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

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New phone makes booty calls

A new cellphone marketed by Japan's NTT DoCoMo can ring to let would-be mothers know when they reach the most fertile part of their monthly reproductive cycles.

By inputting data on menstruation dates, the phone user can program it to alert her three days before ovulation and again on the day. The new phone comes to market after Japan's fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman bears -- fell to an all-time low in 2005, causing worries about a shrinking population. The phone was the idea of female designer Momoko Ikuta, who also provided its pastel paisley look.

The handset has a button that activates a "camouflage melody," allowing the user to avoid unwanted attention by pretending to receive a call. It also stores recipes. (info from Reuters)

Monday, October 30, 2006

Good news for paranoids:
Secure cellphone knows its owner,
and shuts down when lost or stolen

The new Panasonic P9031 cellphone marketed by NTT DoCoMo in Japan comes with a small card that acts as a security key by connecting wirelessly to the phone. If the phone’s owner keeps the card in a bag or pocket, the phone recognizes when the card is too far away and locks to prevent calls.

The phone has facial ID to prevent snoops from getting personal info from the phone. The phone's owner takes photos of him/hersef with the phone's camera. To use the phone, the owner takes another self-portrait, and the phone analyzes features such as distance between the eyes, and unlocks if the image matches the stored data.

Another function notes whether eyes are blinking -- in case someone tries to show the owner's photo to use the phone. A password can guard against an identical twin using the phone without permission. If the phone gets lost, it can be tracked with its onboard Global Positioning System. (info from The Associated Press)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Avaya sued for illegally blocking competition

Continuant Inc. of Fife, WA filed an antitrust suit in federal court, claiming that Avaya stops competitors from fixing or maintaining equipment sold by Avaya.

Continuant alleges that Avaya maintains “a monopolistic stranglehold on the separate market for post-warranty service and maintenance" of telecom systems, and wants to prevent customers from selecting other maintenance vendors.

Last summer Avaya sued Continuant for "irreparable injury and harm" caused by Continuant’s efforts to maintain Avaya equipment.

Continuant's suit seeks to bar Avaya "from continuing its anti-competitive conduct," including bundling service contracts with sales and not providing passwords for maintaining phone systems. "Avaya's the only company that has a policy like this," said Bruce Shelby, Continuant's sales VP. "They say a customer doesn't have the right to access their system to perform maintenance" or to hire a third party to do it."

Shelby said that is illegal, and that Avaya is overcharging customers for maintenance when its service level has declined because of layoffs. Avaya has been trying to boost continuing revenues from maintainance, rather than relying on one-time sales. (info from Channel News, Tri-City Herald, Washington Business Journal)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

AT&T wants to help you spy on your kids

AT&T (formerly known as SBC) is introducing a home monitoring service that includes live video surveillance on a cellphone or PC, plus lighting controls, and sensors for motion, temperature changes and flooding.

The service costs $9.95 per month and is compatible with any broadband Internet service. The cellular feature is limited to Cingular phones with Internet service.

A customer needs to buy a $199 equipment package with a Panasonic video camera, a motion sensor for a door or window, a router and other hardware. Users can program the system to take specific actions or send an alert via e-mail or wireless text message when a sensor detects changes. If the there's motion across the video camera's field of view or if a sensor detects that a window has been opened, the system can automatically send an alert, turn on a light, and start recording video.

The remote video monitoring is not full-motion. Viewed on a computer, the picture runs at three to seven frames per second, as compared with 24-to-30 in television and movies. Video quality on a cellphone will be lower, varying with the phone and the local wireless network.

Last year, SBC announced a similar service for businesses. People who want remote video surveillance without the AT&T service can purchase Panasonic network cameras at PanasonicNetworkCameras.com. (some info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Text message champ defeated by computer

A PC running new voice recognition software from Nuance beat Ben Cook, the world's fastest text messager.

Two other people competed, one using a cellphone with a predictive program that turns partial words into full ones, and another with a full QWERTY keyboard on a Blackberry. Neither came close to Cook, who used "3-key typing." Sending one letter of the alphabet can take multiple taps on the same key, which is shared by several letters.

The first message, "I'm on my way. I'll be there in 30 minutes," took over a minute with predictive software, 29 seconds for QWERTY, 16 seconds for Cook, and under 8 seconds for Nuance.

The final message read "The razor toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygo centrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human." Cook finished in 48 seconds (six seconds longer than his own record), but it took the Nuance program just 16 seconds.

The software is for drivers and others who want to send text messages, but don't have time to type. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Study says Blacks blab most

According to consumer research firm Telephia, Black people talked on cellphones more than other ethnic groups in the third quarter of 2005.

Latinos were in second place, using on average 979 voice minutes per month.

Asians or Pacific Islanders used 845 minutes

Whites used 632 minutes. (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Cellphone film festival held in Paris

The recent Pocket Films Festival in Paris exhibited nearly 100 short films and three feature-length movies -- all shot on cellphones.

"What we're seeing is the democratization of filmmaking," said festival director Laurence Herszberg. "Now, you don't need expensive equipment and years of training. All you need is your phone."

Purists complain that poor image quality makes such films virtually unwatchable, but cell filmmakers insist the advantages of shooting on cellphones far outweigh the drawbacks.

"First and foremost, it's a matter of cost," said Leonard Bourgois-Beaulieu, whose short, "Busy," won Pocket Films' audience-choice award for best film. "You save on the camera, and you also save on all the trappings that go with an expensive camera, from operators to lighting designers to makeup artists."

"Busy" took less than a week to shoot, Bourgois-Beaulieu said, for the cost of a Metro ticket and two coffees (one scene takes place in a cafe). While cellphone cameras have radically simplified shooting movies, the crux of filmmaking -- finding the right story -- remains as complicated as ever, he said. "Just because everyone has a cellphone doesn't make us all Spielbergs." (info from The Associated Press)

Friday, October 20, 2006

Nokia sells more phones, makes less money

In a classic episode of sitcom "I Love Lucy," Lucy and Ethel try to sell a potion called Vitameatavegamin. Lucy explained her unorthodox business strategy as “we lose money on every bottle, but we make it up on the volume.”

It seems like folks at cellphone giant Nokia studied at the Lucy Ricardo School of Business.

In the third quarter of 2006, Nokia enjoyed a big 20% increase in sales dollars, and a 33% increase in the number of cellphones sold, but net income fell more than 4% because of strong demand for inexpensive phones.

Nokia, the world's largest cellphone maker, said it shipped 88.5 million phones in the third quarter compared with 66.6 million units a year ago. But average selling prices declined to about $117 from about $128 due to an increasing proportion of sales of low-priced phones in emerging markets. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Man really really really likes to hear
telephone operators' voices

A Japanese man was arrested recently after making 37,760 silent calls to directory assistance because he wanted to listen to the "kind" voices of female telephone operators.

The 44-year-old has admitted to obstructing the operations of Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Co. by making up to 905 calls a day from his mobile phone.

"When I made a complaint call once, the operator dealt with it very kindly, so I wanted to hear these women's voices," he told police.

Police believe the calls, made between March and July this year, caused psychological distress to more than 100 telephone operators. (info from Mainichi Shimbun via Reuters)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Phone system hack costs company thousands

A company in Australia learned last week that someone had hacked into its Nortel phone system and used its call-forwarding feature to run up bills of nearly $7,000 in one week -- about eight times their normal monthly phone bill.

The company’s finance director said “There were an enormous amount of calls made -- there were two and three hour calls made to the Arab Emirates, Somalia and other countries in Africa and South America. I thought international calls were relatively cheap these days, but when you call the Arab Emirates for three hours, it is not cheap."

The company's IT manager said that although their servers and network are relatively secure, PABX security was not well documented, and the hackers probably had technical knowledge about the specific system.

Long distance carriers initially refused to believe the PABX could have been hacked, and tried to point the finger at a possible dishonest employee. “They said we should go to the phone extension and stop the person from making the calls. It took us a day or two to figure out what was actually going on," the finance director said.

There have also been many reports about hacking Panasonic voicemail systems, particularly for calls to the Philippines. (info from ZDnet)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

MVNO teams score where ESPN struck out

ESPN recently announced that it was shutting down its money-losing effort to market an ESPN-branded cellphone that carried sports scores and video highlights of games, after less than a year. The failure of “Mobile ESPN” to compete with mainstream players like Cingular, raised doubts about the prospects for other niche cellular businesses.

Globally, there are now more than 250 of these ventures, called MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators), that put their brand on another wireless company's service. Many say business is good, or very good.

A virtual carrier doesn't pay for licenses and building and maintaining a network, but pays the actual network operator for every second of call time and every bit of data transmitted. This can be especially costly in the U.S., where cellular carriers encourage customers to talk.

Companies staying in the business argue there's plenty of money to be made serving the unique interests of specific market segments, such as teens and twenties (Virgin, Amp'd and Helio), kids (Disney), immigrants (Movida and TuYo Mobile) or the rich and pampered (Voce).

Qwest became a non-niche MVNO in 2004, selling its licenses and network to Verizon Wireless, and contracting with Sprint for service. Sprint is the biggest U.S. carrier of traffic for virtual providers, serving about 20 other brands. In mid-2006, MVNOs accounted for 5.3 million users, or nearly 10 percent of people talking on Sprint's network, up from 4.6 million in mid-2005. (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Phone bill pretexting not a Federal crime

Several months before the scandal erupted at Hewlett-Packard over using false pretenses to obtain people's phone records, a Federal Trade Commission investigator clicked on a Website that touted its ability to produce consumer cellphone and financial records.

When the site produced info on calls and credit-card transactions made by an FTC staff member, the agency sued the company for advertising and selling private records.

These cases were the beginning of a federal crackdown on so-called telephone pretexting, but no federal law explicitly makes pretexting for phone records a crime.

Instead, the FTC has had to use its mandate to stamp out "unfair and deceptive practices" in commerce. The agency can bring civil suits to compel companies to change their ways, but it can't levy stiff fines. (In the H-P case, former company execs and hired investigators have been charged under California laws.)

The FTC and the FCC want Congress to make pretexting for phone records a federal crime, providing enhanced enforcement power. Several bills that would criminalize pretexting for call data have been introduced in Congress, but none have been voted on. Consumer groups and the communications industry favor making pretexting for phone records illegal, but differ on the details. Private eyes and others oppose curbs on pretexting used to probe insurance claims, domestic relations and other issues. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, October 13, 2006

No time for church? Call Rome for a prayer

Busy Catholics who can’t find the time to pray, have a new alternative. A phone service in Rome’s St. Anastasia of the Palatine Church arranges for people to pray for them.

Callers make requests to volunteer staffers who write them down, and then pass the notes to people who do the actual praying.

The project was the idea of Father Alberto Pacini. He said "the idea is very simple. We just wanted to offer the possibility of prayer to people who cannot make it to church. I suppose you could say that it is a sign of the times, but if it helps people to come closer to God then it can't be bad."

Father Pacini added, "we get all sorts of requests from people who are feeling depressed or who are ill, in desperation, in pain or at a difficult crossroads of their life. We also get callers asking people to pray for others, saying that the person in question looks sad or unhappy." (info from The Daily Mail)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Amazing! a telecom merger that worked right

In contrast to the Sprint-Nextel and Siemens-BenQ disasters, the merged cellphone business of Sony and Ericsson seems to be doing quite well.

Third-quarter net profit for the joint venture nearly tripled as several hit products helped the company capture market share. Net profit rose to $373.6 million, thanks to high demand for its improved camera and music phones. Revenue jumped 42%. They shipped 19.8 million phones in the quarter, up 43% from 13.8 million a year earlier.

The company said it gained about one percentage point of market share as a result of the strong sales, bringing its global market share to 8%. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sprint-Nextel merger is in the toilet

Last year Sprint paid $35 billion to buy a hot rival, Nextel, to boost its share of the cellphone business.

• The stock price of the merged company has fallen more than 30% since the deal closed in August 2005.
• Millions of its cellphone subscribers have defected to competitors.
• Remaining customers have increasingly been switching to less profitable calling plans.
• Two months ago, Len Lauer, Sprint's chief operating officer, was canned after the release of dismal financial results.
• Yesterday former Nextel CEO Tim Donahue said he was retiring as executive chairman.
• Nextel executives say Sprint erred by downplaying the Nextel brand.
• Some top Sprint executives feel duped for buying an aging Nextel network that drops customers' calls.
• The two companies have yet to combine their cellular networks and management structures.
• Sprint was slow to catch on to important trends, such as ultra-thin phones.
• Nextel employees accused Sprint's managers of being too slow to make decisions and requiring too many layers of approval.
• Small regional affiliates of each company, which offer service under both brands, complained that the merger would violate agreements that barred the national carriers from competing in the affiliates' territories. After bitter legal fights, Sprint ended up buying out seven affiliates, costing more than $14 billion and forcing Sprint to incorporate thousands of new employees.
• Sprint had to meet an FCC mandate to resolve interference problems with emergency-services users, mostly by switching them to other bands. The expected cost was $2.8 billion, but could rise.
• In the Washington, D.C., area, Sprint has to replace or update about 35,000 radios and negotiate with counties in Maryland and Virginia, several federal law-enforcement agencies, and even the Washington metropolitan transit system.
• The reshuffling of frequencies makes it hard for Sprint to add customers on the Nextel network and is hurting phone reception in some regions because of reduced bandwidth.

The Sprint-Nextel saga shows the perils of consolidation in an intensely competitive field where technology and customer expectations keep changing quickly. Instead of each company fixing the other one's weakness, the problems have just added up. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

PC Magazine praises Cablevision for service it doesn't provide

The current issue of PC Magazine contains the second half of its annual Readers Choice survey.

PCmag says that its readers think that Cablevision provides the best VoIP service.

There's a little problem, however. Cablevision does not provide VoIP service.

The company's excellent Optimum Voice digital phone service is VoC ("voice over cable"), and is better than VoIP because phone calls use Cablevision's own network, not the public Internet.

Some Cablevision people say they use VoIP, and maybe PCmag's readers don't know the difference between VoIP and VoC; but the magazine's writer and editors should know.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Former Siemens cellphone business is busted;
employees will get $45 million from Siemens

BenQ Mobile announced last week that it will file for insolvency (almost bankruptcy), just one year after Taiwan's BenQ Corp. agreed to acquire the business from German electrical/electronic giant Siemens. Last year Siemens said it agreed to pay BenQ Corp. about $450 million to take the unit off its hands, in addition to transferring patents to BenQ and allowing it to use the Siemens brand name.

Siemens will create a fund of about $45 million to benefit workers of its former cellphone division. Siemens top management will forgo salary raises to help finance the fund, and Siemens will treat BenQ Mobile's workers like internal candidates for 2,000 job openings at Siemens.

Siemens recently exited the consumer phone market in the US – for the second time.

Siemens management came under fire last month from politicians and religious leaders for securing 30% salary raises while the company was slashing thousands of jobs. Critics had accused Siemens of handing over the cellphone business to BenQ, expecting that the unit would be shut down after job guarantees expired a year later. Siemens denied those charges. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Court allows Bush's illegal bugging to continue

A court ruled Wednesday that the Bush administration can continue its telecom surveillance program while appealing a judge's ruling that the program is unconstitutional. Dubya has said that the program is needed to fight terrorism. Opponents argue that it violates Constitutional guarantees of free speech and privacy, and limits on executive power.

Judges said they balanced the likelihood an appeal would succeed, the potential damage to both sides, and the public interest.

The program monitors phone calls and emails to or from the U.S. involving people the government suspects have terrorist links. A secret court has been set up to grant warrants for such surveillance, but the government says it can't always wait for court approval.

A U.S. district judge ruled Aug. 17 that the program was unconstitutional because it violates the rights to free speech and privacy, and the separation of powers in the Constitution.

The Justice Department urged the appeals court to allow it to keep bugging while it argues its appeal, which is likely to take months; claiming that the nation faced "potential irreparable harm."

The ACLU filed a lawsuit to stop the program on behalf of journalists, scholars and lawyers who say it has made it difficult for them to work because they believe many of their overseas contacts are likely targets. (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

It's official:
Cingular has finished eating ATT Wireless

Cingular announced it has finished integrating its cellular network with AT&T Wireless, which it bought two years ago for $41 billion.

Cingular, a joint venture of AT&T (formerly known as SBC) and BellSouth, is the biggest cellphone service provider in the U.S. with 57.3 million subscribers. Cingular had trouble integrating and upgrading AT&T Wireless's old network, and there were many complaints about billing, mandatory phone changes, and bad service.

Cingular says coverage has improved significantly, and the company has added 10 million customers, and about 3,000 new cell towers. Cingular's next project is to upgrade cell towers to provide high-speed Internet connections through laptops and cellphones.

Regulators are soon expected to approve AT&T's planned $67 billion purchase of BellSouth, which would give Cingular one owner. It is likely that Cingular will begin using the AT&T brand name in the near future.(info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Game is over for ESPN sports news cell service.
It will cost $30 million to blow the whistle.

The Walt Disney Co. will spend about $30 million to shut down its Mobile ESPN cellphone service, and hopes to license the brand to others.

Mobile ESPN, launched in February on the Sprint network with a 60-second Super Bowl commercial, offered real-time sports content on a specially designed Sanyo handset, but failed to catch on. Why it will catch on when provided by other companies is a mystery.

Disney launched Disney Mobile, a service aimed at families, in June. Disney Mobile allows parents to regulate when and how their children talk on cellphones; and features a satellite tracking feature to locate the phone and, presumably, the child. (info from Reuters)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Now phones can scream at thieves

A new service from mobile device management company Synchronica aims to help victims of cellphone theft.

Synchronica's mobile phone management software Mobile Manager can remotely lock and wipe data from cellphones as soon as their owners report the loss. If the phone has been stolen, companies can also turn on the Synchronica Scream Feature, causing an annoying and embarrassing high pitched wail to be emitted from the stolen device.

"According to industry sources, it takes on average only 30 seconds for someone to notice that their phone is missing, compared to an hour for a wallet or purse", said Carsten Brinkschulte, CEO of Synchronica. "Using our service, crime victims can be reassured that their information is immediately removed from the stolen phone, along with the satisfaction of annoying the thief with a screaming handset."

Monday, October 02, 2006

Not quite a Dick Tracy wrist-radio,
Bluetooth watch vibrates and shows Caller ID

Watchmaker Fossil announced a Bluetooth wristwatch that will let you know who’s calling your cellphone without having to find your phone and look at the display.

It vibrates when a call comes in and shows the caller's name and/or number on its display. When an SMS/text message is received, the watch will vibrate and the text alert icon will appear. You can mute the phone's ringer or reject a call by simply pushing a button on the watch. It's compatible with Sony Ericsson Bluetooth enabled mobile phones, and S60 phones using Symbian OS version 7, 8, and 8.1. It should be available in November in black and silver colors. A Sony-branded version of the watch will also be marketed.