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

Friday, August 31, 2007

Pissed-off public housing tenant
bites through phone cord

In northwestern England, a hot-tempered public housing ("council") tenant who chewed through a telephone wire at his local housing office has received an Anti-Social Behavior Injunction.

Terrance Edwards was frequently hostile towards Wigan & Leigh Housing staff and visitors at the Wigan area office. The company manages services for 23,094 homes.

The two-year injunction, secured at Liverpool County Court last week, aims to prevent any further aggressive or abusive behavior by Edwards towards WALH employees and customers. Edwards is banned from entering the housing offices in Wigan and nearby Platt Bridge. The order also carries with it the threat of arrest and up to two years imprisonment if the terms of the order are broken.

Wigan & Leigh Housing Chief Executive, Ashley Crumbley said: "We will use all the powers available to us to protect our staff and customers from unacceptable behavior like this. "We have been successful in eight similar court actions recently, which come with power of arrest. The message to people like Mr. Edwards is clear: behave or else!" (info from 24Dash.com)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

NYC makes more money from phone booth ads than from phone booth calls

Pay phones remain rooted in the pavement of New York, blocking pedestrian traffic, looking a bit like museum pieces in an age of cellphones, BlackBerrys and Bluetooth headsets.

There is a reason for their survival: public telephones are cash cows for city finance. Not because of the coins that are fed into them, but rather because of the millions upon millions that companies are willing to pay to put ads on them. The phone kiosks generate $62 million in advertising revenue annually — and last year the city got $13.7 million of the take, triple what it pulled in from calls.

Over all, the number of pay phones in New York is falling, as it is throughout the country. But in a phenomenon unique to New York, the phones are more valuable than ever, thanks to the intense competition among advertisers for attention in a city of eight million.

Phone companies say the pay phones are still necessary, noting that during 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, people lined up to use them. But it is the phone kiosks’ desirability to advertisers, who love them because they are inexpensive and plentiful, that appears to be driving pressure on the city for permission to install new phones in choice locations.

New York transformed the pay phone business in 1999 when it signed franchise agreements with all pay phone companies operating in the city and required them to use media representatives specializing in outdoor marketing to sell their ad space. Within two years, the city’s pay phone ad revenue had outstripped its earnings from calls. The city collects 26 percent of the ad money, while it gets 10 percent of the revenue from local calls and 50 percent from long-distance calls.

Some restrictions have been put in place. Advertising on curbside kiosks on purely residential streets is not allowed. And no ads are permitted on any new pay phones approved since December 2004 in Manhattan neighborhoods south of Harlem. Pay phone companies say they sympathize with neighborhood residents. But they warn that New York would be worse off with fewer public phones, and ads help the companies survive. (info from The New York Times)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hacked iPhone traded for car and more iPhones

The teenage hacker who managed to unlock his iPhone so that it can be used with cellular networks other than AT&T will be trading his reworked gadget for a new sports car. George Hotz said he had reached the deal with CertiCell, a Kentucky-based mobile-phone repair company.

The procedure, which the 17-year-old laid out on his blog last week, raises the possibility of a cottage industry springing up to buy iPhones, unlocking them and then selling them to people who do not want an AT&T service or cannot get it. Hotz posted on his blog that he traded his modified iPhone for "a sweet Nissan 350Z and three 8GB iPhones.

"This has been a great end to a great summer," Hotz added.

The hacker said he would be sending the three iPhones to the three online collaborators who helped him divorce Apple's phone from AT&T's network. It took 500 hours, or about eight hours a day, since the iPhone's June 29 launch.

Hotz made the deal with Terry Daidone, co-founder of CertiCell, who also promised him a paid consulting job. (info from Scotsman.com)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Cellphones overwhelm California 911 system

An explosion in calls from cellular phones has overwhelmed critical parts of California's 911 system, resulting in hundreds of thousands of lost calls and lengthy waits to reach dispatchers even as crimes or potentially deadly emergencies unfold. Wireless 911 calls statewide have jumped roughly tenfold since 1990, to more than 8 million last year. Cell calls now make up the majority of all 911 calls, and key emergency agencies are struggling to adapt.

The problems are aggravated by call surges -- such as when multiple motorists call in about the same accident -- staffing shortages at 911 dispatch centers, and technological hurdles. Cell calls are more easily interrupted or lost and take longer to handle, officials say, reducing the number of calls each dispatcher can field.

Many people are unaware of such deficiencies until they desperately need help. Elementary school counselor Brad Edwards said he waited eight harrowing minutes last year before a dispatcher picked up his cell call about a boy who had collapsed on a Los Angeles schoolyard and begun foaming from the mouth. "The fire station is just a few blocks away. I could have run there faster than it took them to help me," said Edwards, adding that the boy survived.

Some officials say that, in general, a person is better off calling for help on a land line. But because the same dispatchers answer both types of calls, delays can spread across the system, affecting land line callers as well.

Hardest hit are callers routed to the California Highway Patrol, which for years received all wireless emergency calls, and still handles nearly three-quarters of them.

CHP officials blame, in part, the behavior of cellphone users. With the proliferation of such phones, they say, they are getting an increased proportion of non-emergency calls on the 911 line, asking, for instance, about traffic and weather conditions. Others call by mistake. (info from the Los Angeles Times)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Kid hacks iPhone for use on T-Mobile

A 17-year-old hacker has broken the lock that ties Apple's iPhone to AT&T's wireless network, freeing the most hyped cellphone ever for use on the networks of other carriers, including overseas ones.

George Hotz of Glen Rock, NJ, confirmed Friday that he had unlocked an iPhone and was using it on T-Mobile's network, the only major US carrier apart from AT&T that is compatible with the iPhone's cellular technology. In a video posted to his blog, he holds an iPhone that displays "T-Mobile" as the carrier. While the possibility of switching from AT&T (formerly known as Cingular, formerly known as AT&T) to T-Mobile may not be a major development for US consumers, it opens up the iPhone for use on the networks of overseas carriers. The phone, which combines an innovative touch-screen interface with the media-playing abilities of the iPod, is sold only in the US

The hack, which Hotz posted Thursday to his blog, is complicated and requires skill with both soldering and software. It takes him about two hours to perform. Since the details are public, it seems likely that a small industry may spring up to buy US iPhones, unlock them and send them overseas. "That's exactly, like, what I don't want," Hotz said. "I don't want people making money off this." He said he wished he could make the instructions simpler, so users could modify the phones themselves. "But that's the simplest I could make them," Hotz said. The next step, he said, would be for someone to develop a way to unlock the phone using only software.

The iPhone has already been made to work on overseas networks using another method, which involves copying information from the Subscriber Identity Module, a small card with a chip that identifies a subscriber to the cell-phone network. The SIM-chip method does not require any soldering, but does requires special equipment, and it doesn't unlock the phone - each new SIM chip has to be reprogrammed for use on a particular iPhone.

Both hacks leave intact the iPhone's many functions, including a built-in camera and the ability to access Wi-Fi networks. The only thing that won't work is the "visual voicemail" feature, which shows voice messages as if they were incoming e-mail.

Since the details of both hacks are public, Apple may be able to modify the iPhone production line to make new phones invulnerable. The company has said it plans to introduce the phone in Europe this year, but it hasn't set a date or identified carriers.

There is apparently no US law against unlocking cell phones. Last year, the Library of Congress specifically excluded cell-phone unlocking from coverage under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Among other things, the law has been used to prosecute people who modify game consoles to play a wider variety of games.

Hotz collaborated online with four other people, two of them in Russia, to develop the unlocking process. "Then there are two guys who I think are somewhere U.S.-side," Hotz said. He knows them only by their online handles. Hotz himself spent about 500 hours on the project since the iPhone went on sale on June 29. On Thursday, he put the unlocked iPhone up for sale on eBay, where the high bid was above $2,000 midday Friday. The model, with 4 gigabytes of memory, sells for $499 new.

"Some of my friends think I wasted my summer but I think it was worth it," he said before heading for college on Saturday. He plans to major in neuroscience - or "hacking the brain!" as he put it, at the Rochester Institute of Technology. (info from The Associated Press)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Smart rats leaving sinking ship?
Two execs swim away from Alcatel-Lucent

Alcatel-Lucent said two top executives are leaving the telecom equipment giant less than a year after the trans-Atlantic merger between Alcatel of France and Lucent of the US.

Frank D'Amelio, a senior vice president who was in charge of integrating operations of the two companies, has resigned to become CFO at Pfizer. A Lucent veteran and Chief Exec Patricia Russo's right hand, he served as Lucent's CFO and COO before the merger with Alcatel.

Mike Quigley, an Alcatel veteran who was responsible for the combined company's strategy, is leaving to return to Australia. He was president of science, technology and strategy at Alcatel-Lucent, and the second in command at Alcatel before the merger.

Alcatel and Lucent merged late last year to fight cutthroat competition in the industry. Since then, the company has had to issue two profit warnings because of unexpected trouble integrating operations. Earlier this month, it reported a second-quarter net loss of $460.1 million. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bad Panasonic batteries in some Nokia phones

Nokia said it would replace a number of customers' phone batteries, after receiving reports of around 100 incidents of overheating from a batch of 46 million. No serious injuries or property damage has occurred from the defective batteries, according to Nokia, but the company said that the batteries, produced by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (Panasonic), had overheated and caused short-circuiting on certain phones.

Matsushita made 46 million of the BL-5C batteries for Nokia between December 2005 and November 2006. Although the BL-5C battery is used in over 30 different mobile phone models, Nokia said only a small proportion of devices were affected. To see if your battery is affected, visit Nokia's website.

Nokia Chief Financial Officer Rick Simonson said that he expected some of this cost to be taken by Matsushita. "In supplier relationships they bare the responsibility to deliver quality. There will be some costs and some of that will be borne by the manufacturer," he said. Matsushita said it will work with Nokia to determine how the costs would be borne. A Matsushita spokesman said the battery defects were due to abnormalities in the manufacturing process, not design or other issues.

A spokesman at Matsushita Battery Industrial Co. in Tokyo said the batteries in question were made on a manufacturing line used only for that specific type of battery, and that while the company makes different types of batteries for other companies, it uses separate manufacturing lines for these.

"There's only been one hundred incidents out of 46 million batteries that were produced and there's no material injury or damage to property," said Simonson. "Statistically it's insignificant."

Other electronics equipment manufacturers have been hit by battery recalls in the previous year. In July, Toshiba had to recall 10,000 Sony batteries used in its laptops, due to fire risks. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Customer get 300-page iPhone bill from AT&T

Early iPhone adopters have started to receive their first bills from AT&T (formerly known as SBC). Many bills are unnaturally bulky, taking anywhere from 30 to 50 pages to tell you everything you've ever done with your iPhone.

One bill, sent to Justine Ezarik of Pittsburgh, took 300 pages to itemize every text message she sent, every kilobyte used for Internet access and data usage, and every voice call she made. The bill was so heavy that it cost AT&T over $7 to ship.

Ezarik posted a video on YouTube, with the iPhone commercial’s music playing in the background, where she flips through every page in her massive bill and shows off the box it came in. At the end she posts the message: "Use e-billing. Save a forest."

While people can accept the activation fees and taxes that have made most initial iPhone bills higher than they'll be in the future, the consensus among iPhone users appears to be that the actual physical bills themselves are an excessive waste of paper, annoying, and have to stop.

Of course, those who've been Cingular/AT&T customers for years are used to having every single detail of their bill listed for them. AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel explained said, "If you do a lot of wireless data and consume a lot of bandwidth, that part of your bill is going to be bigger."

Siegel added customers can choose to receive less detail on their paper bill or even not to receive a bill in the mail at all, by using electronic billing: "It needs to be up to the customer — how much or how little detail they want. If you don't want it, that's fine. Just let us know." (info from SmartPhoneToday)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Skype blames failure on Windows updates.
Microsoft blames Skype.

A two-day outage last week that left millions of Skype users unable to use the popular Internet phone service was caused by an abnormally high number of PC restarts after people had downloaded a Windows security update, the company said Monday.

Skype employee Villu Arak said the disruption "was triggered by a massive restart of our users' computers across the globe within a very short timeframe as they re-booted after receiving a routine set of patches through Windows Update." Microsoft released a monthly patch last Tuesday, and many computers are set to automatically download and install them. Installation requires a computer restart.

"The high number of restarts affected Skype's network resources. This caused a flood of log-in requests, which, combined with the lack of peer-to-peer network resources, prompted a chain reaction that had a critical impact," Arak said.

Arak did not blame Microsoft for the troubles and said the outage ultimately rested with Skype. Arak said Skype's network normally has an ability to heal itself in such cases, but a glitch in Skype's software prevented that from occurring quickly enough. In a statement, Microsoft described its patch as routine and reiterated that the disruption resulted from a bug in Skype software.

Users from Vietnam to Brazil to Germany to the United States had complained they could not log on and make phone calls or send instant messages. Skype has more than 220 million users in total but typically has 5 to 6 million users online at any given time.

The trouble was the first major outage since 2005 when Skype was down for a few hours. "This disruption was unprecedented in terms of its impact and scope," Arak said. "We would like to point out that very few technologies or communications networks today are guaranteed to operate without interruptions." (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Feds approve class action suit against AT&T
for lousy cellphone service

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a lawsuit alleging that AT&T's cellphone customers received inferior service after the company's wireless division was sold to Cingular Wireless (now AT&T again) can proceed as a class action.

At issue was a clause in old Cingular contracts that forced customers to litigate their grievances independently, instead of grouping together for a class action lawsuit. The Court ruled that the contract was a violation of California law.

The ruling is further condemnation of so-called "class action waivers," which other courts have ruled illegally shield companies engaged in potentially harmful conduct. The court took a "clear position protecting consumers and their right to pursue class action relief," said Bill Weinstein, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers.

The case was filed as a national class action lawsuit in 2006 by Kennith Shroyer of Porterville, Calif. Shroyer had switched his AT&T cellphone accounts to Cingular after Cingular's acquisition of AT&T Wireless Services in October 2004.

Shroyer claimed Cingular let AT&T's service deteriorate in a scheme to force AT&T customers to switch to Cingular under less favorable contract terms. The US District Court for the Central District of California ordered the case into individual arbitration last year because of the class action waiver in Shroyer's contract.

AT&T (formerly known as SBC) — whose $86 billion acquisition of BellSouth last year gave it full control of Cingular — has since rebranded the cellphone service under the AT&T name. The company said Friday that the ruling is based on language in an old contract. "We have significantly improved that clause to make it even more consumer friendly," the company said. "We believe arbitration is the best course for resolution for our customers." (info from The Associated Press)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Many Skype customers incommunicado

Millions of users of Skype long-distance phone service were without service Wednesday. It was not immediately clear how many users were affected, but Skype users in Colombia, Brazil, Germany, Finland and the US reported difficulties logging on.

The company, a division of eBay, said on its Website that many users cannot log on to the free service. "Our engineering team has determined that it's a software issue. We expect this to be resolved within 12 to 24 hours."

Skype urged users to allow the program to run and that they would automatically be logged on when the problem is resolved.

Skype uses peer-to-peer technology to connect phone calls, instant messages and videos between its users. It runs on a variety of operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS X, PocketPC and Linux. Skype users can also use the program to connect to cellphones and traditional land-line telephones.

The company was acquired by eBay in October 2005 for about $2.1 billion. (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

FCC wants to block freebie Internet service

The Federal Communications Commission is seeking to block a plan by a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to offer free wireless broadband Internet service nearly everywhere in the US, the chief executive of the M2Z group said.

According to John Muleta, a former head of the FCC's wireless bureau and now head of M2Z, the group was informed last week by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's office that Martin had circulated a proposed decision to the other four commissioners that would deny M2Z's plan.

M2Z Networks Inc. issued a statement in which it said it would take the FCC to court in an attempt to force the agency to conduct a thorough analysis of the plan before it determined whether it would back it. The Menlo Park, Calif., company has proposed taking 25 megahertz of spectrum that is currently vacant and using it to build a wireless broadband Internet network to provide free service to 95% of Americans within a decade.

In addition to the backing of well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalists, the plan has the backing of a number of prominent lawmakers. "Every American should have access to high-speed broadband Internet service," said Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California. "It's beyond me why the chairman of the FCC would be circulating an order within the commission to kill the M2Z application."

In order for the M2Z plan to succeed, it would require the FCC to hand over 25 megahertz of spectrum, which goes against a principle established a decade ago that the agency should sell off any spectrum in an auction. In exchange for being given the spectrum, M2Z would return 5% of any gross revenue its network derived to the U.S. Treasury. The company would then use that spectrum to construct a wireless broadband network covering 95% of the U.S. population within 10 years.

The company would seek to gain a return on its investment by offering access to the network on a wholesale basis. A group of high-tech companies including Google, Intel, eBay and Yahoo had lobbied the FCC to mandate that another swath of spectrum being sold early next year be operated on a wholesale basis. The companies were ultimately unsuccessful in their campaign. In March, CTIA, the wireless industry's Washington lobby group, urged the FCC to "move immediately to dismiss or deny M2Z's application." The group opposes the proposal because it said it would circumvent the agency's auction process. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Apple hit with iPhone patent suit from disgraced doc

Peter V. Boesen, an Iowa surgeon, charges that the touch keyboard on the iPhone violates a patent he holds through a company called SP Technologies.

You might think the doc would want his lawyers spending most of their time appealing his prison sentence. Boesen was recently sentenced to 51 months in the federal pen for healthcare fraud

SP Technologies claims that "Apple has infringed, and is now infringing" its patent "through the use, sale, [and] offer for sale of its iPhone product and system," according to documents filed last week in US District Court for Eastern Texas.

SP alleges that the iPhone's touch-based keyboard violates a patent the company received in 2004. The patent describes a "method and medium for a computer readable keyboard display incapable of user termination" and lists Boesen as the inventor.

The company claims it dispatched a letter to Apple executives in February warning them that it believed the iPhone would violate its patent. "Apple failed to investigate, respond to the letter ... or take reasonable steps to avoid infringement," SP Technologies alleges in its complaint.

Civil court records show that Boesen, through SP Technologies, has filed a number of patent suits in the past, including claims against Canon, LG Electronics, and Kyocera. SP Technologies is seeking unspecified damages or royalties from Apple. Apple has yet to file a formal response to the claim.

Federal criminal records show that Boesen was sentenced to prison in May following a conviction on defrauding Iowa's Medicare and Medicaid programs by filing false claims. He was also ordered to repay the state and private insurers more than $900,000.

Boesen is free pending an appeal. We don't know if he is using an iPhone to contact his lawyer. (info from Information Week)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Woman calls cops to complain
about defective cocaine

A woman in Rochelle, Georgia was arrested after she called police to help get her money back because she was unhappy with the crack cocaine she had purchased.

Juanita Marie Jones, 53, called Rochelle Police Thursday night after she purchased what she thought was a $20 piece of crack cocaine. She told officers she broke the rock into three pieces and smoked one, only to discover the drugs were "fake."

She took Officer Joel Quinn and Deputy John Shedd of the Wilcox County Sheriff's Office into her kitchen and showed them the drugs. She was promptly arrested for possession of cocaine. (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Verizon in trouble for bad service

Last week Maryland regulators demanded an explanation from Verizon for why hundreds of customers waited days and even weeks for telephone repairs, exceeding the state standard for missed service appointments for five months in a row.

In a heated hearing that stretched more than two hours, angry members of the Public Service Commission said they believe the 300 complaints filed by customers across the state represent a fraction of dissatisfied Verizon users, most of whom have not taken steps to contact regulators. Verizon executives said the problems were rare exceptions to a strong record of service. Verizon serves 84% of Maryland homes.

The three commissioners at the hearing did not hide their frustration with Verizon representatives, challenging the company's assessment of what constitutes an acceptable delay in service and its efforts to keep details of problems from public view. Commissioners said they fear the delays could leave customers who don't have cellphone service with no way to call 911 in an emergency and expressed particular concern for those with medical conditions.

"For a person who doesn't have phone service for five days, an elderly person, that's the kind of thing we need to be concerned about," Chairman Steven B. Larsen told a Verizon attorney and director of customer operations. "Not having service is a public safety concern."

Company officials said they are committed to improving service in Maryland, where Verizon is laying an extensive fiber-optic network to expand its Internet and television service. "From our perspective, one complaint is too many," Leigh A. Hyer, vice president and general counsel for Maryland, told the commission. She could not identify the reason for the delays and missed appointments but minimized the problems as "rare exceptions" to an otherwise good service record in Maryland. "We don't believe there is a service-quality crisis," she said.

State regulations allow phone technicians to miss up to 20 percent of their appointments. Chris Childs, Verizon's director of customer operations for parts of Maryland, said the company considers a delay of even five minutes a missed appointment. But Commissioner Lawrence Brenner said regulators were not hearing from customers whose technician arrived five minutes late. "You have to get pretty frustrated to file a formal complaint with the Public Service Commission," he said.(info from The Washington Post)

Friday, August 10, 2007

33 states ban online hunting,
but it doesn't exist

In 2004, John Lockwood launched live-shot.com. For $150 an hour and a monthly fee, users could peer through the lens of a Webcam and aim a .30-caliber rifle at animals on a hunting farm in Texas. Lockwood said he wanted to help disabled people experience the thrill of hunting. Pulling the trigger was to be done by clicking the mouse, but a public outcry and concern from state regulators caused Lockwood to abandon his plans. Just one person, a friend of Lockwood's, had tested the service, and killed a wild hog.

The lack of customers and shutting down the operation did not stop the Humane Society of the United States, as well as state and federal legislators from fighting the concept.

The Society mailed more than 50,000 people an urgent message, proclaiming: "Such horrific cruelty must stop and stop now!" Responding to the Humane Society's call, Virginia became first state to ban Internet hunting in 2005, and others followed in quick succession. California also banned Internet fishing. Nobody is doing that, either. An Illinois bill outlawing Internet hunting is awaiting the governor's signature. That will bring the total to 34 states. A bill to ban it nationally has been introduced in Congress.

How so many states have nonetheless come to ban the practice is a testament to public alarm over Internet threats, and the growth of legislation that nobody opposes.

With no Internet hunters to defend the sport, the Humane Society's lobbying campaign has been hugely successful -- a welcome change for an organization that has struggled to curtail actual boots-on-the-ground hunting. Vicki L. Walker, a state senator in Oregon, says she wasn't aware of Internet hunting until a representative from the society told her about it and asked her to sponsor a ban. "It offended my sensibilities," she says. The bill passed unanimously.

Even the National Rifle Association endorses the ban. "It's pretty easy to outlaw something that doesn't exist," says Rod Harder, a lobbyist for the NRA in Oregon who supported an Internet-hunting ban that took effect in June. "We were happy to do it." (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

High-speed Internet growth slows down

The rapid expansion of the multibillion-dollar high-speed Internet business may be slowing, threatening one of the major growth engines for cable and phone companies. The four largest phone and cable operators -- AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable -- added a total of 1.2 million broadband subscribers in the second quarter, 21% fewer than they added during the year-earlier quarter, and short of Wall Street analysts' projections.

While second-quarter results are typically weak, mainly because college students are disconnecting, the results suggest that the market is maturing. Until now, cable and telephone companies have primarily been focusing on persuading dial-up Internet subscribers to pay more for faster speeds. About 21 million households have dial-up.

That market is getting tapped out, prompting cable and telephone companies to eye each other's customers more hungrily. Operators are competing against each other aggressively with offers of faster speeds and new services such as video messaging.

The broadband deceleration comes after years of being on fire with growth. More than 50% of households in the US, or about 56 million homes, currently subscribe to a high-speed Internet service. Industry watchers predict broadband growth will continue, but statistics indicate the US will remain well behind other countries that have adopted broadband more quickly. The US is ranked 25th in broadband penetration, behind countries including South Korea, where penetration is 89%, and Canada, where it is 63%.

Some analysts say the lower growth rate could worsen by weakness in the housing market. If fewer people move to new houses, fewer may be in the market for new Internet service.

Lower-speed DSL's share of net additions to the broadband market has been declining for more than a year. The phone companies are scrambling to offer higher speeds to compete with cable. Verizon is deploying a fiber-optic network called FiOS that is delivering speeds of up to 50 megabits per second, far faster than the 1.5 to five megabits common for most DSL connections. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cities having trouble setting up Wi-Fi nets

The rollout of Minneapolis's Wi-Fi network -- a complex and wide-ranging combination of radios strung together to provide wireless Internet access -- was impeded by the simplest of things: leaves.

The constant and random swaying of foliage in the tree-heavy city wreaked havoc on Wi-Fi signal traffic. "Wi-Fi and trees don't get along very well," said Joe Caldwell, chief executive of USI Wireless and founder of parent company US Internet Corp. "I don't think we had a full grasp on the problem. We knew the tree problem was bad, but I don't think we had an idea of how bad it was."

As a result, USI Wireless -- the company building and operating the network for the city -- had to increase the number of radios and access points, as well as put them in specially mounted poles to get around the large number of trees. It increased deployment costs by as much as a quarter.

The leaf problem is but one of the issues facing cities that want blanket Wi-Fi coverage. Other hurdles include spotty reception and an unproven business model. Local governments view municipal Wi-Fi networks as a potential boon to their coffers, but instead have met with hiccups.

"The whole thing starts off with the issue about how you're going to run the economics of the network," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst for research firm Gartner Inc. "The ones who try to put in the network as a service to their constituents generally find it's not a good thing to do."

Hundreds of cities around the US have deployed or plan to deploy Wi-Fi networks in hopes that it will generate revenue and provide Internet service to residents and government workers in the field. Cities initially took it upon themselves to build their own networks, but have reached out to third parties to shoulder the financial burden by building and operating the networks. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sprint cellphones interfering
with emergency communications

Public-safety officials have been complaining for years about static from cellphones that disrupts emergency radio communications. Now the FCC is stepping up the pressure on Sprint Nextel, the company causing the most interference.

The static is more than a nuisance. In Pennsylvania's Upper Uwchlan Township, police officers handling accidents on busy Route 100 regularly lose contact with dispatchers. Chief John De Marco says interference cut off a call he made during a traffic stop involving a fugitive; another time it happened when he was responding to a bank alarm. School-bus drivers, prison systems and utility workers have had calls interrupted by cellphone interference.

The problem has been intensifying with growing use of Sprint Nextel's network, the Nextel portion of which was created using a slice of the airwaves interwoven with the one used for emergency communications. Interference wasn't much of a problem when the spectrum was used as originally designated -- by construction crews, taxi drivers and other workers who needed souped-up walkie-talkies for short conversations.

In 2004, as use of Nextel service grew and static more frequently interrupted public-safety communications, the company, the FCC and safety groups agreed on a solution: Nextel would pay to move its service and public-safety agencies to separate channels.

The company began negotiating with local public-safety agencies about the exact network upgrades they needed and how much the company would pay for them. The following year, Sprint acquired Nextel, making it necessary to mesh those two networks as well. The fix was never expected to be easy or inexpensive. As part of its 2004 agreement with the FCC, Nextel promised to pay at least $4.86 billion and complete the job in three years. But many of the negotiations between Sprint Nextel and local authorities have landed in protracted mediation while interference has continued.

While switching channels might sound easy, it isn't. Wireless-network equipment used by thousands of public-service agencies across the country needs to be modified, as does every mobile phone or other radio device the agencies use. As a measure of how much ground still must be covered, Motorola Inc., a provider of equipment to the public-safety community, estimates it has shipped only 1% of the new phones and other equipment needed to complete the overhaul.

Ed Atkins, director of emergency services for Chester County, Pa., which includes Upper Uwchlan, has been negotiating for three years with Sprint to pin down the cost of preliminary studies to upgrade the police, fire and ambulance communications. He puts the initial costs at about $650,000, substantially more than Sprint's $400,000 offer. Atkins sees the price of the entire conversion ranging from as little as $18.5 million to as much as $150 million, depending on how many radios need replacing and how much of the county's communications infrastructure needs to be overhauled. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Telcos can be sued for helping Fed buggers

A new law expanding the government's ability to conduct wiretaps without a court order fails to resolve liability concerns faced by phone companies that cooperate, ensuring prolonged controversy and perhaps continuing problems in carrying out the surveillance program. The law, an update of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), spells out and broadens the government's ability to tap into communications, including email, of suspected terrorists. It was passed over the weekend only grudgingly by the Democratic-controlled Congress, and signed by Bush yesterday.

But the measure lacks a provision sought by the White House and telecommunications companies: protection from lawsuits filed against phone companies by privacy groups and customers for past cooperation with government spy programs.

Under the expansion of surveillance authority since Sept. 11, 2001, some major phone companies have complained that their cooperation has left them vulnerable to legal liabilities. AT&T and Verizon have been sued by civil-liberties groups and state-utility regulators. Some phone companies have curtailed their cooperation with intelligence programs in recent months. The new law instead provides a more limited element of legal cover by compelling phone companies to cooperate.

For decades, in criminal probes, phone companies under court orders allowed investigators to place wiretapping equipment in their systems or turned over information. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush ordered a raft of new surveillance programs, most of which are still not known publicly.

A person familiar with the matter said Verizon has felt a "heightened sensitivity" about its potential liability for fulfilling government surveillance requests, compared with a few years ago. Verizon, the nation's second-largest phone company in terms of sales, behind AT&T, has stood on the sidelines during the FISA debate on Capitol Hill, leaving the White House to lead the charge.

The cause and extent of the change in phone-company cooperation isn't entirely clear, in part because the programs are shrouded in secrecy. A court decision earlier this year cast doubt on some aspects of the programs. Also, the Justice Department's inspector general recently criticized other phone-company actions relating to the collection of information. Both events might have added to the phone companies' unease.

Partly to tackle the companies' concerns, the new law includes language that compels telecommunications providers to cooperate with government intelligence surveillance orders. The compulsion order is critical, because it provides phone companies with a ready-made justification if sued. The law also explicitly gives telecom companies protection for future cooperation with government surveillance programs.

However, absent from the law is a blanket liability protection to absolve companies for any privacy violations that may have occurred during their cooperation with earlier surveillance activities. The White House pushed for such a measure and has promised to try to have it included when a long-term update to FISA is considered, probably later this year.

Caroline Fredrickson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, criticized Democrats for "being bullied" by the administration to approve expanded government spying powers without adding the privacy protections to shield Americans. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Nortel joins Alcatel-Lucent in sewer

Nortel swung to a second-quarter loss as the company's sales of telecommunication equipment to carriers fell short of expectations, raising concerns about growth prospects. The Canadian company's quarterly net loss was $37 million, or seven cents a share, compared with net income of $342 million, or 79 cents a share, in the second quarter of 2006.

Nortel's revenue in the second quarter fell 8% to $2.56 billion, partly due to the sale of a telecom-network business last year. Nortel is the latest telecom product maker to report lower-than-expected results, reflecting the increasing pressure carrier customers are putting on prices.

In the past few years, the number of telephone service providers has dwindled through mergers, leaving too many equipment vendors fighting for fewer deals, and giving customers more bargaining power. Nortel Chief Executive Mike Zafirovski said the company had to walk away from a number of carrier-network equipment deals in the past 18 months to avoid erosion of its profit.

Still, Zafirovski said the company's business restructuring program is on track. He predicted full-year revenue would be flat or slightly down compared with last year, in anticipation of a "big ramp-up" in sales of some network equipment in the second half and double-digit growth in the sales of equipment to corporations. Some analysts are skeptical. Nortel's shares were down $1.25, or 5.7%, to $20.49 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

In recent years, Nortel has emerged from financial problems and an accounting scandal that brought down a former chief executive and several other top executives. The company was left out of the merger activity that consolidated the telecom gear industry in recent years, putting it under pressure to increase its scale and competitiveness.

Zafirovski repeated that the company is "very open" to engage in merger- and-acquisition discussions with other companies." This year, Nortel talked to equipment maker Avaya about a potential takeover before Avaya agreed to be acquired by two private equity companies. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Apple and ATT sued over iPhone battery cost

Chicago attorney Larry Drury filed a class-action lawsuit last week against Apple and the iPhone's exclusive US carrier, AT&T (formerly known as SBC), alleging the companies failed to properly disclose replacement cost and limited life of the iPhone battery.

The lawsuit, which names Chicago-area resident Jose Trujillo as the plaintiff, was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County in Illinois. "The public is entitled to know what they're getting for the money that they spent," Drury said Wednesday.

The New York Consumer Protection Board has also sent a letter to Apple, complaining that the battery replacement costs are too high. The state agency asked Apple to improve its iPhone return policy and change the battery design so it can replaced by the user, instead of requiring people to send their phones to Apple for a new battery and pay extra for a loaner unit in the interim.

Apple and AT&T spokesmen declined to comment on the iPhone complaints, citing company policies against discussing pending litigation matters. (info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

New cellphone band to be open to all phones

Yesterday the FCC approved open-access rules for a slice of the 700MHz analog-TV spectrum (which will be available after TV broadcasters all switch to digital transmission on 2/17/09), contending the rules will foster competition and innovative wireless applications that existing cellular carriers have stifled.

The Feds say the rules will produce a nationwide wireless network open to all compatible wireless devices, not just those sold by the network operator. The network operator will also be required to allow over-the-air downloads of applications and content from any third-party provider unless the downloads harm the network or are illegal. The “open-access” rules will apply only to a single 22MHz slice of 62MHz of spectrum that will be auctioned off in 12 large geographic regions in a way that promotes the emergence of a single aggregation by a single national operator.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein contended the requirements will foster service innovation by breaking “the shackles of a handful of [carrier] gatekeepers.” He and other commissioners, however, said they would have also have preferred an additional rule forcing spectrum winners to wholesale their bandwidth to less-wealthy companies to further encourage competition and innovation. Opening the network through a wholesaling requirement, Commissioner Michael Copps added, could have created a nationwide wireless competitor to cable and telco company broadband services.

The launch of an open-access network could have an impact beyond the 700MHz band. An open-access 700MHz operator will step up pressure on carriers to let “unlocked” unsubsidized phones onto their existing cellular networks, activate phones and devices not sold directly by them, and stop blocking third party application and content downloads, analysts said. The rules could also promote direct sales of handsets and other wireless devices to retailers, who currently buy most of their handsets from carriers.

“If [open access] catches on, and it probably will, in a few years there will be more pressure [on carriers] to open up their networks,” said In-Stat analyst Alan Nogee. “Things have been going that way anyway.” Sprint’s planned WiMAX network, he noted, is also built on that business model. “All carriers, including AT&T and Verizon, generally have walled gardens,” he noted.

During testimony at the FCC meeting, Jason Dillards, CEO of technology company Skydeck, called open access the means by which innovative services blossomed over the wired Internet network. The wireless Internet, however, has been “hobbled” by the requirement that third party innovators must get carrier approval to appear on their phones’ decks. “The carrier controls what consumers see on the deck,” he complained. Use of the spectrum for an open network is not assured, however, because revenues from the spectrum must exceed a minimum amount. If the minimum isn’t hit, the spectrum will be auctioned off without open-access rules. (info from TWICE)