubtful this will work in detention facilities in high-density population areas.

2) Which brings us to major point of disagreement #2, how much will this really help and is the trade off worth the risk. Mike readily acknowledges that this is no “magic bullet” that would solve the security problems. The question is whether it does enough to be worth taking the risk of interference and the risk that jammers will proliferate. I think no, Mike thinks yes. Part of the reason I think this is a bad idea is because my experience with bright line rules tells me that where you have so many people interested in cell phone jamming it is inevitable that whatever protections are put in place will be whittled away over time. In addition, in a messy field like engineering, we disagree a lot about how easy/hard it would be to neutralize jamming, a critical question on the cost/benefit analysis.

3) Finally, we both agree that the wireless industry needs to step up to the plate and work with detention authorities to make solutions other than jamming affordable for for prisons, and that the FCC needs to address the problem of charges for prison calls made under proper supervision.

I expect Mike’s well reasoned and narrow disagreement will be manipulated by those who want to exploit this for their own profit (yes, I’m looking at you CellAntenna). That’s unfortunate. I hope that the wireless industry and correction facilities can work together to develop real solutions to the problem of contraband cell phone use before Congress pushes through legislation that would do more for CellAntenna’s bottom line than it would for prison security.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Last Day of (Full Power) Analog TV And Our Post Transition To Do List.

Well, here it is at last. Finally, more than 13 years after the 1996 Act created a scheme to transfer us to digital television by giving all existing broadcasters $70 billion (at the time) in new spectrum rights, the great day of reckoning is here.

Give the FCC and NTIA, especially mid-season replacements Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps and Acting NTIA Administrator Anna Gomez, massive applause for seeing this through to the end. You guys rock! As one of your 300 Million taxpayer bosses, I’m telling you to sleep in tomorrow. Oh yeah, it’s Saturday.

Once you’re back on Monday, however, and assuming the world as we know it did not end, we have a few items left on the clean up list: Wireless Microphones, LPTV, the UHF Discount for Ownership, and Public Interest Obligations.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Libby Beaty, Executive Director of NATOA. A tireless advocate for the importance of local government and its power to protect consumer interests. Today, Libby tragically lost her battle with lung cancer. She will be sorely missed.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Broadcasters and Broadway Challenge White Spaces Order, Standing Hijinks To Ensue.

Unsurprisingly, the NAB and MSTV have filed a Petition for Review with the D.C. Circuit to try to get last November’s Order permitting unlicensed use of the white spaces overruled. As is the norm, the Petition merely recites the basics of jurisdiction and the general allegation that the Order is “arbitrary, capricious and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

Of perhaps greater interest, Broadcasting and Cable reports that a coalition of Broadway groups is filing in the Second Circuit.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Shure Makes Clever Defensive Gambit Against CTIA/Public Safety in 700 MHz Tussle — $1000 Rebate.

In an interesting new development in the wireless microphone saga, Shure is now offering a $1000 rebate on a replacement wireless microphone for anyone who trades in a wireless microphone that operates on the 700 MHz frequencies, provided the purchaser bought the microphone before February 2007. I’m not sure why the magic cut off date, and Shure does not explain.

Shure does, OTOH, offer an explanation for why it will make this generous offer — albeit an incomplete one:

“Our number one priority is to provide our customers with the highest quality products, service, and support,” said Al Hershner, Vice President and General Manager of the Shure U.S Business Unit. “We’ve known for some time that the ‘700 MHz band’ would be reallocated for new services following the DTV transition on February 18, 2009. Although a final decision from the FCC is still pending, we felt the need to assure our customers now that we will take care of them regardless of the outcome.”

Shure does not mention, of course, that the most likely outcome involves outlawing all use of wireless microphones in the 700 MHz, and a reasonable probability that Shure (and other manufacturers) will be required to replace the equipment for free. But that doesn’t mean Shure will miss an opportunity to spin its customers and recruit their support at the FCC explain to interested customers the ongoing FCC legal proceeding:

“There has been a great deal of confusion for wireless microphone users regarding the political and technological developments surrounding the DTV transition and the 700 MHz auction over the past few years,” added Hershner. “As always, Shure has a team of sales, customer service, and technical support staff available to answer any questions people might have about this rebate program or their products.”

Hmmm….could this have something to do with the recent push by the incoming public safety and commercial 700 MHz licensees to take this seriously so it won’t mess up deployment? Could Shure be trying to fob off the FCC with a fake remedial action while boosting its own sales and recruiting its customers for a massive push against the wireless guys and public safety? Or is that just my nasty and suspicious nature rejecting the idea that Shure is deeply — deeply I say — concerned about its customers (which it assures the FCC are only retailers and not members of the public ineligible for licenses to operate such systems) and I should be ashamed of myself for questioning this noble voluntary remediation by an upstanding corporate citizen that just happened to build its business on wholesale violation of federal law?

I explore the possibilities below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Industry Flips Off FCC, Fines To Follow? Expect Other Industries to Tell FCC To [Fleeting Expletive] Off Too.

I clearly missed a class in law school. Not once in my Administrative Law class did my professor ever tell me that you could respond to a federal investigation by telling the agency “We know you have authority, but we’d rather not answer these questions because you are a great big meany.” But then, I’m not working for the cable industry, which has repeatedly shown it has trouble with the concept that federal law really applies to them and that the FCC is supposed to be a regulator not a lap dog.

Today’s episode of “I Can’t Believe The Chutzpah” comes from the ongoing investigation by the FCC over whether cable operators are using the confusion around the DTV conversion to push users into buying digital tier service, and rent new digital set-top boxes in violation of the rules on set-top box interoperability, or just generally violating the law by changing channel line ups without notice to either subscribers or local franchise authorities, migrating stuff off basic tier without warning, or charging for additional tiers to get channels required by law to be available on the basic tier. Mind, I’d also like them to explicitly ask whether the cable guys are unfairly migrating unaffiliated channels to digital in violation of Section 616, but that’s just me.

Anyway, after getting a bunch of consumer complaints and reading Consumers Union’s letter to Congress (or at least hearing about it on NPR), the FCC sent out a bunch of letters of inquiry to the named cable companies and Verizon asking them to provide a boatload of information which would allow the FCC to determine if the consumer complaints were, ya know, true. Given that this is lots of people being potentially ripped off big time, the agency told the everyone that got a letter they had two weeks to reply.

Mind you, this is hardly an original process or unique to the cable industry. I should know. The FCC did the same thing in response to my complaint about the wireless microphone guys back in August. The FCC (also under Martin I should add) acted with similar swiftness and intensity back in 2006, when Verizon and BellSouth tried to keep charging USF fees on DSL after they were phased out. The phone companies, apparently under the same misconception that I was that even if you are a big company you actually have to obey the law, backed off. The cable companies have other ideas. And, if they get away with it, I’m sure the Bells, broadcasters, and every one else will follow suit.

So yesterday, NCTA,the trade industry for the cable guys, sent a lengthy letter to the FCC explaining that the FCC is not allowed to investigate the cable industry. They recommend that the FCC rescind the letters of investigation and, instead of having the Enforcement Bureau actually act on consumer complaints, the FCC should hold a nice, quiet Notice of Inquiry instead. Then, if Martin gets all the other Commissioners to agree, and the FCC asks nicely and without any legal compulsion to answer honestly or completely, cable operators might consider responding.

Now I just know, KNOW that there are people out there who hate Kevin Martin so much that they will decide that it is really O.K. for cable to tell the FCC to “fleeting expletive off and die,” because it is the poor helpless widdle cable guys and the evil Kevin Martin (I cannot help but observe that Verizon does not seem to have any problems complying with this request, but of course they are an evil minion of Kevin Martin, or the other way around. Besides, Kevin Martin hates the cable industry, so there!)

As what is often called a “consumer advocate,” I’m a little alarmed that we will now have a new doctrine that says “consumers can complain, but the FCC can’t protect them if we think the FCC Chair might enjoy it.” And while I would flippin’ think that the idea that the cable companies need to obey the law like everyone else would be bloody self-evident, not to mention that the consequences of letting industry dictate to the federal watchdog agency what it will and won’t respect on enforcement go well beyond the poor picked on widdle cable guys to whatever industry you don’t like (in my case, wireless microphone manufacturers — I can hardly wait for Shure to refuse to cooperate with the FCC next), I long ago learned that even bloody obvious things need explaining when it comes to the cable industry and their rabid defenders.

So I address the actual legal issues below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

White Spaces Wrap Up: Exclusive Licensing, Or The Part 101 Poison Pill

As we enter the last 24 hours before the critical and transformative November 4 vote (no, not this one, the FCC vote!), a last battleground has emerged. While the broadcasters and wireless microphone guys have generally not generated any traction, a final possible hitch has shown up on the question of higher power for rural providers. While I applaud the sentiment, this has become the last ditch effort to sneak a “poison pill” into the Order by keeping alive the hope/fear of exclusive licensing in the band.

As I have long warned, the potential last-minute threat to unlicensed in the band would not come from broadcasters, whose interference claims have been discredited and who have stooped to rather ridiculous smear tactics, or even from wireless microphone manufacturers and their vast horde of politically powerful pirate users. No, I have always believed that at the last minute, the real flank attack against the public interest would come from the licensed wireless guys pushing for licensed backhaul.

Which is why I am unsurprised to find the last potential stumbling block toward the finish line, after five years of unprecedented testing and investment, comes from a push for some kind of exclusive licensing scheme, either as an immediate set aside in the existing order or as part of a further proceeding.

I call this the “Part 101 Poison Pill.” Part 101 of the FCC’s rules governs high-power point-to-point transmission links of the sort used by telecommunications companies for transmitting significant distances. Part 101 is different from cellular licensing, in that it can accommodate multiple users on a “first in time, first in right” basis. Whoever comes in later must protect everyone who comes in earlier, which essentially makes it a very high-cost game of “king of the mountain.”

What makes exclusive licensing, even the relatively more open licensing such as Part 101, such a poison pill for unlicensed?

See below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

NAB/MSTV Embrace Radio Pirates, Make Up Engineering Data, And Do Whatever Else It Takes To Kill White Space Devices.

I gotta admire the broadcasters (as represented by their trade orgs, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV)). Even with the facts completely against them, they never give up trying. Sadly, they all too often succeed through a combination of heavy duty lobbying power (what politician doesn’t suck up to his or her local broadcaster?) and the fact that most decision makers don’t know squat about engineering and regard the whole thing as black magic. Heck, it worked to hamstring low-power FM (LPFM) radio, despite a subsequent independent government report showing the broadcaster interference claims were unsubstantiated bologna.

But embracing radio pirates by proposing to expand the availability of wireless microphones in the broadcast white spaces for their political allies and tacitly agreeing to amnesty for illegal wireless microphone users? Even I never thought they would go that far.

So let me get this straight, NAB, a million unauthorized mobile wireless microphone users operating “dumb” transmitters at higher power don’t cause interference. But smart devices, identical to those relied upon by the U.S. military to share frequencies with unlicensed devices, operating at much lower power and required to use a geolocational database, do cause interference? Wow, that makes so much sense. I can see why NAB and MSTV did not include any actual engineering analysis with their comments.

Personally, I think that if spectrum sensing and “smart radio” is good enough to protect the lives of American soldiers, we can trust it to protect viewers of American Idol. But I do not expect the broadcasters to let a piddly little thing like reality stop them — especially when using false interference claims and blatantly bogus evidence made it possible to clip the wings of the fledging low-power FM (LPFM) radio service back in 2000 (more details on the Prometheus Radio website LPFM fact sheet).

Still, I never thought I would actually lie to see the day the NAB would embrace unauthorized users, utterly reverse everything it ever said about the need to restrict access to the broadcast bands, and walk away from the more than 1 million unauthorized users in the band. Mind, you’d think that after a five year proceeding marked by such shenanigans as giving themselves free air time to push bogus interference concerns onto the public, adorable made up videos that purport to be real like Your Neighbor’s Static (aka “white spaces Reefer Madness), and the ”experiment we refuse to explain so you can’t check the results,“ the NAB would have already shot its credibility beyond all hope of recovery. But since no one not obsessed with this proceeding pays much attention to it, the NAB and friends gets to rerun the same bogus claims over and over and over again.

On the plus side, I hope my friends at Prometheus Radio are taking notes for when they make another run at Congress next year (or even this year in a lame duck session) to get the Local Community Broadcasters Act passed and get the shackles based on the broadcasters’ bogus ”interference concerns” lifted. After all, if the NAB doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about interference from unauthorized users anymore and is willing to embrace unauthorized operators, Congress should take them at their word.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Will The FCC Create An ICANN for White Spaces?

Mind you, I am generally pleased with the announcement by FCC Chair Kevin Martin that the exhaustive study of possible white spaces devices by the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) proves that the FCC can go to the next step and authorize both fixed and mobile unlicensed devices. I shall, God and the Jewish holiday schedule permitting, eventually have more to say on the subject. But I can’t help but focus on one aspect of Martin’s generally outlined proposed rules that raises questions for me.

See, I spent a lot of time back in the day working on domain name policy with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN derives its authority through control of the authoritative list of top-level domain servers (“the root zone file”). Or, put another way, the entire structure of ICANN, which now has a budget in the tens of millions and an entire cottage industry that surrounds it, is based on the fact that ICANN controls access to a list that you must have in order to get internet access.

So I’m very curious about who will control the database that will work to supplement sensing as a way to protect over-the-air broadcasting and operation of (legal?) wireless microphones. If the FCC administers this database, and makes it freely available online, then things will work fine. The FCC is already supposed to maintain such a database, because it supposedly keeps track of every license and licensees have a responsibility to keep their license information current. In practical terms, it would cost some money and effort to upgrade the existing database to something easily accessed and updated on a dynamic basis, because the FCC has let this lapse rather badly. (Not their fault, really. No one likes to pay for “back office” or “infrastructure” and it has never really risen to anyone’s priority level.) OTOH, it means that actually upgrading the FCC’s existing database, and giving broadcasters and wireless microphone licensees incentive to keep their information current, will yield benefits beyond making geo-location possible.

OTOH, if the FCC outsources this function, it will be an invitation to disaster. A database manager –particularly an unregulated one — will have every incentive to charge for access to the database. While I don’t expect anything on the scale of ICANN, the possibility for real bad results goes up exponentially if no one pays attention to this kind of detail. Will the database manager get exclusive control? Will the database manager be able to set its own fees for access to the database? How will the database manager be held accountable to the broader community? These are questions that need to be answered — either in the Report and Order or in a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

My great fear is that the FCC will treat this as the equivalent of a frequency coordination committee. But it isn’t anything like a frequency coordination committee, since the whole point (from my perspective) is to open up access for everyone and not just for a handful of industry folks who can work the process and pay the fees. Worse, if the FCC delegates this to the broadcasters themselves, it will create an incredible opportunity to hamstring the process at the critical access point.

On the plus side, perhaps we can get Susan Crawford to go from an ICANN Director to an FCC Commissioner.

Stay tuned . . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The FCC Starts Its Wireless Microphone Investigation. Will Broadcasters Throw Broadway Under A Bus?

The FCC has just released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing the problem of wireless microphone operations in the 700 MHz Band and how it may screw up the introduction of new public safety and commercial wireless services. It basically proposes to adopt the recommendations we made to prohibit any future manufacture, sale or importation of wireless microphones that operate on the relevant 700 MHz frequencies, and prohibit operation on those bands after the DTV transition in February.

Along the way, the Commission asks for comment on our informal complaint and Petition for Rulemaking. Oh yes, and the NPRM also announced that the Enforcement Bureau has commenced an investigation into the wireless microphone manufacturers and their sales tactics.

I wish I could take all the credit for this one, but I really gotta hand it to Shure. I’m not saying that Shure’s insistence on dragging FCC engineers out to field testing so they could see first hand the blatant way in which Shure and others violate FCC rules, getting all their illegal customers to right into the FCC by the thousands and regale the FCC with tales of unauthorized use all over the country, and generally rubbing the FCC’s nose in the fact that Shure and the rest of the industry were engaged in widescale violation of the rules over and over and OVER again necessarily had anything to do with this. I will merely note that it is a happy coincidence of timing that the FCC commenced its investigation the Friday following the field testing, and immediately thereafter put our Petition out for comment attached to an item already in the works. No, it is no doubt my good looks and charm once again bending the FCC to my will.

To the extent the industry press has picked up on this, it has (surprise!) assigned credit for this to the great Google Overlords. Mind you, the same article also thinks that wireless microphones “produced little or no complaints because their signals have traditionally been programmed to avoid TV channels,” so this will tell you something about the accuracy of their analysis. (For those wondering, wireless microphones are dumb devices and the user selects the channel. It has no sensing equipment or database or any of the interference avoidance tech proposed for white space devices.)

I would also say that much as I would love to see this as a sign that the FCC supports opening up the white spaces for unlicensed use, I don’t. The NPRM is very carefully neutral on the subject, without any statements from Commissioners one way or another, and voted on circulation (meaning it is non-controversial). No, I think the Register pretty much got it right when they described this as “having sold off 700MHz to the highest bidders last year, the FCC now has a responsibility to clear the area before the new tenants move in.” The ball on white spaces, whether licensed, unlicensed, or not used at all is still very much up in the air.

Mind you, this certainly impacts the debate over the white spaces, and potentially removes a stumbling block by providing a road map on how to address the wireless microphone issue in a way that punishes spectrum scofflaws like Shure while protecting users like churches deceived by Shure’s sales tactics (and give parties an incentive to come to the table and do a deal over real interference concerns before the FCC bites their patooties off). And I think it is fair to say that we did help move the debate forward by providing the FCC with the pathway to making this possible. But I would say that all the Commissioners are still waiting for the field testing results to come in before making a final decision on the merits.

What is really critical here for the white spaces proceeding is that the broadcasters now have to make a very unpleasant choice. Do they embrace the radio pirates and forgive Shure for unleashing a million illegal transmitters all over “their” spectrum? Or do they stick to their usual guns and condemn any unauthorized use of the broadcast bands as unmitigated evil and warn that sanctioning a million new authorized users — with new General Wireless Microphone Users added every day — could utterly destroy broadcast television as we know it? Either way presents problems for broadcasters — with the added bonus of highlighting their blatant hypocrisy. Embracing the likes of Shure and unauthorized users undercuts all the hysteria broadcasters have so carefully cultivated, especially when they have always maintained that opening this spectrum to anyone new would destroy free over the air television. OTOH, siding with the FCC on enforcement against Shure and warning the FCC not to allow millions of transmitters operating at higher power and with fewer protections in the white spaces destroys their ability to use Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry, and all those megachurches as human shields.

Needless to say, the broadcasters have desperately sought to avoid saying anything on the subject and have tried to spin this to their advantage: “Gosh, moving wireless microphones off Channels 52-69 will sure make it harder to fit in all them white spaces devices,” claims David Donovan of the Association for Maximum Service Television, a trade association for TV broadcasters that has fought against any sharing of the white spaces.

The problem with this statement is that, according to the FCC, there are only 156 licensed wireless microphones authorized to operate on Channels 52-69. That’s not a heck of a lot of crowding. Unless, of course, MSTV plans to support our Petition for Rulemaking and support creation of a General Wireless Microphone Service licensed by rule and open to the general public.

Mind you I expect that MSTV, like the McCain campaign, will continue to get a free ride on this from an obsequious broadcast trade press and a tech press that cannot get past the Great Google Overlords. But they are going to have to file comments on this at some point. And I imagine that, as they come in to lobby against white spaces, the good folks at the Commission will want their opinion on this separate but related matter. I’ll certainly be interested in rading those Ex Partes.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

White Spaces Update — Field Testing Can Be Soooo Educational. You Always Find Something You Don’t Expect.

As folks may recall, the primary opponents of opening the broadcast white spaces for use, the broadcasters and the wireless microphone manufacturers — notably our good friend and radio pirate Shure, Inc. (official slogan:“We get to break the law ’cause we sound so good”) — insisted that the FCC conduct field tests on the white spaces prototypes. Of course, because these are concept prototypes and not functioning devices certified to some actual standard, everyone knew this would leave lots of leeway for the broadcasters and the wireless microphone folks to declare the “tests” a “failure” regardless of the actual results. Which, of course, they did. Needless to say, Phillips (which makes one of the prototypes) said the opposite, and it all depends on whether you mean “the device functioned perfectly as if there were actually some standards for building a functioning device” or “the device proved it could detect occupied channels at whatever sensitivity the FCC decides is necessary.” The FCC engineers, wisely, made no comment and went back to their labs to analyze the actual data.

But one of the nice things about field testing is that you learn the most amazing things that you can never learn in a lab, as demonstrated by this ex parte filed by Ed Thomas for the White Spaces Coalition, the industry group that backs opening the white spaces. Apparently, in front of eye witnesses (including the FCC’s engineers), both broadcasters and unauthorized wireless microphone users in the Broadway field test operated wireless microphones on active television channels, at power levels well above what white spaces advocates propose for mobile devices. All apparently without interfering with anybody’s television reception or even — in the case of the unauthorized Broadway users — screwing up the hundreds of other illegal wireless microphones in the neighboring theaters.

A few rather important take aways here: (1) the danger of interference claims by broadcasters and Shure are utterly bogus, as the wireless microphones do not screw up either television reception or each other; (b) the broadcasters and Shure know their interference claims are bogus. If they actually cared on iota about possible interference, they would not casually operate high power wireless microphones on the same channel as active television broadcasts and as each other. Instead, they are so unconcerned about interference that they can’t even remember to pretend to care about basic interference concerns when they are conducting a field test in front of the FCC’s own engineers.

A bit more elaboration on these points below . . . .

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