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

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Verizon cans hundreds of resellers, gets tough on the rest

Following its takeover of MCI, Verizon is ditching hundreds of MCI agents (independent service resellers) and requiring survivors to sign restrictive contracts that may severely limit income. All previous MCI agents -- even those offered new contracts -- risk losing the hard-won residual income from their legacy MCI customers.

Agents not offered the 2007 Verizon Solution Provider Program (VSPP) contract now stand to lose the residual income from the customer bases they built under MCI. In the short term, this group will continue to earn residual income from their MCI customers. But if a Verizon employee sells a legacy MCI customer any new service, renews an existing service, or alters the customer's contract in any way, the residual income agreement in place under MCI's old contract ends.

Because of this, there is talk among legacy MCI agents offered the VSPP contract -- many of whom transact millions of dollars in business each year -- to unite and not sign the contract at all. The aim here is to perhaps force Verizon to take the choke-hold off their ability to earn.

If a legacy MCI agent does manage to beat Verizon to a renewal, the win is worth less money that it was before. MCI renewals once paid commissions as high as 15 percent and above. Under 2007 VSPP, renewals pay less that 5 percent.

During a Nov. 17 conference call between Verizon and legacy MCI agents offered the new contract, Verizon officials gave no assurance that sales quotas would be attainable, and said MCI agents who fail to hit quotas can be terminated in 30 days, and forfeit all residuals. (info from CMP Media)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Phone company helps Wal-Mart enter India

After years of looking for a way into India's fast-growing but highly protected retail market, Wal-Mart is trying a backdoor approach -- teaming up with an Indian telecom company.

The world's largest retailer, whose sales growth has slowed in the U.S., plans a joint venture with Bharti Enterprises., owner of one of India's biggest cellphone networks. The alliance with Bharti would allow Wal-Mart to skirt Indian regulations that bar most foreign retailers from investing directly in the country's retail sector.

Bharti will operate the stores, acting as a franchisee, while Wal-Mart would manage the chain's technology, logistics and wholesale operations. Bharti's experience in building a powerful cellular business with 30 million customers in India's highly regulated telecom industry, as well as its understanding of India's consumer tastes, will be crucial to opening stores quickly and efficiently.

Wal-Mart's Indian competitors are expected to lobby regulators to apply restrictions on Wal-Mart, and politicians want to limit the number of large retailers to protect the livelihoods of local shopkeepers. Bharti executives say they hope to avoid legal problems by limiting Wal-Mart's operations and investments to areas already allowed.

The move into India is crucial for Wal-Mart because India is one of the few markets potentially big enough to significantly boost the retailer's worldwide sales, to help compensate for flagging U.S. sales and setbacks in other foreign markets. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

YouTube coming to YouPhone

Lots of people use cellphone-cams to record videos that are uploaded to YouTube. Next month, Verizon Wireless subscribers will be able to watch YouTube videos on their cellphones.

The deal between Verizon and YouTube is one of many recent efforts to increase enthusiasm for mobile video services, for which carriers typically charge at least $15 a month. Carriers are likely to turn to advertising to subsidize it, or will lower prices to about $10 a month to get more people to sign up

The relatively expensive premium for mobile video service has limited its appeal to a small but growing minority, and what began as a technical experiment has become a test of whether mainstream consumers want portable video enough to pay for it.

About 2 percent of the country's 220 million cellphone subscribers pay to receive video on their phones. HBO reformatted entire episodes of shows such as "Sex and the City for cellphones. Sprint Nextel made a deal with the NFL to broadcast football. Amp'd Mobile, a cellphone service targeting the young and hip, produces sports and comedy clips.

YouTube's mobile service will be on Verizon’s V Cast service, which was launched in early 2005 with soap operas and a spinoff of the hit TV show "24." 20 million Verizon Wireless subscribers now have video-capable phones, a significant number of whom pay $15 a month to access V Cast. (info from The Washington Post)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Cingular to offer cellphone banking

Cingular plans to allow customers to check bank account balances, transfer money, and pay bills with their cellphones early next year.

Wireless banking opens up new possibilities. Travelers, for example, could pay bills they forgot to pay before they left home; or someone could see a bank balance before writing a check.

Cingular is working with Firethorn Holdings, which specializes in mobile banking. Cingular is the first U.S. carrier to use Firethorn's mobile banking system, but Firethorn expects to work with other operators in the future. Wireless banking has taken off in Europe and Asia, but Cingular's service is one of the first in the U.S.

Firethorn uses an intricate anti-hacking password and identification setup, and says its system is as secure as online banking services. Online banking is popular among bank customers who use PCs. Close to 45% of Internet users banked online in 2005, up from less than 15% in 1998.

Cingular's service requires cooperation from customers’ banks. Cingular is talking with a number of banks but so far hasn't announced any deals. The service will work with most Cingular phones. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Schoolboy makes 49 calls to 911

Police in Round Rock, Texas were stumped by the 49 emergency calls that came in from an unregistered cellphone on Nov. 14. The caller would say nothing, or giggle briefly, and hang up.

Eventually the cops found the perpetrator -- a 7-year-old calling from school. "He was just doing it for fun," said police spokesman Eric Poteet.

The phone had been deactivated and could call only 911. Dispatchers used cellphone towers to determine its approximate location.

During one call, dispatchers heard classroom chatter in the background and decided to check the elementary school. Once they found the boy, the officers confiscated the phone and called his parents. Although making silent or abusive calls to 911 is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine, the boy was not charged because of his age. (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

No one wants Siemens' phone business

German electronics giant Siemens has failed to find a buyer for its money-losing Enterprise Networks division, apparently because of the collapse of its cellphone business plus a corruption and bribery scandal.

Siemens had to admit failure after the last serious bidder -- a consortium of investors Permira and Apollo Management -- dropped out after months of negotiations.

The Siemens Enterprise Networks division provides telecom equipment and services to businesses.

Siemens had sold its cellphone division to Taiwan-based BenQ last year, but the operation filed for insolvency earlier this year after the Taiwan parent cut off financing. Siemens came under heavy fire for its role in the affair. (info from Financial Times Deutschland and Agence France-Presse)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Jaguar stolen? Find it online

Next month Jaguar will offer customers "JaguarWatch" internet tracking of their cars, with technology from MicroTRAKgps that uses a combination of GPS and GSM cellular technology.

Jag owners can use a PC or web-enabled cellphone to access a personal web portal to find their car, set up alerts for keyless movement, browse its speed and location history or set a "GeoFence" which will alert them when the car leaves or enters certain geographic areas. (info from Webware.com)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Lucent up one cent as Bush approves merger

President Bush has approved the proposed $11.8 billion deal between Lucent Technologies and French-owned Alcatel, saying the merger of the two telecommunications equipment companies doesn't present any major national security concerns. Alcatel and Lucent agreed with U.S. government agencies to enter into "robust and far-reaching agreements designed to ensure the protection of our national security."

Following the good news, Lucent shares closed at $2.62 – up one penny! (Previously, Lucent stock has sold for as much as $84 per share.)

The merged company will become one of the world's largest telecom equipment suppliers, with about $25 billion in sales and about 18% market share. The combined company will fire about 9,000 people, saving $1.8 billion over three years.

NJ-based Lucent is the parent of Bell Labs, the legendary research organization that has generated more than 31,000 patents since 1925 and employs about 29,800 people worldwide. Alcatel employs 58,000 people and operates in more than 130 countries. Its stock went down 8 cents after Bush’s approval was announced. (info from The Associated Press and Wikipedia)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Free ISP will charge for faster service

NetZero -- probably the last large dial-up ISP in the US, and a provider of free Internet access -- will resell Verizon DSL service.

"NetZero DSL" will be available immediately in all Verizon service areas. It’s assumed that NetZero is negotiating with other carriers for similar offerings in the rest of the US.

NetZero DSL will not be cheap -- unlike NetZero dial-up, which is marketed as the cheapest way to get online. Zero is meant to evoke the concept of free, and NetZero offers a free access plan with a maximum of 10 hours use per month.

NetZero DSL will cost more than Verizon charges: 768 Kb/s service will be $14.95 for the first six months, and $19.95 thereafter, compared to the flat $14.95 Verizon charges. It looks like the one big lure NetZero can offer is the ability for users to keep their Netzero email addresses. The initial $14.95 charge is the same as NetZero currently charges for its "premium" dial-up service, so many users are expected to switch to DSL.

NetZero DSL comes with Norton AntiVirus, a pop-up blocker, email with spam protection, 5GB of email storage, DSL modem, free backup dial-up account, and free tech support. (info from Telecom Web)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Microsoft follows Google in free Web project

Microsoft will partner with MetroFi to build a free wireless Internet access network for Portland, Oregon. Rival Google is playing a similar role to Microsoft in San Francisco, working with Earthlink.

MetroFi announced it will launch the Wi-Fi service in Pioneer Courthouse Square, a popular gathering place in downtown Portland, by the end of 2006, and expand it to 95% of the city within two years. Microsoft will provide local content and advertising through its new online platform, adCenter, which allows advertisers to target users based on their browsing habits and data such as gender, age and location. The service will be supported by advertising revenue. Users can get advertising-free Web access for $20 a month.

Portland already has some free Wi-Fi spots provided by the Personal TelCo project, a volunteer group. As part of a nationwide trend, the city is eager to provide a municipal Wi-Fi service for the whole metro area. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Cable TV to cellphone via Slingbox

The Slingbox is a recently developed device that connects to a cable or satellite box or DVR, and sends video over the Web to the laptops of people who are away from home.

A major European wireless provider now plans to let customers with Slingboxes watch TV on a cellphone.

3 Group will launch the new service in Britain starting Dec. 1, followed by three more markets in early 2007. New phones running on 3's next-generation wireless network will feature the Sling application, which customers can use to watch any channel available on their cable TV at home. The phones also can control a digital video recorder: pausing and rewinding live television, playing previously recorded shows, or setting up the DVR to record a program. The first phones with SlingPlayer software will be the Nokia N73 and the Sony Ericsson w950i.

3 Group didn't say where it would offer Sling next. It has upgraded its wireless network with the required broadband technology in Italy, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Hong Kong, Israel and Ireland. (info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

New software helps Indians sound less Indian

Indian call centers increasingly provide tech support and customer service for American companies, but complaints from Americans who can’t understand the Indians’ heavily accented English are also increasing.

IBM’'s India Research Lab has developed Web-based training technology to help operators change the harsh consonants, local idioms and occasionally different grammar of Indian English.

The program evaluates grammar, pronunciation, comprehension and other language skills, using speech-recognition software to score the pronunciation of passages and the stressing of syllables.

The technology also has voice-enabled grammar evaluation tests, which identify areas for improvement by highlighting shortcomings and providing examples of correct pronunciation and grammar. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Safety first? OOPS.
AT&T truck driver didn't know he ran over cop

A spokesman for AT&T (formerly known as SBC) says "Nothing is more important to AT&T than safety at our work sites. Our employees are trained to focus on safety first."

Last Friday, in New Haven CT, an AT&T truck driver backed over policeman Eric Scott and dragged him down the street as motorists frantically tried to alert the driver. Scott had been directing traffic at a construction site, while the AT&T driver was picking up traffic cones.

Muffled screams were transmitted over the police radio, and cops were dispatched to the location. "It appears it was the officer screaming for help on the radio as he was being dragged underneath the truck," said Sgt. Marc Calafiore, one of the first officers on the scene. Officer Scott was listed in fair condition at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and was expected to recover. (info from The New Haven Register)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Russian cellphone scandal:

Were Motos counterfeit? Contraband? Dangerous? Destroyed? Not destroyed?

Earlier this year, the Russian Interior Ministry seized 167,000 Motorola cellphones at a Moscow airport. The ministry said first that the phones were counterfeit, then contraband and then a health hazard.

In a very public display, government officials fed thousands of the phones (but apparently not all of the phones) into a chipping machine.

Now Moscow prosecutors are investigating whether 30,000 phones that were supposedly destroyed were, in fact, eventually sold at discount prices in stores outside Moscow. The phones were tagged with electronic serial numbers which have registered for months on cellphone networks in Russia, the prosecutors said.

Apparently, in an example of corruption brazen even by Russian standards, government investigators seized the phones to sell them for personal profit. (info from The New York Times)

Friday, November 10, 2006

French fiber advantage: their sewers

Paris is offering telecommunications companies breaks on fees to run fiber-optic cable through the city's 1,120-mile sewer system.

Use of the underground sewers eliminates the need to dig up pavement and get rights of way from government authorities. The Paris sewer network is so interconnected and accessible that it reduces the cost of building a network by as much as 50%.

France Télécom and Iliad recently announced plans for networks that provide service that would be twice as fast as those planned for the U.S. by Verizon and for Germany by Deutsche Telecom.

Telecom firms in France say the Parisian sewers -- with their rat-infested caves and gothic arches -- are a resource their counterparts elsewhere don't have and are the key to curbing costs. During World War II, Nazis used Paris's sewers as air-raid shelters, and the French resistance used them to fight the Nazis. Two years ago, police discovered and closed a movie theater in a sewer, complete with installed seats and a cocktail bar. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

French phone company goes Hollywood

France Télécom, the major French phone company, announced it would help fund 10 to 15 movies a year, and plans to build a catalog of rights to movies. The company will stick to financing and “won't be setting up a studio or choosing actors."

The project is part of the company's strategy to make the distribution of media content such as music, movies, television and games a key part of France Télécom's business.

Like other big telephone companies, France Télécom is struggling to generate growth as customers abandon traditional wired phones for cellphones and free Internet phone services. The company hopes to retain customers by offering new services such as high-speed Internet, as well as movies and television delivered over the Internet and cellphones. Content can play a key role if it entices clients to stay with France Télécom and pay for new services.

France Télécom has been investing heavily in content to distinguish itself from competitors. Last year, France Télécom's customers could watch Madonna's new single "Hung Up" weeks before Warner Music released it in France. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pole chopper cuts phone service

Telephone service was disrupted in Hawaii last week, allegedly by a man who chopped down a utility pole to steal its copper wiring.

Alden Kaupiko was arrested Friday at a park in Honolulu, where a utility pole had been cut down. Police said he was attempting to steal copper wire from a transformer.

There have been several copper thefts on Oahu (the island where Honolulu is located) in the past few months, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In September, thieves made off with more than two miles of wire dug up along a freeway. The wire connected lights on the freeway, which was already dark after being hit by thieves earlier. The price of copper wire has doubled in the past year, making scrap more valuable and tempting to thieves. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

YouTube on your phone, on your tube?

Verizon is in advanced talks with YouTube to bring the popular Website's videos to cellphones and televisions. This could advance the long-expected convergence of video and cellphones, and give Verizon a marketing edge over its rivals in the wireless and cable industries.

A deal with YouTube would let Verizon showcase its new TV service, which runs on fiber-optic lines all the way to subscribers' homes and has more capacity than competing cable operators. It could also give Verizon the exclusive right to carry YouTube videos for a limited period of time.

Though many cellphones provide Internet access, it is difficult for cellphone users to watch video on the Web, in part because it typically isn't formatted for cellphone screens. But cellular operators such as Verizon Wireless have the technology to bring video, music and other entertainment options to those screens. Also, their millions of subscribers make them attractive to digital entertainment companies like YouTube, which are looking to extend their reach beyond PCs.

Verizon already offers video clips from major media companies and networks such as MTV, ESPN, and ABC News, but a YouTube deal would be its first with a company whose videos appear only on the Internet. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Can cellphones replace traffic cams and copters?

Around the world, cameras, radar, helicopters and in-road sensors are used to monitor automobile traffic. In Atlanta, two companies aim to monitor many more roads, and at a much lower cost, by tracking the signals of cellphones.

By using anonymous data from wireless providers to show how fast cellphones are moving -- and overlaying that information with location data and maps -- IntelliOne and AirSage hope to offer more detailed information than other companies.

Both systems rely on wireless companies allowing them to process data from their towers that calculate the position of each phone. Privacy advocates are concerned. "This is your personal information. Shouldn't you have the right to control whether people know where you are?" asked Melissa Ngo of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The cellphone-based tracking system has other potential flaws, one being that there's no way to determine what is backing up traffic. Also, tracking data will likely be sparse late at night and early in the morning, when few drivers are on the road. But when cell phones are sparse, so is traffic. (info from The Associated Press)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Vonage loses less money, but more customers

Well, the good news is that VoIP phone company Vonage reported a net loss of only $62.2 million for the third quarter, down from a loss of $66 million a year earlier.

And the bad news is that the rate of customer loss (“churn”) for Vonage rose in the quarter to 2.6% from 2.3% in the second quarter. Vonage is vulnerable to competition from cable TV providers who offer low-cost flat-rate phone service.

Vonage, however, believes the trend is improving. "Although we saw worse-than-expected degree of deterioration in churn, we also saw stabilization toward the end of the quarter, and in fact exited the quarter with September churn decreasing to 2.4%," said Chairman Jeffrey Citron.

Vonage’s share price has decreased more than 55% since the May IPO, and the company had to go after several customers who reneged on paying for shares following the rapid decline in the stock. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Fingers tired?
Get a cellphone with a motorized hinge

High-end Danish consumer electronics maker Bang & Olfusen is launching its first cellphone for North America. It’s small, sleek, sexy, has a motor to flip it open, and it's yours for just $1275 (about as much as seven formerly cool Motorola Razrs).

The "Serene" is tiny clamshell phone with an elegant aluminum hinge. Normally, the LCD display and microphone are on the lower half of the shell while a circular keypad and speaker are in the upper half; a thumb-operated wheel in the middle enables access to common functions. The phone can also be flipped around for table-top use, putting the dialing ring on the bottom and the LCD display on top.

The phone offers tri-band GPRS, a VGA-resolution digital camera, SMS/EMS/MMS support plus WAP 2.0, email integration with Outlook, and Bluetooth. It weighs less than 4 ounces, and measures just 2.5 by 2.8 by 0.9 inches. The phone comes with a docking station/charger, and a motor opens the Serene automatically when it's in the charger and a call comes in. (info from Digital Trends)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Cingular phones will listen to music,
then sell the song

A new Cingular service will include a feature called "Music ID," which will let a user hold a cellphone near a speaker playing a song. It will then match the song against Napster's music database and, if the song is available, allow the user to buy it. The song is sent to the user's computer, to be loaded onto the phone later.

Music ID is part of a new music service that Cingular is preparing to launch, in partnership with Napster, Yahoo Music, and eMusic. The service will work on cellphones that double as music players.

Cingular's move is the latest sign that cellphones are morphing into entertainment devices that can download and play music. The Apple iPod dominates the digital music market, and Apple is said to be working on a combined music player and cellphone.

In a first for music-enabled cellphones, Cingular customers will be able to transfer music acquired from "all you can eat" subscription services like Napster to Go, Yahoo's Y Music Unlimited or eMusic. They will also be able to transfer songs copied from CDs or downloaded in MP3 and Windows Media formats. The service initially will require transferring music from PCs to cellphones with a cable. Next year, Cingular plans to add over-the-air downloading. (info from The Wall Street Journal)