Dial Zero
A look at what's surprising, silly, scary or stupid in telecommunications and data

Friday, September 29, 2006

Torture by telephone

The Tucker Telephone is a torture device that uses the magneto generator from an old crank telephone to shock prisoners. The device was invented by a trustee acting as the "resident physician" at Tucker State Prison Farm in Arkansas, in the 1960s.

At the "Tucker Hospital", an inmate was strapped down and electrodes attached to toes and genitals. When the crank was turned, a charge was shot through the body. “Long-distance calls” referred to several such charges, used until just before the point of losing consciousness. Effects sometimes included permanent organ damage and insanity. It was used until 1968.

The Tucker Telephone is also sometimes referred to as Radio Moscow. There are reports from American Vietnam war veterans that field phones were occasionally converted into Tucker telephones and used to torture Viet Cong prisoners. They're also used in sadomasochistic sex. (info from Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Nokia boss: "don't call phone a phone"

Finnish cellphone maker Nokia is making more phones that allow users to play music, take photos and watch video. Just don't call them phones, insists Anssi Vanjoki, head of the Nokia division that makes the non-phones. He wants people to call them “multimedia computers.”

After Nokia was late on some big design trends -- like clamshell shapes and super-thin phones -- Vanjoki's quest is central to Nokia’s ability to reclaim the high ground in handset design and to spur sales in saturated markets.

Nokia already sells more non-phones with music capability than any of its rivals, in part because basic music players come as standard in many of its non-phones and it sells almost twice as many non-phones as its closest competitor. But it faces stiff competition in higher-end non-phones with more music functions.

On Tuesday the company unveiled its latest non-phones, including the N95 high-end camera non-phone with keys for playing and pausing music and a sliding cover. Nokia also unveiled an updated N91 music non-phone that now holds about 6,000 songs. Nokia recently moved to enter the content-distribution business by agreeing to buy digital-music distrib Loudeye for $60 million. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Big demand for expensive dot-mobi websites

More than 75,000 dot-mobi (“companyname.mobi”) websites were registered yesterday, on the first day registration was open to everyone. About 13,000 dot-mobi domain names were claimed previously, when registration was opened in May for wireless companies and in June for trademarked names. Dot-mobi is the suffix for web pages that are formatted for cellphones and other wireless devices.

In the next two weeks, anybody willing to pay a premium can register a website with a dot-mobi domain name. GoDaddy.com, one of the world's largest domain name registrars, charges $29.99 a year for a dot-mobi domain name. The registration fee will drop drastically later, but many "good" and unique domain names won't be available. ”Dot-com” web addresses are commonly available for under $10 per year.

The dot-mobi domain name was created to make it easier to use the Internet with wireless devices. People often receive error messages when trying to access regular dot-com websites on cellphones.

Some content providers and companies with trademarks are skeptical that it is necessary to create a separate domain name for mobile devices. They argue it could cause confusion among consumers. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

People urged to use cellphones during concert

In a major shift from normal concert policies that insist that phones be turned off, jazz composer David Baker is encouraging people to use their cellphones during the debut of "Concertino for Cellular Phones and Orchestra" in Chicago next month.

Members of the audience and the orchestra will be asked to use their cell phones at various points throughout the piece with red and green lights telling them when to turn phones on and off.

Baker said this was first time in his career that he had finished a piece but did not know what the result would be. “I think some people would think it is insane to even think about trying to combine the cacophony of cell phones with the pristine purity… of an orchestra," he added.

People will also be encouraged to randomly increase and decrease the volume of their rings. Baker said he hoped the contrast of chaos and structure in a constantly shifting orchestral scheme would replicate how cell phones create both order and chaos in our society. (info from Reuters)

Monday, September 25, 2006

H-P sponsors privacy award.
Yeah, right.

Hewlett-Packard, being investigated for spying on board members and journalists, sponsors an award for "privacy innovation."

Nominees are currently being accepted for the fourth annual HP/IAPP Privacy Innovation award, which H-P gives in conjunction with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. The prize was created to honor "strong and unique contributions to the privacy industry."

HP is being investigated for surveillance of directors, employees and journalists as it sought the source of boardroom leaks to the media. HP investigators posed as other people to obtain their phone records. An HP director quit in protest of the methods and another resigned after being outed as a leaker. Questions about HP's methods led board chair Patricia Dunn to quit her post. (info from The Associated Press)

Friday, September 22, 2006

"Insert 760 quarters, two dimes and a penny."
Vending machine now sell cellphones

Vending machine fans who are bored with the usual offerings of snacks, cigarettes and soda, can now get cellphones and accessories.

Motorola’s new "Instantmoto" will go into 20 malls and airports nationwide as part of a pilot program which started with San Francisco Airport and Macys in Chicago.

The vending machines will carry about 30 different products, including cellphones (with or without a service plan) plus cordless phones, and accessories including headsets and chargers.

Unlike traditional vending machines, Instantmotos (which Motorola calls “robotic retail stores”) don't just drop products to the bottom; purchased items are gently delivered to customers by a robotic arm. We don’t know if it will shake your hand at the end of the transaction.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

In Africa, phones can reach God

The South African division of the International Bible Society, which translates and distributes the bible, will help people to download the entire bible and a search engine onto their cellphones.

The society hopes the service, which costs about $5, will appeal to young people in mobile-mad South Africa, where most people are Christian. 80 percent of South African phones have the 1.2 megs of memory needed to receive the bible.

Cellphone users can download the bible in English or Afrikaans using text messaging. Customers can choose between the traditional King James version or newer versions. Zulu and Xhosa translations will be available soon, and other languages will follow. (info from Reuters)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lost cellphone helps cops find crook

An Italian thief lost his cellphone while robbing an elderly lady, called his own phone number to try to locate the phone, and actually arranged to meet the cops.

The crook dropped his phone while stealing a pocketbook, and the victim gave the phone to the police, who lured the thief to a meeting where he was arrested. The man had been recently freed from prison in an Italian mass pardon program meant to reduce jail crowding.

By the time of the meeting with the police, the robber had already mugged another woman, and he drove to see the police on a stolen motor scooter. (info from Agi news agency via Reuters)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Can't get lucky?
A cellphone can help improve your moves.

Virgin Mobile, a cellphone operator concentrating on young users, is expected to debut a text message game that allows customers to test if they have the right moves in approaching others for romance.

The game puts players on a virtual date where they respond to questions and react to situations. For example, if a female player is losing momentum, the response might be, "C'mon, throw him a bone once in a while -- the poor guy can't tell if u like him or NOT."

Then she will receive a message with several choices. Each text message choice brings the player one step closer to getting a virtual date, or striking out.

Text messaging is the second most popular communication form among cellphone users behind calling and it's the cheapest data service. U.S. phone users sent 64.8 billion text messages in the first six months of 2006, almost doubling the number in the same period of 2005. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, September 18, 2006

French forced to to use cellphones when cable was stolen

Residents of two villages in eastern France couldn’t make or receive conventional phone calls last Thursday after crooks stole nearly 2,000 feet of underground telephone cable.

France Telecom said that the thieves snatched the cable that had been dug up and left exposed for repair.

Theft of the copper cable has become increasingly common in France as thieves try to take advantage of soaring copper prices, which have more than doubled in the past year. The day before the phone cable heist, thieves disrupted train traffic between Bordeaux and Paris by stealing railroad signal cable. (info from Reuters, with help from Nick Santiago)

Friday, September 15, 2006

Woman rented phones for 42 years;
paid about $14,000

An Ohio woman started renting two black rotary dial phones from AT&T in the 1960s, and had paid rent for them – recently $29.10 per month – for 42 years. Phones of this type are commonly available for $5 apiece.

Ester Strogen, 82, of Canton, has paid an estimated $14,000 to use the old-fashioned phones. Strogen's granddaughters, Melissa Howell and Barb Gordon, ended the arrangement when they discovered the bills.

"I'm outraged," Gordon said. "It made me so mad. It's ridiculous. How many other people are doing it?" She believes most renters are elderly and may not realize they are paying thousands of dollars for a telephone.

A spokesman for AT&T spinoff Lucent Technologies that manages the rental service, said customers were given the choice to opt out of renting in 1985. The number of customers renting phones dropped from 40 million nationwide to about 750,000 today, he said. (from The Associated Press) (Editor's Note: I don't believe the $29.10 monthly charge. It was probably about $10 for the two phones.)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

More Tyco trouble: hid $170 mil capital gains.
IRS wants $50 mil tax.

The IRS said that Tyco International hasn't paid millions in income taxes due from an allegedly false tax return filed in 1999.

Tyco is a huge conglomerate that makes a wide range of products used in manufacturing and installing telecom equipment. The potential $50 million tax was revealed as former tax VP Raymond Stevenson was charged with failing to report more than $170 million in capital gains on Tyco's 1999 tax return.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Stevenson directed a "series of transactions" designed to reduce Tyco's state liability, and in doing so triggered $170 million in federal capital gains. On Tyco's tax return, Stevenson left off the $170 million.

Stevenson was hired under Tyco management led by former CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski, who was convicted with former CFO Mark Swartz of stealing more than $150 million from Tyco. Both men are in in the can. (from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Feds say state can't make telcos talk

The U.S. Department of Justice is suing the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control, saying it can’t force AT&T and Verizon to answer questions about whether they provided customer records to the Feds.

The American Civil Liberties Union petitioned the DPUC to investigate whether the telcos disclosed customer phone records without a court order, warrant or subpoena since Sept. 11, 2001. The ACLU called the disclosures illegal government spying, and launched a nationwide campaign to determine which phone companies complied with government requests for records. The ACLU submitted questions to AT&T and Verizon on Aug. 10, but the companies didn't respond.

At the ACLU’s request, the DPUC, which regulates telecommunication companies in CT, issued a ruling Aug. 23 ordering them to answer by Sept. 7. The federal lawsuit says the DPUC does not have the authority to force the phone companies to answer the ACLU’s questions, and claims a response by the companies could cause "exceptionally grave harm to national security." (from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

School kids may get fined for cellphone rings

Students in Connecticut’s Derby High School have been annoying their teachers by using cellphones in class, and the teachers have been confiscating the phones.

School principal Michael Novia has proposed fining the kids $3 to $10 for ringing phones. Students would have to pay the fines to retrieve their phones, and the fines would be used to subsidize an after-prom party.

Novia said "I think it's a fun and practical way to lessen cellphone use" and "we will have a post prom party at the high school for the first time this year; the theme will be New York." (New York City does not allow students to bring cellphones to school, but we're not sure if that policy affected the choice of the party theme.)

Derby is the smallest city in a small state, but calls itself "An All American City for the new millennium" and a “Proud Partner in the Electronic Valley;” so this may be the beginning of a national trend. (from The Associated Press and other sources)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Phone guy is new champion tax cheat

In the largest individual income-tax evasion case ever, Walter C. Anderson, the telecom mogul who used a scheme to hide proceeds from the sale of Mid-Atlantic Telecom Inc., pleaded guilty to evading more than $200 million in federal and local taxes.

Anderson pleaded guilty in U.S. District to two counts of tax evasion and one count of failing to report $365 million of personal income in 1998 and 1999. He faces up to 10 years in prison and payment of restitution to both the federal government and the District of Columbia.

Between 1992 and 1996 Anderson transferred his ownership interests in three companies that provided telephone service, to two offshore companies. The government said that Anderson used an alias to control the offshore companies and hired other trust companies to create the appearance that he was not directly involved in the companies. The two offshore companies increased in value, and Mr. Anderson used the money to invest in other ventures that generated more than $450 million in earnings. (from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, September 08, 2006

AOL's VoIP service a flop, will be killed soon.

AOL announced that it will discontinue its residential VoIP service in the US and Canada.

The company’s TotalTalk plan will be shut down at the end of November. The service had signed up just 2,000 US subscribers since its October 2005 launch.

AOL promoted it, saying "The TotalTalk™ service is easy-to-use and easy to set up! You can count on AOL® to make everything simple and user-friendly." PC World magazine gave it a good review: "...in many ways I like it better than other VOIP services I have looked at. Set-up is simple and AOL brings some unique extras to a crowded field."

The company will continue to promote its Instant Messenger-based calling platform, AIM Phoneline, which gives AIM users a free, local phone number to receive unlimited incoming calls online and free online voicemail. (from AOL and This Week in Consumer Electronics)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Whatever happened to ethnic pride?

For several decades, advertisers in the United States have recognized that all people do not have white faces and blonde hair.

American ads, catalogs and commercials show a wide range of faces; but if you look at the websites of non-US telecom companies, it's hard to find a local.

  • The picture above was at the top of the home page of the Singapore branch of a Japanese manufacturer; but the people look like Kansas.
  • A Chinese headset maker's website features a Basic American Blonde, and the company won't allow Asian faces in its advertising.
  • Telecom Egypt's website shows a brown-haired girl wearing Oshkosh-type overalls, who would not be noticed in any American town or mall.
  • A website in Turkey has faces that look more like Norway.
  • The website of Telekom in South Africa does show a woman with brown skin... and a very blonde wig.
  • Wednesday, September 06, 2006

    Vonage faces tough competition and shrinking market share

    VoIP leader Vonage went public in May at $17 per share, and its stock price dropped 13% on opening day. It bottomed out at $6.30 in July, but the stock has stabilized since then and climbed slightly. It closed on Friday at $8.90. In its second-quarter earnings report, released Aug. 1, the company said it lost $74 million, or $1.16 a share.

    Competitors, particularly deep-pocket cable companies who offer low-priced, easy-to-use flat-rate phone service, are taking customers away from Vonage. Smaller companies are making inroads too. Competitor SunRocket sells unlimited VoIP phone service for $199 a year, or less than $17 a month, compared with the $25 Vonage charges.

    Vonage is losing 2.3 percent of its customers each month. After the first quarter, Vonage had 29.7 percent of the market for Internet phone service. That’s down from 31 percent at the end of 2005 and 34 percent at the end of 2004, according to research by Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. (from The New York Times)

    Tuesday, September 05, 2006

    Make Internet phone calls without a PC

    Originally, VoIP was strictly a geek technology, and not something that most grandmas in Florida would use to call the kiddies in New Jersey. VoIP pioneers made free or cheap phone calls with a microphone and speakers, or a headset or handset, and a PC.

    Last year Netgear made it a bit easier, offering a conventional-looking cordless phone that linked to a PC.

    This year it gets even easier. VoIP-ers who use Skype (now owned by eBay) will be able to use cordless phones made by Philips, Panasonic and Netgear -- without a PC.

    The cordless handsets use Skype software and work with a remote base station that connects to both a broadband Internet router and a traditional phone line; and people can use either service. (Skype should not be used to call 911.) Skype offers free calls to other Skype customers, and inexpensive calls to landline and cellular phones.

    VoIP service provider Vonage allows the use of conventional corded and cordless phones, but does not offer free calls. VoIP providers face increased competition from traditional telcos and cable TV companies that offer inexpensive unlimited phone service, and cellular carriers offering free long distance calls.

    Monday, September 04, 2006

    Lucent dives deeper in toilet as merger nears

    ATT-spinoff Lucent's acquisition by French telecom giant Alcatel is expected to be approved by Alcatel shareholders this week, despite concerns that Alcatel is paying too much.

    Lucent announced a 79% drop in earnings and a 12% sales decline for the quarter that ended June 30. Shares of both companies have fallen since they announced the deal, which calls for Alcatel to give Lucent shareholders 0.195 Alcatel share for each share of Lucent. Alcatel boss Serge Tchuruk responded to shareholders upset about the share exchange ratio, saying it is "not possible to change the terms."

    Lucent's stock has been selling for about $2 per share, down from a high of $84 in the late 1990s. Lucent revealed that it had used dubious accounting and sales practices to generate some of its earlier quarterly figures, and its stock price bottomed at 55 cents per share in 2002.

    Lucent boss Patricia Russo has been selected to be Chief Executive of the combined company. French investor advisory firm Proxinvest has urged Alcatel shareholders to reject the deal as overpriced, and objected to corporate-governance rules that will make it hard to dump Russo if the merged business does poorly. (from The Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia and Forbes)

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    Telcos cave-in to feds; will refund DSL fees

    Last week we told you that Verizon and BellSouth needed more money, and had decided to grab a few extra bucks each month from DSL customers after the Feds decided that the customers won’t have to pay into a "Universal Service Fund" that subsidizes phone service in rural areas and for poor people.

    Now the companies have reacted to screams from customers, and pressure from consumer advocates and the FCC, and will give back the money they had hoped to keep.

    FCC members, notably Chairman Kevin Martin, were unhappy about the companies' decisions. The ruckus was particularly problematic for BellSouth, with a pending $67 billion merger with AT&T (formerly known as SBC). Opponents of the deal said the DSL fee showed a lack of competition. (from The Wall Street Journal)