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

Friday, December 29, 2006

AT&T wusses out to get FCC approval for BellSouth deal

AT&T (formerly known as SBC) made consumer-friendly and business-friendly concessions in its proposed $85 billion merger with BellSouth, in an effort to get approval from the Federal Communications Commission to recreate the old Bell System.

The concessions came after negotiations with the FCC reached an impasse, with two Democrats on the five-member commission pushing for concessions, and two Republicans opposing them. The fifth commissioner, Robert McDowell, is a Republican who many thought would break the tie. He abstained because he previously lobbied for a trade group that represents smaller phone companies.

AT&T promised to:

1. Observe "network neutrality" principles to treat all Internet content equally FOR JUST TWO YEARS. (Consumer groups and some Internet companies have been pressing the FCC to make this a condition of approving the merger, but the two year guaranty may be of little lasting value.)
2. Increase the availability of high-speed Internet service.
3. Adhere to price caps for four years on "special access lines." (These are lines usually used by competitors and large businesses that connect directly to a phone company's central office.)
4. Repatriate 3,000 jobs outsourced by BellSouth outside the U.S. (At least 200 jobs would be in the New Orleans area.)
5. Offer "naked" DSL Internet service for $19.95 per month for 30 months. (This would allow people to get fast web access without buying other services, and help Internet phone companies like Vonage.)
6. Divest itself of wireless spectrum intended for broadband services. (Critics claimed that AT&T and BellSouth had so much spectrum that others couldn't compete.)

(info from The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mother Nature's revenge:
earthquake hurts Asian telecommunications

An earthquake near Taiwan on Tuesday damaged several undersea cables, disrupting communications across the Pacific region and Asia. International phone service was cut off or restricted in some countries, and Internet service slowed to a crawl in much of China. Some system redundancies designed to back up primary undersea cable networks failed to work.

Asia has some of the world's most earthquake-prone areas, and there are fewer cables connecting Asian countries to each other and the rest of the world, than link the U.S. and Europe, making Asian phone service more vulnerable. The cables damaged by the earthquake -- connecting Hong Kong and Southeast Asia with Japan and, ultimately, North America -- run between Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Most businesses in the region found ways to work around Tuesday's earthquake. Among the best off were companies that use telecom carriers with redundant cables or backup satellite systems. Some telecom carriers had to scramble to find other paths for phone calls and data transmission, causing slowdowns on the alternative routes.

Telecom companies said repairs to the damaged cables could take weeks to complete, although service will improve as companies find alternative ways to deliver service. Repairing broken cables can be difficult. Special ships must be sent out to pull up the cable, find the break, and repair it.

The problem comes partly from a recent global slowdown of investment in new cables. During the telecom boom of the 1990s, companies laid huge amounts of fiber-optic cable both within and between countries in anticipation of an explosion of demand. When growth didn't happen as quickly as expected, investment in new capacity slowed sharply. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Not telecom, but important:
Give money, save money, save time

As the year ends, lots of people realize that they have only a few more days to make tax deductable donations to charity. It's not a big deal to write a couple of checks, and lots of charities accept credit card donations and have convenient websites. However, if you want to spread money around, AmEx makes it extremely easy -- and personally profitable.

The Giving Express program connects you to over a million charitable organizations! You can search for them by name, keywords, location, or use an extensive list of categories such as performing arts, education, health care, housing, human rights, disaster relief, religion and much more. The AmEx website has financial reports, mission statements, contacts, and other information regarding the organizations.

Donating online helps nonprofit organizations reduce administrative costs so that they can do more with the money. Your dollar donations are tax-deductible and you’ll receive an e-mail receipt for your records. Plus, through December 31, 2006, you can earn double Membership Rewards points for every dollar you donate with an eligible, enrolled American Express Card.

• Give to one or more charities and nonprofit organizations
• Donate dollars with your American Express Card
• Donate Membership Rewards points
• Set up recurring donations

When you make a donation, you'll get an immediate e-mail confirmation for each transaction. AmEx will post a detailed record of all your donations on your password-protected Giving History web page, if you need a record for an IRS audit in the future. CLICK

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

phone book shows addresses of rich and dead

Hollywood superstars, business biggies and ordinary people pay a little extra to their local phone companies to keep their personal information out of the phone book. There are lots of pissed-off people in Aspen, Colorado, who were accidentally outed in the local Yellow Book.

Not only will the book help you locate a dry cleaner or pizzeria, it also reveals the address of Oscar winner Jack Nicholson. Other listed luminaries include former Walt Disney boss Michael Eisner, musician John Oates, and Ken Lay, who died last summer while awaiting sentencing for the Enron scandal. Yellow Book also revealed addresses of women who got restraining orders to protect them against estranged lovers, and others who have been threatened or stalked.

"Yellow Book apologizes for this," said spokesman John Hartz. "The company really prides itself in the accuracy of its directories. They're doing everything they need to do to make sure this is corrected for next year's directory."

The book is filled with errors. Some ex-wives, ex-husbands and new spouses are listed as living under the same roof. A woman said her real name is listed only on her birth certificate, voter registration and driver's license, but it's now in the directory. The book shows the address of a girl who owns a cell phone, but has no landline phone service.

Yellow Book said the information came from InfoUSA, a database marketing service that claims to have the industry's most comprehensive data. (info from the Aspen Daily News)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Stupid Cingular loses 200 bucks

Your editor bought a cool silver Moto Razr from Cingular a few years ago, on the very first day it was offered for sale. Last Spring, he passed down the silver Razr to loyal wife, and got a cooler black Razr for himself, also from Cingular. Wife dropped her Razr into a puddle, and bought yet another Moto from Cingular.

A few weeks ago, the sexy, sleek and easy-to-lose black Razr disappeared. It was time to shop for a new toy. Editor has no need for keyboard-equipped Blackberries, Blackjacks or other PDA-like phones; but he did want something cool.

Editor did some research. He was quickly impressed by the new A707 "Sync" from Samsung, that takes better pictures than the Moto Razr, plays music and TV shows, works on four bands, uses 3G technology, and has a slot for a micro SD card; and he went into the local Cingular emporium to do the deal. (Note to sloppy Samsung and slapdash Cingular: the phone is much thinner than the 1.02 inches shown on both of your websites.)

Editor was told he'd have to pay $350 for the phone, because he wasn't "due" for an upgrade yet. If Editor was due for an upgrade, the phone price would have come down to $200 -- or even $50 if he paid $20 per month for a multimedia package (which he planned on doing.)

Pleading, begging, and appeals to logic did not help. The stubborn Cingularians were not impressed by Editor's promise to switch to Sprint, or his willingness to pay the $200 price, buy the high-profit multimedia package, and add two years to the contract.

Editor quickly found the phone on Ebay for $199 plus $10 for shipping, but without $12 sales tax. He took the phone (which has Cingular logos on it) to the Cingular store. The nice folks there provided a SIM card at no charge, entered the phone in their system, and will find a way to survive without the 200 bucks.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

iPhone is coming, but not from the iPeople

The geek world has been eagerly awaiting a long-rumored “iPhone” from Apple, which would be a combo cellphone and iPod-like music and video player. The wait is over, sort of. The iPhone is now available, but from network hardware maker Linksys, not from iPod maker Apple.

Apple (the iPod maker) has been sued by Apple (the Beatles' company). Now Apple lawyers may pounce on Linksys. Linksys has a good defense: its corporate parent Cisco Systems has owned the trademark "iPhone" since 2000, when it bought InfoGear, the company that originally registered the iPhone name.

Industry watchers have speculated that Apple is close to releasing an iPod/cellphone, possibly at Macworld in January. Until the Linksys announcement, the name "iPhone" was a logical guess for its name.

Seven Linksys iPhones are available, starting at under $80. They use VoIP, and also allow users to switch to traditional calling. The phones can search the web to allow users to see when friends are online and ready to accept calls. (info from The Associated Press and Linksys)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Nokia reluctant to deal with corrupt Siemens

Last June, Nokia and Siemens announced plans for a $20 billion, 60,000 employee joint venture, dubbed Nokia Siemens Networks, which would combine the companies' network infrastructure businesses. The combo would be the world's second largest company in mobile infrastructure, third largest in fixed infrastructure, and the third largest in the overall telecom infrastructure market.

This week, Nokia announced that the ongoing Siemens scandal, involving a $265 million network of "black accounts" for bribery around the world, has weakened Nokia's trust in the company and hampered the merger plans.

An internal review will now be required by Nokia before it goes forward with Nokia Siemens Networks. "In light of the current investigations of Siemens, the scope of which includes the carrier-related business to be transferred to the new company," the companies intend to adjust their agreements in order to have Siemens conduct "an appropriate compliance review" prior to closing of the transaction.

Nokia Siemens Networks is now expected to start operations some time in the first three months of 2007, instead of January as previously expected. Don’t be surprised if the deal never gets done. (info from Electronic News)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

UPDATE: FCC to rule on AT&T/BellSouth deal without one commish; AT&T faces restrictions

Back on December 11, we told you that the proposed sale of BellSouth to AT&T (formerly known as SBC) had been delayed, because an FCC commissioner had not decided if he would vote on the deal. Well, Commissioner Robert McDowell has finally decided that he won't vote; and now AT&T could face unwanted restrictions.

McDowell has expressed concern about whether he could vote because he previously lobbied on behalf of CompTel, a trade group that represents smaller phone companies that opposed the deal.

The FCC's review had broken down amid partisan bickering, with the two Democrats on the five-member commission pushing for certain conditions and the two remaining Republicans opposing them. Republican McDowell's decision to step aside increases the likelihood that AT&T will be forced to accept conditions involving "net neutrality"(the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally) and on the pricing of high-volume data lines.

Even without McDowell's vote, there is little question the FCC will approve the deal, but his abstention will change what conditions might be imposed. The Justice Department approved the sale in October without any conditions. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Cingular to put MySpace on YourPhone

Cingular Wireless and the MySpace social-networking website plan to announce today a service that will let Cingular subscribers access MySpace content on their cellphones for $2.99-per-month, as well as send and receive email.

The move shows how borders between the wireless Internet and the regular Internet are beginning to disappear as cellphones become mini entertainment devices, allowing users to take pictures, browse the web, watch video and play music -- in addition to making and receiving calls.

The partnership marks MySpace's first major expansion into wireless. MySpace is the most popular social networking website in the U.S., but usage in the U.S. has flattened in recent months. Until now, MySpace had only a limited presence in the wireless market, through a partnership with start-up carrier Helio. The partnership with Cingular is exclusive for several months, and is likely to roll out partnerships with the other major wireless carriers next year.

Wireless carriers are enthusiastic about social-networking services because members of those sites are more likely to use multimedia services such as picture messaging and Web browsing, generating new revenue to offset declining income from voice calls.

Facebook, the second-largest social-networking site after MySpace, has been available to Cingular, Verizon and Sprint customers since the spring. Verizon Wireless has signed an agreement to put YouTube clips on Verizon's cellphone video service. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, December 15, 2006

AT&T may go back to providing free directory assistance, but with commercials

Years ago, when "Directory Assistance" was called "Information," it was free. Over the years, the name was changed, prices went up, and human operators were replaced by voice response robots.

Now AT&T (formerly known as SBC) is testing an ad-supported assistance service that gives callers free phone numbers for specific businesses, or listings by type of business. Callers dial 1-800-YellowPages to get information, and hear short commercials related to their request.

Businesses can buy ads that promote special offers to those who request their specific number, or ads that play when listings for their category of business is requested, or which run on a general basis and say that the service is being sponsored by a specific business.

“Increasingly, our customers are calling directory assistance when they don’t have a phone book handy or can’t jump online,” said David Huntley, senior vice president of AT&T Diversified Businesses. “We’re developing AT&T 1-800-YellowPages to be the consumer’s audio Yellow Pages that gives them free access to local and nationwide business listing information from any phone, 24/7. At the same time, we want to help businesses reach consumers at a key moment — when consumers are in need of a service and are ready to make a purchasing decision.” (info from Telephony magazine)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Say goodbye to free Skype calls

Starting 1/1/07, Skype, the Internet calling service owned by eBay, will begin charging $30 a year for unlimited calls to landline and mobile phones in the U.S. and Canada.

Those calls had been free as a limited-time promotion since last spring. The new annual fee for unlimited calling, while still low, is part of a strategy by eBay to expand Skype’s product offerings and revenue. Calls from one computer to another have been and will continue to be free.

EBay, the online auction giant, paid $2.5 billion for Skype in October 2005, prompting criticism from some analysts that it had overpaid for a start-up company focused on a different market and technology.

Despite the relatively low cost of the service, industry analysts said Skype was not considered to be serious competition in the telecommunications business. Skype, unlike Vonage, cable companies and other competitors, generally requires users to download software and to make calls from the device on which it is installed.

The company has been developing and deploying technology that allows Skype to be used on other devices, including wireless phones and pocket computers. Potentially more significant innovations are planned for next year, when Skype will introduce a service that will allow Web users to click a button to call a business they have found during a search. (info from The New York Times)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Drug dealer called cops to report stolen pot

A stupid drug dealer in Wichita, Kansas was busted after he called 911 to report that he was the victim of an armed robbery.

The victim told police that a buyer pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and stole a pound of marijuana worth about $1,100 that he had been trying to sell at his home.

The cops brought in a drug-sniffing dog and located more pot, plus drug paraphernalia. The victim was booked on multiple charges, including possession with the intent to sell drugs. The robber has not been apprehended. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

AT&T: "We don't need no stinking fiber" for TV

AT&T (formerly known as SBC) is building an Internet-based video service called U-Verse to compete with cable companies. But unlike Verizon, which is launching a similar service with a "fiber to the home" network, AT&T is using existing copper wiring to save money.

"Our view at this point is that we're not going to have to go 'fiber to the home.' We're pleased with the bandwidth that we're seeing over copper," Chief Financial Officer Richard Lindner said.

"On average,” he explained, “at this point, we're producing about 25 megabits (per second). But in many, many locations, we're producing substantially more than that."

Some analysts have said AT&T's method is more efficient, while others have said it would need to upgrade its network again when more consumers start to watch high-definition channels and download movies, requiring increased bandwidth. Stay tuned. (info from Reuters)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Indecision by new FCC commish delays AT&T merger with BellSouth

The Federal Communications Commission could remain deadlocked on the pending $84 billion merger of AT&T (formerly known as SBC) and BellSouth, as a new Republican commissioner decides whether or not to vote. The five-member FCC has been stuck with a two-to-two tie vote for months over conditions on the deal as newbie Robert McDowell sat out of deliberations because of conflict-of-interest concerns. Before joining the FCC, McDowell lobbied on behalf of a trade group that represents smaller phone companies, and opposed the merger.

McDowell was approved to vote by the FCC’s general counsel, but McDowell said he may decline to vote on the deal. In a statement, he "strongly" urged his colleagues to "resolve their differences" while he reviews the general counsel's decision. "In addition, I look forward to receiving a copy of (general counsel) Mr. Feder's response to Congressman John Dingell's letter of December 5." In that letter, Dingell, the Democratic incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, asked 15 pointed questions about the suitability of McDowell's involvement in the merger vote.

In a memo, FCC general counsel Sam Feder argued that the government's interest in seeing the merger deliberations move forward outweighed concerns about potential conflicts of interest. He noted that both AT&T and BellSouth had agreed to McDowell's participation and that he might be "the only person available to break the impasse."

There's been little question whether the FCC will approve the deal, just about what conditions would be required, such as antidiscrimination rules for the Internet and price controls on high-volume data lines. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Tough justice:
woman jailed for friend's phone call

Carmen Granata of Eastpointe, Michigan is serving 30 nights in jail for violating the city noise ordinance because a friend used a cellphone on her front porch at about 4 a.m. after a party last month.

Granata also got two years of probation with daily breath tests for alcohol, monthly drug tests, and twice-monthly meetings with a probation officer. She must have approval from neighbors if she wants to have a party. Any violation would get her 60 days in the slammer.

Granata hosted a barbecue for about 70 friends. Most left to attend a concert, but some returned about 2:30 a.m. to sleep.

Police were called to investigate a noise complaint, but no tickets were issued. When someone stepped out later to use a cellphone, a nearby officer ticketed Granata because she owned the house.

Some neighbors told the judge that Granata regularly caused problems in the neighborhood. Another neighbor said that there's a group of people on the block notorious for calling police to investigate noise complaints and other minor issues. (info from The Detroit Free Press)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Throwaway phone company sues the Feds

Tracfone, the US's largest provider of pay-as-you-go cellphone service, is suing the Federal government over a recent ruling that allows people to disable the software that bonds phones to a particular carrier.

Tracfone contends that a new exemption to copyright law will make it difficult to stop people who disable the software and resell the phones at a profit overseas.

Usually, Federal law bars attempting to break electronic mechanisms for enforcing copyrights. The Library of Congress recently allowed the exemption at the urging of groups that said companies like Tracfone stifle competition, and hurt the environment because many of the phones would otherwise be thrown away after use by the first owner.

Tracfone has fought a largely losing battle with brokers who buy up its cheap phones at retailers such as Wal-Mart, disable the restrictive software and repackage them for sale, particularly in Latin America and Hong Kong. (info from Excite News)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More Siemens corruption trouble:
bribes and slush fund

German electric and telecom giant Siemens faces more trouble in a fraud investigation, after an employee gave German investigators details of a bribes-for-business scheme and claimed that senior officials were involved.

Munich prosecutors are investigating allegations that officials at the Siemens telecom division diverted at least €200 million ($266.6 million) to a slush fund at banks in three countries for use as bribes.

On Friday, prosecutors ordered the release of Reinhard Sickzek, a former Siemens telecom sales official, after he provided details of a system of bribes paid to potential customers in Africa, Russia and the Middle East. Sickzek ratted-out at least one board member at Siemens as the supervisor of the scheme, and told police that a member of the Siemens Compliance Department advised him on how to prevent detection of the bribery operation. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Role reversal:
cellphone TV show heads for bigger screens

Just a few months ago, Hollywood was buzzing about TV shows like "24" producing episodes for cellphones. Now, it's the other way around. Comedy Central plans to air a show produced by wireless carrier Amp'd Mobile, the first time that a U.S. TV network will broadcast a show originally produced for cellphones.

Comedy Central has bought TV rights to the animated series, "Lil' Bush: Resident of the United States," and plans to air it beginning next summer, possibly after "South Park."

Amp'd Mobile, which launched last December and has more than 50,000 cellphone customers, offers a wide range of videos, music and games to distinguish itself from other carriers. Customers pay more than $34 a month on average for entertainment content and Web browsing on their phones, almost five times more than customers of major carriers.

The animated "Lil' Bush" series is set in the background of the first Bush presidency when today's President Bush was still in school. It features a little George character and his little White House gang, including little Condi, little Rummy and the unintelligible little Cheney. They play baseball with little John Kerry and square off against characters like little Mikey Moore. The series pilot was viewed more than one million times on Break.com in the first week of September, and has been viewed more than 237,000 times on YouTube. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Phone can stop drunks from driving

After selling about 200,000 units back home in Korea, cellphone maker LG will introduce a drunk-detector phone the US sometime soon.

After after a night of boozing, you can check your own personal Breathalyzer, to see if you're fit to get behind the wheel.

You blow into a small opening on the phone, and if you've had too much to drink, the phone issues a warning tone and displays a weaving car hitting traffic cones.

The model LP4100 also allows you to set up the phone so on certain nights and after a certain time it won’t call certain people in the dialing directory -- like your boss, parent or former lover. If you have a blood alcohol level over .08, the phone keeps you from calling that person, to stop you from saying something really stupid. (info from ABC News)

Friday, December 01, 2006

New services help end cellphone contracts

It can cost a cellphone company as much as $400 to acquire and set up a new customer, especially with a deal that includes a free or discounted phone; so carriers make customers agree to stick around for a year or more. If you want to jump ship early, for a better deal, a hotter phone or better coverage, you can pay a termination fee of up to $250.

Unhappy customers unwilling to pay the fee, can use new web-based services to ease the pain, using a loophole to sell their contracts. CelltradeUSA.com, Resellular.com, Cellswapper.com and Wirecracker.com charge from $14.99 to $50 -- well below the usual termination fees.

The companies make use of a cellphone-contract loophole that's available to nearly all customers with long-term plans: cellular carriers allow people to get out of contracts if they transfer the remaining time to someone else, once the carrier approves the new customer.

While some cellphone contracts include a phone, cellphone companies don't require it to be transferred to the new customer or returned. Many customers using the websites offer their phones as an incentive or sell them to the people taking over their contracts.

As for the contract buyers, they can avoid a registration fee, get a shorter contract than if they had signed with a cellphone company, and sometimes get a free phone and accessories from the unhappy customer. (info from The Wall Street Journal)