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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Kids & seniors can get free phones at Wal-Mart

According to a report published in the New York Times, Wal-Mart stores will no longer call the police after catching shoplifters who are under 18 or over 65, and only if the stolen property is worth at least $25. Formerly its policy was to press charges against anyone who took at least $3 in goods.

The paper said the change in policy will allow Wal-Mart to concentrate on theft by professional shoplifters and its own employees, the two groups who steal the most merchandise.

"If I have somebody being paid $12 an hour processing a $5 theft, I have lost money," according to J. P. Suarez, in charge of asset protection at Wal-Mart. "I have also lost the time to catch somebody stealing $100, or an organized group stealing $3,000."

Wal-Mart told the paper it would closely track shoplifters it did not have arrested, and would ask that they be prosecuted after a second incident. It will also seek the prosecution of all suspected shoplifters who threaten violence or fail to produce identification, no matter how much they are trying to steal. Professional shoplifters often do not carry ID in order to avoid arrest.

Another news report quoted a Wheat Ridge, Colorado, police officer who had responded to a call from a Wal-Mart security person detaining two juveniles. The officer reported, "I incredulously asked what would happen if a person under 18 stole a high-dollar item like a flat-screen television, and [the Wal-Mart security person] said that the price of the item is irrelevant."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hooking up with the BEEP LINE

Long before AOL, MySpace, FaceBook, YouTube, and even long before the Internet, college kids were hooking up with chat rooms accidentally provided by their local phone companies.

I don’t know who discovered it, but when several people reached a busy phone number, they were connected together in a conference call, on a “beep line;” and people could speak between the beeps.

When I was a student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA in the late 1960s, young men at Lehigh used the beep line to try to get dates with young ladies from Cedar Crest College in neighboring Allentown, or even with "townies" who worked at Bethelehem Steel.

Around 8pm on Saturday, a desperate dateless Lehigh guy would call his own busy phone number to reach the beep line, hoping a similarly dateless girl would have done the same thing.

The conversation might go like this:

"Hi BEEP I’m BEEP Steve BEEP a BEEP football BEEP player BEEP at BEEP Lehigh. BEEP. Does BEEP anyone BEEP want BEEP to BEEP go BEEP to BEEP a BEEP party? BEEP."

"Hi BEEP Steve BEEP I’m BEEP Cindy BEEP a BEEP hot BEEP freshman BEEP cheer BEEP leader BEEP at BEEP Cedar BEEP Crest. BEEP. I BEEP can BEEP be BEEP ready BEEP at BEEP nine BEEP. Call BEEP me BEEP at BEEP 86 BEEP 75 BEEP 55 BEEP 5 BEEP."

"OK BEEP Cindy BEEP hang BEEP up BEEP and BEEP I’ll BEEP call BEEP you. BEEP Do BEEP you BEEP have BEEP a BEEP car? BEEP. What BEEP kind BEEP of BEEP beer BEEP do BEEP you BEEP like? BEEP. Are BEEP you BEEP on BEEP the BEEP pill? BEEP."

I can’t tell you how many of the dates actually happened, or how many of them resulted in romance. As in today’s chat rooms, there was lots of lying. Many of the alleged football heroes weren't; and the allegedly beautiful-and-willing blonde 18 year-old college girl might turn out to be a 14-year-old junior-high-school student, and might not even be a girl.

Eventually, Bell’s central office equipment was "improved," and the Beep Line disappeared.

Monday, February 26, 2007

iPhone will be called iPhone, but not at Oscars

Apple and Cisco Systems have resolved a trademark dispute over the name iPhone that had threatened the June introduction of Apple's super-cool cellphone.

Under the agreement, Cisco and Apple are free to use the iPhone trademark, Cisco will drop a trademark infringement lawsuit filed against Apple, and the companies will explore making their products work better together "in the areas of security, and consumer and enterprise communications." It's not apparent what real benefit Cisco is getting. If there's a payment, it's a secret.

Networking biggee Cisco sued Apple on January 10, the day after Apple boss Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. Cisco said Apple had tried unsuccessfully to get Cisco to grant rights to use the iPhone name, and was engaged in intensive discussions until right before Apple unveiled the phone. Initially, Apple declared the lawsuit "silly," pointed out that other companies had been using the iPhone name, and said it expected to prevail in court. Cisco has owned the iPhone trademark since 2000, when it bought Infogear Technology, maker of an IP phone and owner of the iPhone name.

Apple ran a commercial for the iPhone during last night's Oscar telecast, but did not use the iPhone name. It may have been produced before the Cisco settlement. The commercial used movie and TV clips with actors and actresses including Lucille Ball, Dustin Hoffman, Jerry Lewis and Wilma Flintstone answering phones. (Info from The Wall Street Journal & other sources)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On Vacation

We'll be away for a bit of relaxation and recharging. New posts will resume on 2/26. If you miss me, you can read all of the posts on all of my blogs.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Canadian company brings back 7-digit dialing

In a "Back to the Future" move, babyTEL, a Canadian provider of VoIP phone service, has eliminated the need to dial the area code when calling people within the same area code.

"This will resonate with Canadians," says babyTEL President Stephen Dorsey. "The phone companies think they've trained us to the inevitability of tedious 10-digit dialing in our own area codes. Well, with today's technology, it's ridiculous and that's why we're offering 7-digit local calling to all Canadians."

Canadian 10-digit local calling was first introduced in Toronto in 2001, and spread to other cities.

"babyTEL's move is one small step for mankind -- back to a simpler time when your fingers did a little less walking," said telecom analyst Iain Grant of the Seaboard Group.

Beyond 7-digit local calling, an added benefit for babyTEL customers is that they need only dial the last four digits when calling other babyTEL users in the same exchange. babyTEL recently expanded its service into the United States, and said it will introduce other services that exploit VoIP technology.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Girls alter website to "close" school

Two teenage girls in Trenton, Ohio posted a fake announcement on their school district's Website that said school was closed for the day due to winter weather. The notice, posted last Monday, persuaded some students to stay home.

Edgewood City Schools Superintendent Tom York said he discovered the posting when he logged on to write his own announcement that school would be delayed for an hour because of an extreme cold snap. "I didn't make that call, and I'm the guy who does, so I knew something was up," York said.

The two Edgewood High School students were charged in juvenile court and face expulsion. One of the girls was charged with delinquency by unauthorized use of a computer and by reason of records tampering. The other was charged with delinquency by reason of complicity.

The company that runs the Website, RCH Networks Inc., said no security breach was detected. Administrators say the girls must have somehow gotten the password. RCH helped the district track down the girls by supplying the identification numbers from computers that accessed the system, which authorities could then track to the girls' homes. (Info from The Associated Press)

Friday, February 09, 2007

"I'd like a large kosher pizza with soy sauce."
Chinese & Israelis put TV on Italian cellphones

Telecom Italia Mobile will soon be marketing a TV-capable cellphone manufactured by Chinese phone maker ZTE in partnership with Israeli chip maker Siano Mobile Silicon Ltd.

The launch of the Brionvega N7100 is expected to make ZTE the first Chinese cellphone maker to distribute a mobile TV phone. The phone has a 240 by 320 pixel color screen, 2-megapixel camera and 3.6-Mbit/s HSDPA modem.

The chipset from Siano is a quad-band, multi-standard mobile TV receiver. A combination of RF tuner and demodulator, the SMS1000 supports DVB-H, DVB-T, DAB, DAB-IP and T-DMB mobile digital standards, allowing ZTE to reuse its mobile TV phone for other standards and markets.

"We are proud to introduce the most advanced 3G DVB-H phone in the European market," said Li Ying Feng of ZTE. "With the N7100 every end user in Italy can now get a high quality mobile TV phone at an affordable price. What's especially impressive about the Brionvega phone is its amazing sensitivity, which makes it receive high quality DVB-H at locations where competing DVB-H phone models fail," he added. "Having once developed a platform with the Siano solution, we can now easily derive additional mobile TV phones for different standards and regions."

"With the N7100 having successfully passed high standards acceptance tests, this is yet another industry seal of approval for our family of mobile TV products, and we are looking forward to further global expansion in 2007," said Alon Ironi, Siano chief executive officer. Siano has business development offices in Beijing, Taipei, and Seoul. JOKE TIME: "According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5749. According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4687. That means for 1,062 years, the Jews went without Chinese food." (info from EE Times)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What do Otjozondjupa and West Virginia have in common? Theft of phone wire

Both Verizon and Telecom Namibia recently reported the theft of miles of copper cables from their networks, crippling phone service in affected areas. Thieves are apparently stealing the copper to sell.

During the past year, Verizon says some 45 incidents of copper theft have occurred, leaving 17,000 people without service, sometimes for days. Last year, nearly five miles of copper cable was stolen in West Virginia, causing more than $240,000 in damages. The most recent incident occurred in the Weirton area, where a 20-foot section of Verizon cable with 600 telephone lines was stolen Jan. 27, affecting residential customers and police and fire departments.

In Namibia (southern Africa), the story is similar. Residents of the mining village of Berg Aukas lost service on the night of Jan. 28 after someone stole about 1500 feet of copper. On the same night, someone cut and hauled away over 1-1/2 miles of copper wire, resulting in an outage in the Otjozondjupa Region. The Namibian phone company lost $105,000 worth of copper in recent thefts.

"These thefts are just incomprehensible in that they put people's lives in danger and cost thousands of dollars to repair," said H. Stan Cavendish, president of Verizon West Virginia. "It's fortunate that there's been no loss of life due to these senseless crimes."

According to a Telecom Namibia spokesman, "the real cost to the country is high and does not include indirect costs. Who knows how many phone calls to emergency services have not been connected?"

Verizon is backing legislation to require recyclers and salvage yards that buy scrap metal to identify sellers. Telecom Namibia issued a plea to scrap-metal recyclers not to accept stolen copper wire. "If we can cut off where the thieves are cashing in on it, then hopefully they will desist from sabotaging important national infrastructure." Both companies urge anybody who spots copper thieves to call phone company security or the police. Telecom Namibia is offering rewards. (info from Telecom Web)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Cingular fined for Internet adware

Last week, Cingular Wireless (soon to be re-re-named AT&T Wireless) settled a case with the New York Attorney General for using secret "adware" Internet advertising software.

This is the first time a marketer has been held responsible for ads displayed through adware (extremely annoying software that automatically displays advertising) the AG's office said in a statement.

The settlement calls for Cingular to pay $35,000 to cover penalties and investigatory costs. Priceline and Travelocity were fined similar amounts. "Advertisers can no longer insulate themselves from liability by turning a blind eye to how their advertisements are delivered, or by placing ads through intermediaries, such as media buyers," the statement said.

The settlements followed a lawsuit the attorney general filed against DirectRevenue LLC, alleging the company installed adware programs in millions of computers worldwide that delivered streams of advertisements without the consent of users. In its statement, the attorney general's office said that lawsuit against DirectRevenue had uncovered evidence that "Priceline, Travelocity and Cingular, among others, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars delivering ads through Direct Revenue software."

Under the agreement, the companies are required to use due diligence when selecting and using adware providers, give consumers full disclosure of the name of the applicable adware program, and allow them to remove the software. (info from Reuters)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Bell System Sillyness #4:
no one owns "Bell System Property"

Back in the bad old days when people and companies had to rent phone equipment, millions of pieces of equipment -- including phones, switchboards, trucks, tools, and mechanical pencils -- were labeled "Bell System Property. Not For Sale."

When Mother Bell was broken up on 1/1/84, her property was disbursed.

Central Office equipment, and most of those mechanical pencils, went to the newly established RBOCS (Regional Bell Operating Companies) such as PacTel, NYNEX, and BellSouth.

Valuable equipment and cable used for long distance calls, and the simple "customer premises equipment" that was still being rented, stayed with AT&T.

Unfortunately, some equipment that had once been rented, and was labeled "Bell System Property," seemed to belong to no one -- and that lack of ownership meant lack of responsibility, and trouble.

For years, one customer had rented a "1A Key Service Unit," an early version of the apparatus that operated the familiar multi-line phones with six buttons across the front.

At some point in the late 1970s, the rented six-button phones were replaced by modern two-line phones that the customer purchased from a local phone dealer. A technician from New York Telephone, then in the Bell System, removed the rental phones and installed modern modular phone jacks for the new phones. The box of equipment that made it possible to hold calls, was "abandoned in place" on a wall in the basement. It wasn't necessary for the new phones, wouldn't be recycled for other customers, and wouldn't -- or at least shouldn't -- interfere with the new phones.

BUT, every mechanical device is a time bomb. Every gadget starts wearing out the first time it's used. Eventually one of the ancient relays developed a problem. Calls got noisy, and sometimes got cut off. The customer called New York Telephone, who sent a technician. The techie instantly recognized the source of the trouble, but pointed out that New York Tel was responsible only for the wiring in the walls, and he couldn't touch the troublesome box that belonged to AT&T.

After much trouble, the customer contacted AT&T's repair service. AT&T checked their records, and when they determined that no rent was being paid for the box of Bell System relays, they refused to send someone to repair or remove it.

Ultimately, the customer had to pay a non-Bell company to make the noise go away.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Bell System Sillyness #3:
paying money to produce garbage

In the 1970s, when private ownership of phone systems became common, if people wanted to replace a system that was rented from the local Bell company, Mother Bell would send out a truck with a guy who might spend a day removing or disabling (i.e. sabotaging) the phone cable that Bell had previously put in.

The cable was generally perfectly good, and could have been used by the customer with the new equipment, but the Bell geniuses had no procedure to sell the cable that was "in place."

  • Bell had to spend money to send a man (who could have been doing something productive) to convert a valuable asset into scrap.
  • Bell had an extra expense, and was deprived of potential revenue.
  • Energy and materials were wasted to produce the replacement cable.
  • There was unnecessary fuel expense, and wear and tear to vehicles and tools.
  • The cost of the new phone system was higher than necessary.

  • Around 1980, some Bell companies became a bit more enlightened, and began a program of selling the cable that they had installed. But, naturally, there was a catch. If a customer wanted to buy, the customer had to pay Bell an "engineering survey fee" for an engineer to visit the phone system location and estimate the number of feet of cable in the walls to arrive at a selling price.

    It cost about $300 for the survey, and the engineer might come up with a number ranging from $50 to $8,000, and the number could not be challenged; so lots of residential and small business customers skipped the survey and paid for new cable. (Sometimes, the Bell "uninstaller" would lay waste to the cable, rendering it completely useless. Sometimes -- especially if encouraged by beer, coffee, cash or cleavage -- he'd make just a few insignificant snips, or do no damage at all.)

    HOWEVER, if somone wanted Bell to install a system with new cable, the lady in the business office would quote a price without ever seeing the place where it was going to be installed, and with no knowledge of the amount of cable necessary to do the job. The system that was used to price a phone system that included cable, could not be used to price the cable alone. I asked for an explanation in 1979, and am still waiting.

    Saturday, February 03, 2007

    Saturday Stupidity Report:
    Feds lose money making money

    The wizards in Washington may have lost as much as $40 million coining pennies and nickels last year.

    The metal in them — the zinc, copper and nickel — has soared in value in the last few years, making the coins more valuable as raw materials than they are as currency. The US Mint estimates it will cost 1.23 cents per penny and 5.73 cents per nickel this fiscal year. The cost of producing a penny has risen 27% in the last year, while nickel manufacturing costs have risen 19%. The government reaction has been to ban the melting of the coins to get the metal. But there is a good chance that we will have a coin shortage that harks back to the monetary problems of medieval times.

    The authors of “The Big Problem of Small Change,” point out that before the 20th century, the value of coins came from the material they contained: silver or gold. It was “commodity money.” But as the price of silver or gold increased, people pulled the coins from circulation. These shortages are a basic problem with commodity money and began almost as early as Charlemagne’s minting of the first silver penny around 800 A.D.

    But the US doesn’t have commodity money anymore. Our coins are just tokens. They are valuable only because the government says they are, and is willing to trade them for dollars. Making tokens that cost more to manufacture than they are worth is monetary insanity. We could make them out of any material we want, so why in the world would we lose money?

    To stop this senselessness, we would seem to have only two choices: debase the coins (i.e., make them out of something cheaper) or abolish pennies (and, perhaps, even nickels).

    The US has debased money in the past. In World War II, we made steel pennies to save copper. In the 1960s, the high value of silver caused a run on quarters and dimes and led to a full-blown coin shortage until we substituted copper and nickel. We also took most of the copper out of pennies in 1982 for the same reason.

    But debasement only puts off the inevitable for a short time. Because the penny is fixed in value at 1 cent, no matter what the penny is made of, the cost of its material will rise with inflation and eventually be worth more than a cent. Most economists argue that we should use this opportunity to abolish pennies the way Canada, Britain and European countries that use the euro abolished their smallest coins. Because of inflation, a penny isn’t half the coin it once was. Indeed, the US ended the half-cent in 1857 when it was still worth about 8 cents in today’s terms, so we’re probably well overdue to retire some coins.

    But polls show that a majority of Americans like their pennies, and abolition might lead people in Illinois — the land of Lincoln, where pennies still work at tollbooths — to outright currency rebellion. On top of that, economist Raymond Lombra claims that the rounding of prices — a $6.49 charge would cost you $6.50 — might cost consumers as much as $600 million a year, paid disproportionately by the poor who use cash more often.

    So what to do?

    Fran├žois R. Velde of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (and co-author of the "Small Change" book), said “We face a very medieval problem so I took inspiration from the medieval practice of rebasing.” He would rebase the penny by having the government declare it to be worth 5 cents.

    At first that sounds impossible. But our coins are just tokens the government gives a value to. We can say they are worth whatever we like. Indeed, Mr. Velde observes that the US did something similar in 1834, when it changed the gold-silver ratio and suddenly the half-eagle $5 coin was actually worth $5.625.

    Pennies would then cost a little over 1 cent to make and would be worth a nickel, so the government would again be making a profit on money. We would have plenty of new Lincoln nickels so we could stop minting our current nickels at a heavy loss. The Jefferson nickels would stay in circulation, just as the old wheat pennies do now. Because metal in nickels is valuable, though, they would probably be melted down.

    Rebasing pennies is printing money. But don’t get too worried about inflation. With about 140 billion pennies in circulation ($1.4 billion) — counting the ones in your couch and your kids’ piggy banks — this rebalance would make them worth $7 billion, adding about $5.6 billion to the money supply. For comparison, at the start of 2007 there was about $1.4 trillion in currency and money available for purchases, to say nothing of credit cards.

    Plus, the money would go disproportionately to the poor (and to kids getting allowances from parents), more than offsetting any “rounding tax” from eliminating the penny.

    So pull out those sofa cushions, and start looking for the shiny face of Honest Abe. All that glitters may not be gold, or even nickel, but it may be soon worth 5 cents.

    (based on article in the New York Times, written by Austan Goolsbee, economics professor at the University of Chicago)

    Friday, February 02, 2007

    Bell System Sillyness #2:
    banning two-line phones

    Back in the late 1970s, when the Feds forced the phone companies to allow people to buy and install their own phones, there were some really stupid rules.

    For several years, in most of the Bell System territory, Mother Bell permitted people to have private single-line phones, and private phones with five lines, or nine lines or 19 or a gazillion lines -- but not two lines.
    At that time, folks were required to tell Mother what kind of phones they were installing.

    So, what did people do if they wanted to install a two-liner?

    THEY LIED TO MOTHER, and claimed to be installing a more complicated phone. (I confess to lying to New York Telephone Company several times.)

    Thursday, February 01, 2007

    Bell System Sillyness #1:
    the castrated telephone

    Until the recent trend to fixed-fee unlimited nationwide calling, in big cities, the local phone companies offered unlimited "flat rate" local calling for residential customers, but only more expensive "message rate" local calling for business customers. Each call was paid for.

    Many business customers, such as accountants, who worked at home and didn't care about Yellow Page ads, saved money by ordering only residential service. Some home-based businesses that needed multiple phone lines and Yellow Page ads, paid business rates; but often used their residential line to make "free" local calls.

    AT&T caught on, and back in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, if you had a home-based business, and wanted to have a multi-line phone in the business part of the house, with both business and residential lines on it, the installer was supposed to modify the phone to prevent dialing out on the residential line.

    If you had separate business and residential phones, you couldn't have a residential phone within ten feet of a business phone, unless its dial was removed.

    Of course, the whole plan fell apart in 1978, when people were permitted to buy and install their own phones and there was no way for Ma Bell to enforce the ten-foot rule.