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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A blatant commercial message:
Flashing red Batphone can be delivered before Christmas

Now everyone can have a red phone with a flashing light like Batman.

When there’s trouble in Gotham City, Police Commissioner Gordon calls caped crusader Batman, the secret alter ego of millionaire Bruce Wayne.

At Wayne Manor, the flashing red Batphone is answered by Alfred the butler, who tells Wayne about the trouble. Then Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson put on their superhero costumes. As Batman and Robin, they race from the Batcave in the Batmobile to battle evil-doers, or rescue citizens in distress.

Now everyone can have a bright red flashing Batphone just like a superhero. When an emergency call -- or even an ordinary call -- comes in, a bright red light centered in a shiny chrome ring starts flashing to attract attention.

The Batphone has classic sixties styling, with heavy-duty construction, a two-year warranty, and is made in the USA. It gets all of its power from the phone line, and doesn’t require a power cord or batteries. It can work on an ordinary home phone line, or on an "analog extension port" in a business phone system.

The phone rings when the light flashes, unless a purchaser prefers the bell to be disconnected for silent signaling, or an optional high-pitched "BatSignal" or buzzer to be installed instead of the bell. Price with the bell is $122, including Priority Mail shipping to all 50 states.

Order online at www.GetABatPhone.com, or call toll-free 1-888-225-3999.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Judge dismissed charges In Broadcom case because of pressure on witnesses

Citing misconduct by prosecutors, a federal judge dismissed criminal charges in a stock-options backdating case against two former execs of chip-maker Broadcom. The decision marks the latest setback for the government as it attempts to hold executives accountable for a widespread compensation practice in the early 2000s.

Broadcom co-founder Henry Nicholas III, and former CFO William Ruehle had been accused of playing a role in a stock-options backdating scandal that led Broadcom to record $2.2 billion in backdating-related expenses it should have taken when the options were granted between 1998 and 2003.

Backdating involves retroactively setting the price of a stock option to a low point in the stock's value, allowing employees to reap higher profits if the stock is later sold.

In dismissing the charges in the Broadcom case Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney said the government behaved improperly by pressuring witnesses to testify in a manner favorable to prosecutors.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles denied in court papers that it unfairly pressured witnesses. "We are disappointed in the ruling," said a spokesperson for the office.

In a related development, Judge Carney last week voiced concern that Andrew Stolper, a prosecutor in the case, had committed misconduct in February 2007 by leaking information to the press as a way to exert pressure on another defendant, Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli.

Samueli last year pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the SEC in connection with the agency's investigation of options backdating at Broadcom. But at a Dec. 9 court hearing, Judge Carney determined there was insufficient evidence that Mr. Samueli had committed the crime.

Broadcom was one of the most prominent companies caught up in the backdating scandal. Last year the company paid $12 million to settle civil allegations by the SEC that it misrepresented the dates of as many as 88 stock-option grants to executives and employees.

In a separate indictment against Nicholas in 2008, prosecutors alleged that he engaged in a pattern of drug use and abuse over a nearly seven-year period. Citing the concerns about the government pressuring witnesses, Judge Carney set a hearing date in February to determine whether the drug charges against Nicholas should also be dropped. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ebay sells Skype at a loss

Skype is software that allows people to make phone calls over the Internet. Calls to other users of the service are free. Calls to landline phones and cellphones generally have a fee.

The company that developed Skype was bought by eBay in 2005 for $2.6 billion. eBay hoped that users of its auctions would use Skype to communicate, but few of them did.

EBay is now completing the sale of 70% of Skype for about $2 billion to a group that includes the founders of Skype. Ebay will keep 30 percent.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

AT&T sues Verizon over cellphone ad

AT&T is suing Verizon Wireless over Verizon's "There's a Map for That" commercials, saying that the ads are misleading and deceptive.

AT&T filed the suit in Georgia and is asking for a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction to stop the ads. AT&T said it has "suffered and continues to suffer irreparable harm" from the commercials.

Verizon's ads show maps of the United States with areas highlighted to depict where high speed "3G" network coverage is available. The maps use red for Verizon and blue for AT&T to show where each company offers 3G coverage. There are blank spaces where no 3G is available.

In one ad, the narrator says, "If you want to know why your 3G coverage works so well on Verizon Wireless, there's a map for that," and a map of the country nearly covered with red dots is shown. The narrator later says "If you want to know why some people have spotty G3 coverage, there's a map for that, too" and a map of the country with some blue areas and a lot of blank space is shown to ostensibly show AT&T's 3G coverage.

AT&T says those maps are misleading because there is still regular coverage in areas where "3G" service is not offered.

Verizon modified the ads after AT&T complained about them saying its customers were "out of touch" where 3G coverage was unavailable. Those words were taken out and Verizon included a tag line saying "Voice & data services available outside 3G coverage areas" at the end of the ads.

Verizon spokeswoman Nancy Stark said the changes are sufficient, and "As to the merits of the suit, there aren't any. The ads are clearly labeled 3G coverage and they also clearly state that voice and data service is available outside the 3G coverage area." (info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Avaya idiots paid a man for five years -- but he never worked there

Anthony Armatys of Palatine, Ill. pleaded guilty Monday in New Jersey Superior Court to one count of theft. He admitted keeping more than $470,000 in paychecks from telecommunications company Avaya, where he never worked.

Armatys accepted a job with Avaya in September 2002, and changed his mind about working there. The Avaya payroll computer kept him on the list, and kept sending money to be deposited into his bank account until February 2007, when Avaya auditors finally noticed the mistake.

Prosecutors recommended a six-year prison term and restitution. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 8.

There is no word on how many other phantoms have been paid -- or are still being paid -- by Avaya. (info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Have you been cheating the IRS when you use your company cellphone?

Under a 1989 law, workers who use company-provided mobile phones for personal calls are supposed to count the value of those calls as income and pay federal income taxes accordingly.

But businesses and workers have long ignored the requirement, prompting IRS to ask Congress to repeal the law.

Wireless trade association CTIA supports legislation to do away with a 20-year-old law. While waiting for Congress to act, CTIA said the IRS should "consider suspending all audit activity on the taxation of the personal use of employer-provided cellphones."

"The alternatives [to legislation] proposed by the IRS are either incomplete or inadequate solutions that would continue to subject employees and employers to onerous call log requirements," CTIA President Steve Largent said. CTIA members include the country's largest wireless companies -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile.

The IRS is collecting comments on the cellphone-tax law. In June, IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman asked Congress to repeal it, calling it "obsolete." Shulman's statement signaled a quick turnabout for the IRS, which had earlier proposed that employers assign 25% of an employee's annual phone expenses as a taxable benefit. Under that scenario, a worker in the 28% tax bracket, whose wireless device costs the company $1,500 a year, could see $105 in additional federal income tax.

Without congressional action, the IRS had hoped to clarify the rule so it would be easier for businesses and workers to comply.

Sens. John Kerry and John Ensign and Reps. Sam Johnson and Earl Pomeroy have sponsored a bill with broad bipartisan support that would remove cellphones from the IRS's list of taxable properties provided to workers by their employers.

Most businesses and tax executives prefer a repeal.

U.S. colleges and universities, nonprofits and other employers are also calling for legislation to remove employer-provided cellphones from the list of taxable fringe benefits. Short of legislation repealing the cellphone requirements, the National Association of College and University Business Officers said it favors assigning a maximum number of minutes per month allowable for personal use, that wouldn't be counted for tax purposes.

The Tax Executives Institute, a trade group for company tax directors, asked IRS to suspend enforcement of its cellphone rules until Congress acts.

A California court said it loses about 45 employee hours each month -- from 160 employees that are provided cellphones by the court -- in an effort to track personal calls to comply with IRS requirements. That effort generally results in employees reimbursing the court for a total of about 125 minutes a month for personal cellphone use, wrote David H. Yamasaki, chief executive officer of the Santa Clara County Superior Court.

Of course, employees have been making personal calls with landline phones owned by their employers for scores of years without paying taxes on the value of the calls.

And they don't pay taxes on the value of personal use of business computers.

(info from The Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Amazon starts to bail out of Skype

EBay is selling a majority interest of the Internet telecom service Skype for about $2 billion, reversing a 2005 acquisition that many considered a bad deal at its inception.

EBay is selling a 65 percent stake in Skype to a group of private investment funds for $1.9 billion in cash and a $125 million note, while retaining a 35 percent stake. EBay said the deal values the company at $2.75 billion.

EBay said earlier this year that it would spin off Skype, which lets people make free or inexpensive voice and video calls with computers and cellphones, after struggling to justify its 2005 acquisition of the company for $2.6 billion.

EBay hoped the service would catch on with users of its auction site, but it never became a popular way for buyers and sellers to connect. The company took a $900 million write-down on Skype in 2007, tacitly acknowledging it had overvalued the business.

Still, Skype itself remains popular, particularly among people who regularly make international calls. According to the research group TeleGeography, Skype accounted for 8 percent of international calling traffic last year. The service can typically offer cheaper rates than regular phones by sending voice as data over the Internet just like e-mail and Web pages, reducing the need to tie up dedicated phone lines.

It is also starting to look like a more profitable business, with revenue up 25 percent to $170 million in the most recent quarter.

Skype was founded by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, creators of the music downloading service Kazaa, which had upset the recording industry.

EBay announced in April that it would spin off Skype through an initial public offering next year, though the company said it was open to alternative bids that offered attractive valuation. In a statement Tuesday, eBay CEO John Donahoe said the deal with the investor group achieves that...Skype, as a standalone company, would have the focus needed to compete and "accelerate its growth momentum"

The group of investors buying the stake includes Andreessen Horowitz, the new $300 million fund set up by Web browser pioneer Marc Andreessen. Led by the private equity firm Silver Lake, the group also includes Index Ventures and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. (info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Man jailed for calling 911 about lost keys

A man in Tampa, Florida called 911 eight times in one hour because he lost his keys. Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Debbie Carter says George Alvarez became upset with deputies because they could not help him find the keys.

Deputies arrested Alvarez just early Monday morning. He was booked into jail on charges of making a false 911 call and released from jail after posting $500 bail. (info from WFTS)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Your feet can call your phone

ESoles, which makes custom insoles for athletic shoes, has created prototype insoles with pressure sensors that relay information wirelessly to a nearby cellphone. Then an application on the phone can tell the wearer how much pressure he or she is applying in 11 different zones of each sole.

The system has been used to analyze the technique of the US Olympic BMX team, helping them figure out how to apply maximum power to the bicycle pedals out of the gate, said Glen Hinshaw, founder of eSoles and a former professional cyclist. The system can also analyze a golf swing or skiing posture, he said.

Sports aren't the only application. The insoles can work in games. ESoles is trying a jump rope game, in which the phone screen shows a swinging rope, and users have to time their jumps to it. "If you leave one leg on the ground and you're only lifting the other foot, the jump rope stops, because it's not clearing your foot," Hinshaw said.

Nintendo makes a balance board accessory for its Wii game console that senses the force from the user's feet. ESoles' sensing insoles would essentially do the same thing, but without tying the user to an immobile board.

Hinshaw also envisions medical uses, perhaps for warning diabetes patients who have lost feeling in their feet that they risk injury from too much pressure.

Hinshaw said the company plans to make the insoles available in a limited trial version in July, then put them on the market late this year. The initial price for the sensors would be about $300, but he hopes to bring the price under $50. (info from The Associated Press)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sprint & Verizon will sell itty-bitty Wi-Fi router

Sprint will join Verizon Wireless in marketing Novatel’s pocket-size battery-powered Wi-Fi router with embedded cellular data modem.

Verizon announced earlier this week that it would be first to market on May 17. Thursday, Sprint announced availability during the first week of June. Both carriers are pricing the Novatel-made MiFi 2200 at $99 after $50 mail-in rebate with two-year wireless-data service contract.

The 2200 incorporates CDMA 1x EV-DO Rev. A cellular-data modem and Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g, enabling up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices to access the Internet from places where fixed hot spots or Wi-Fi networks are unavailable. The MiFi’s rechargeable battery provides up to four hours of active use and 40 hours of standby time on a single charge. It measures 3.5 inches by 2.3 inches by 0.4 inches and weighs 2.05 ounces.

The device is the first of its kind to operate on batteries, enabling consumers to take it easily from car to car. Recently, Autonet launched a transportable in-vehicle cellular hot spot, which consumers can move from car to car, but the device must be docked with an installed mounting kit. Kyocera continues to offer a KR2 Wi-Fi router that operates off AC, comes with car cigarette-lighter adapter, and accepts a cellular EV-DO data card to connect to up to 20 Wi-Fi-equipped laptops to the Internet.

The Novatel device will be available through all Verizon Wireless channels. Sprint will offer it online, in its stores and through select other retailers. Soon after, it will offer a version to wireless wholesalers.

Eligible Verizon price plans include $39.99 monthly access for 250MB monthly allowance and 10 cents per megabyte overage. A $59.99 monthly plan comes with 5GB monthly allowance and 5 cents per megabyte overage. Consumers can pay a higher price if they don’t commit to a monthly plan. In that case, the user must get a $15 Mobile Broadband DayPass to access the service for a single 24-hour period.

Sprint’s eligible plans are the $59.99/month broadband-only plan and the $149/month Simply Everything Plan + Mobile Broadband plan, which covers a phone plus the device. Both plans include up to 5GB of data per month, plus 5 cents for every MB more. (info from TWICE)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

As usual, biz is bad for Nortel

Nortel Networks, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January, lost more than half a billion dollars and saw sales plummet 37% in the first quarter, but Chief Executive Mike Zafirovski said the company's cash balance gives it time to hold out for the best sale prices for its assets.

Nortel, which originally said it hoped to emerge from bankruptcy proceedings smaller and more focused, has been in discussions to sell its largest divisions, but the bids have been too low.

For example, Nortel declined an unsolicited, $850 million offer from Nokia Siemens Networks for large parts of its carrier-networks group. Nokia Siemens Networks is a joint venture of Nokia and Siemens that is seeking to court US carriers.

Last week Nortel was preparing to announce that it had found a buyer for its enterprise unit, which makes systems to route voice and data traffic within companies. The bidder, Avaya, is backed by the private-equity firms TPG Capital and Silver Lake. Advisers were working through the weekend of May 2-3 to complete the deal, but couldn't. Talks are continuing.

Nortel's first-quarter net loss came to $507 million, or $1.02 a share, compared with a year-earlier loss of $138 million, or 28 cents a share. Revenue fell to $1.73 billion. Nortel had $2.48 billion in cash at the end of March, up slightly from $2.4 billion at the end of 2008.

Zafirovski said that Nortel hadn't lost "a single customer" since its bankruptcy filing but acknowledged that customers had stopped buying new technologies when it entered the process. He said orders increased in February and March, signaling that the business had stabilized. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Feds are fighting car warranty spam calls

Federal regulators have been investigating and are close to filing lawsuits against companies believed to be behind a national wave of spam "robocalls" that warn people that their auto warranties are about to expire and they need to sign up for new service plans.

The Federal Trade Commission has inquiries underway into several companies involved in the deceptive calls, and "law enforcement action in this area can be expected imminently," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said Monday in a letter to Sen. Charles Schumer. The FTC also is providing an electronic link on its homepage for consumers to file complaints.

Schumer, who spoke Monday with Leibowitz, had asked for an investigation by the agency into what he calls a scam of "robo-dialer harassment." The computerized calls can eat up a consumer's cellphone minutes, possibly jacking up phone charges, he says.

The message "Your Car Warranty Has Expired" already has brought some 300,000 complaints nationwide, according to Schumer. The calls come even if the consumer has signed up for the national Do Not Call registry, which is operated by the FTC.

"Americans deserve to know the government is on their side, and that this harassment won't be overlooked or ignored," Schumer said. "This prompt, aggressive action should provide some relief to those besieged by these fraudulent calls."

Schumer and Sen. Mark Warner -- who have received the calls themselves -- are expected to announce the FTC's actions at a news conference today.

Liebowitz noted in his letter that such "robocall" or "voiceblasting" phone campaigns may violate a number of telemarketing sales and other FTC rules. The calls target people regardless of whether they have warranties or even own cars and have become such a nuisance that officials in 40 states are investigating the companies behind them.

The lucrative industry is based largely in the St. Louis, Mo. area, according to the Better Business Bureau in that city. A group of companies in Missouri in the mid-1990s began offering extended repair warranties to people whose manufacturer-issued warranties were about to expire.

About three dozen companies offer contracts similar to insurance policies, pledging to pay for car repairs in exchange for fees paid up front. They call numbers randomly and leave messages telling people that their auto warranties are about to expire. Some companies also send out cards that mislead recipients into thinking that their vehicles have been subject to safety recalls.

If people call back and agree to buy policies, the Better Business Bureau says, the companies often don't let them see the contracts until they agree to pay. And some people apparently don't learn until it's too late and they've spent thousands of dollars that the deals don't cover many types of repairs. (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, May 11, 2009

iPhone use causes stress on AT&T network

The iPhone has brought AT&T lots of new customers, eager to play with their cool new toys. Unfortunately for AT&T, the iPhone is expensive for the company, and not just because of the heavy subsidies on the initial purchase price.

Users of iPhone download games, video and other Web data at two to four times the rate of other smartphone users. Yet AT&T charges iPhone subscribers the same fee $30 per month for data that it levies for other smartphones. And aside from restricting certain activities, like file sharing, AT&T doesn't limit how much data can be downloaded.

Web applications popular with iPhone customers are bandwidth hogs. A recent analysis of North American wireless network use during the midday hour on one day found Web browsing was consuming 32% of data-related airtime but 69% of bandwidth, while email used 30% of data airtime but only 4% of bandwidth. Email taxes network resources but in a different way.

As the proportion of customers with iPhones grows -- 5.9 million 3G iPhones were activated in the last three quarters, 7.5% of AT&T's total subscribers -- the resulting growth in downloading and Web browsing will strain AT&T's network. AT&T will need to add cell towers and spend more on the lines that connect the towers to the rest of the network.

The iPhone is the leading edge of a challenge for the wireless industry. Until now, carriers have boosted revenues by taking on new customers -- even when average revenues per user haven't grown much.

The falling cost of voice minutes and additions of lower-end customer has offset growth of text messaging and other data services. Voice and texting use little bandwidth and are lucrative.

Now, new customers are harder to come by. The question is whether new data revenues the industry is banking on -- from Web-browsing and entertainment services -- will be as profitable, at least as measured by return on invested capital. That looks doubtful. To ensure networks have the capacity to offer these services, particularly bandwidth-heavy offerings like video streaming, carriers will have to make heavy capital investment. Both AT&T and Verizon are building the next-generation 4G network, each spending more than $9 billion last year on new wireless spectrum, as well as $6 billion annually on overall capacity.

The new networks are likely to be more efficient at delivering data applications.
In the short term, carriers should abandon unlimited data pricing plans. Both AT&T and Verizon already charge extra for heavy users with wirelessly connected laptops. They will have to contemplate similar strategies for smartphone users.

Setting the right price won't be easy. With competition, the temptation to discount will be hard to avoid. And there's no guarantee that customers will pay as much for entertainment as for voice-calling and email. Whatever they do, the carriers may be caught between a rock and a hard place. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, May 01, 2009

TXT MSG delays hurt Sprint's bargain Boost service

A new $50 unlimited-calling plan sold under the Boost brand has been a badly needed success story for Sprint Nextel, luring hundreds of thousands of new customers. But dealers and customers report widespread problems with texting on the Boost network. Messages are frequently delayed by hours, in many cases reaching their recipients early in the morning.

"There's a huge deficiency in the text messaging and multimedia messaging," said John Kim, an independent dealer who has a Boost Mobile store in the Dallas area. He warns new customers about the problems, and tests the system by sending himself text messages. "I got five text messages at 4 o'clock in the morning that I sent myself nine hours before," he said.

He's been signing up 10 to 12 new customers a day on the plan, three or four times the number that came in before the Boost Unlimited plan was introduced in January. But a lot of them come back, "very irritated" about the text messaging problems. "This trend of a lot of people signing up to Boost is going to disappear really quickly if they don't resolve the texting issue," Kim said.

The new Boost Mobile plan uses Sprint's Nextel network, which uses a different underlying technology than the main Sprint network. Nextel users have complained of occasionally delayed text messaging for years, but the network's main selling point has been the walkie-talkie-like "push to talk" capability, used by work crews and emergency responders. Now the new Boost plan has opened the network to a new category of customers, for whom text messaging is more important.

John Votava, a spokesman for Boost, said the texting problems are due to the influx of new customers, and denied that there are long-standing problems with the Nextel network. "The popularity of Boost Mobile caught us off guard. It overwhelmed our system," he said. The company has been working "day and night" to fix the problems, and aims to have the system "much improved" by next week, Votava said.

Analysts expect Sprint to report Monday that Boost attracted somewhere around half a million subscribers in the first quarter, which would be a rare piece of good news for the company. The additions from Boost are not expected to outnumber defections from Sprint as a whole, however.

The Boost plan was partly a response to the network expansions of MetroPCS Communications and Leap Wireless. They have long offered unlimited calling for about $50 per month in limited areas, but in recent months they've moved into big cities in the Northeast, greatly increasing their possible customers. Virgin Mobile later responded with its own $50 unlimited prepaid plan, and T-Mobile USA started offering long-term customers a similar plan to keep them.

Despite the texting problems, it seems most Boost subscribers aren't giving up.
Bryan Scheiber Michigan., signed up for Boost Unlimited in February, and has been mostly happy with it. The call quality is better than on his previous carrier, AT&T, he said. He's woken up to find four text messages that were sent to him the previous day, but he's not a big texter. "For the price," he said, "you can't complain." (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Verizon may get an iPhone, or an iPhone competitor

Some publications have suggested that Verizon is talking to Apple about making a version of the iPhone to run on Verizon's existing CDMA network. USA Today reported this in a story earlier this week, and the New York Times echoed it, even as it noted why this idea makes no sense. CDMA is essentially a US technology used by Verizon and Sprint. The rest of the world operates on a standard called GSM. That’s partly why Apple chose to work with AT&T (a GSM provider) in the first place.

What’s more, Verizon will begin upgrading next year from CDMA to a fourth-generation network using a different technology called LTE. It would be odd, at best, for Apple to invest in a CDMA phone that has limited distribution now and will work on a network that is being phased out in the next 12 to 18 months. In a recent earnings call, Apple COO Tim Cook noted that CDMA has a limited lifespan, and Verizon Chairman Ivan Seidenberg told The Wall Street Journal that he didn’t think Apple ever intended to make a CDMA phone.

Apple, as it negotiates with AT&T on an extension of the carrier’s iPhone exclusive, may be looking for some leverage by making a Verizon CDMA phone seem plausible.

There have also been reports that Apple and Verizon would be likely collaborators on a fourth-generation iPhone, made to work on the carrier’s LTE network, which will come online next year. This is pretty straightforward. When Apple creates a 4G/LTE phone, it will want the broadest global reach possible for it, and Verizon will be the largest LTE operator in the US.

The question is timing: Verizon only expects to reach 25 to 30 markets next year, so many analysts believe this 4G iPhone looks more likely for 2011 — which, coincidentally, is how long AT&T would have the current iPhone if it is able to extend its exclusive deal with Apple.

Verizon’s more intriguing discussions may not be about the iPhone, per se, but other devices in Apple’s pipeline, such as a multimedia device larger than the iPod touch. BusinessWeek first reported on this aspect of the discussions. People familiar with the discussions say it is in the early stages — and this, too, could be part of an Apple effort to wring concessions from AT&T in its renewed agreement on the iPhone. But one could imagine Verizon being especially excited about getting a new hit Apple device to itself.

Verizon doesn’t want the risk of attaching its fate to any single device, however iconic. That is one reason it has been building a deep partnership with Microsoft. The Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon has been working for several months on Pink, a Microsoft project to launch a touch-screen multimedia cellphone on Verizon early next year.

It would combine music and video functionality — which Microsoft has from its Zune player — along with other software that would form a new platform that extends Windows Mobile. The inclusion of the Windows Marketplace for Mobile, Microsoft’s new app store, is also likely.

This project is drawing on the new hardware and software expertise Microsoft has from acquiring Danger, which created the T-Mobile Sidekick. All of this might be too little too late with Apple having staked out such a lead with the iPhone, but it’s an ambitious new project. (info From The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Arkansas Health Dep't phones are sick

Some telephone calls to the Arkansas Department of Health have been ringing through to non-governmental residential and cellular phone numbers as the department receives calls about swine flu.

Department spokeswoman Ann Wright said it appeared that the agency's call forwarding system wasn't working correctly. Many staffers have been working at an emergency operation center at the department's Little Rock headquarters, requiring them to leave their desks and work there. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cablevision new high-speed champ, beating FiOS

Cablevision plans to announce today the fastest Internet speeds available from any cable or phone company.

Starting May 11, the cableco will offer speeds of up to 101 megabits per second downstream throughout its service area, and 15 Mbps upstream. Cablevision has three million subscribers in the New York metro area.

Cablevision also plans to double the downstream speed of its Wi-Fi Internet service up to 3 Mbps for free. Cablevision offers wireless Internet at several Wi-Fi hotspots in New York's Long Island, Connecticut and Westchester service areas, and in parts of New Jersey.

Cablevision is competing against Verizon, which is rolling out its fiber-optic FiOs service in New York City. At present, Verizon's top Internet speed is 50 Mbps per second with a starting cost of $140 a month plus a free wireless router. Cablevision is offering its service at $99.95 a month.

The second fastest Internet speed offered by a cable operator is up to 60 Mbps from Charter Communications, but currently it's only available in the St. Louis area. (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Apple will allow fake farts on iPhones, but not fake baby shaking

Apple removed a 99-cent iPhone game called "Baby Shaker" from its iTunes store Wednesday after its theme -- to quiet a crying baby with a vigorous shake -- prompted protest.

"Baby Shaker" displayed black-and-white line drawings of a baby. The iTunes description included the line, "See how long you can endure his or her adorable cries before you just have to find a way to quiet the baby down!" Once the iPhone owner finishes shaking the device, the on-screen baby is depicted with large red X's over its eyes to represent sleeping.

Public outcry came from organizations including the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, condemning Apple for approving the game's sale.

The application was designed by Sikalosoft. "Baby Shaker" was deleted from its Web site Wednesday afternoon.

Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris said "Baby Shaker" went on sale Monday, and confirmed that Apple removed it Wednesday. She would not comment on why the program was initially approved for sale nor about how many people downloaded the game. Apple itself screens each iPhone application, a process some prospective iPhone application developers have complained can take weeks or months. Others have said Apple gives little feedback when it accepts or rejects a program.

Apple has rejected apps that let iPhone users throw virtual shoes at President George W. Bush or watch clips from the "South Park" cartoon. It has accepted numerous programs that simulate flatulence. (info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

District Attorney sued for going too far in fighting teen "sexters"

The practice of teens taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to friends via cellphones, called "sexting," has alarmed parents, school officials and prosecutors who fear the photos could end up on the Internet or in the hands of sexual predators. In a handful of cases, authorities have resorted to what one parent here called "the nuclear weapon of sex charges" -- child pornography.

But some legal experts say that in Wyoming County, Pa., District Attorney George Skumanick has expanded the definition of sexting to such an extent he could be setting a dangerous precedent. He has threatened to charge kids who appeared in photos, but who didn't send them, as well as at least one girl who was photographed wearing a bathing suit. One of the accused is 11 years old.

In a recent court session, photos of semi-nude or scantily clad teenage daughters were stacked before Skumanick as parents surrounded him. He said the images had been discovered on cellphones confiscated at the local high school. Parents were told they could either enlist their kids in an education program or have the teens face felony charges of child pornography. "We could have just arrested them but we didn't," said Skumanick.

"The whole tawdry episode seems to call for a little parental guidance and a pop-gun approach, not a Howitzer approach with a felony prosecution," said Louis Natali, a law professor at Temple University.

The sexting case in Tunkhannock, Pa. is being closely followed by juvenile justice authorities. Many prosecutors say pornography laws should be used to protect children from adults, not from other children. In some cases, teens could end up listed on sex registries if convicted of child pornography. Others say that if charges are made, they should be limited to kids who actually distribute the photos.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of parents sued Skumanick in federal court, alleging he violated the freedom-of-expression rights of three teenage girls. The ACLU also says that Skumanick is interfering with their parents' rights to raise them as they see fit. Skumanick says he plans to appeal and says he didn't have to offer the education courses as a way out. "We thought we were being progressive."

Some see Skumanick's alternative of offering classes as appealing. "You don't want to tag them with a scarlet letter for the rest of their life," says Shannon Edmonds, a staff attorney at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, about charging teens with sex crimes.

Sexting came into the spotlight in this rural town, population 1,900, in October. A female student in the Tunkhannock High School cafeteria saw a boy scrolling through his cellphone and spotted a nude photo of herself, according to Skumanick. When the girl became upset, the school took the phone and called the police who, in turn, handed it to the district attorney's office.

Skumanick says he was troubled by the photo, and what worried him most was an incident in Ohio where the mother of a teenager blamed sexting for her daughter's suicide last year. The girl, Jessica Logan, had sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend and later hanged herself after being harassed by schoolmates when the boy allegedly sent the images to his friends.

MaryJo Miller was dumbstruck when she opened a letter that said her daughter, Marissa, had been "identified in a police investigation involving the possession and/or dissemination of child pornography."

As Skumanick contemplated what to do, the school turned up several other phones with nude or semi-nude photos of students. One showed an image of a 17-year-old girl in a towel wrapped just below her breasts. The girl, who asked not to be identified, said she sent the photo to her boyfriend about a year ago to make him jealous when she heard he was interested in another girl.

Another confiscated phone had photos of a 17-year-old girl that she described in an interview as "semi-nude pictures, underwear and stuff like that." The girl, who took the photos herself, was debating whether to send them to her boyfriend when a teacher took the phone.

Skumanick thought he had enough evidence to charge them as juveniles on pornography violations -- not just for sending the photos, but for appearing in them, too.

With the help of school officials, Skumanick convened a series of assemblies, from fifth-graders to seniors. For the youngest students, he asked them to conjure how they would feel if their grandparents saw a photo of them that is "not nice." He warned the older students that sexting could damage their college or job prospects and could result in felony charges.

At one of the assemblies, a student interrupted and accused Skumanick of trying to ruin the teens' lives. "This isn't a debate," Skumanick told the senior boy, who was escorted out of the auditorium.

Skumanick also worked with area youth officials to offer the teens a class in lieu of charges. Patrick Rushton, education manager at the Wyoming County Victims Resource Center, culled course outlines for both boys and girls from educational Web sites on sexual harassment and violence. His curriculum included material on "what it means to be a girl in today's society" and a poem, "Phenomenal Women," by Maya Angelou.

On Feb. 5, with the course outline mostly in order, Skumanick sent a letter to parents of the students involved, saying their children had been "identified in a police investigation involving the possession and/or dissemination of child pornography." The letter summoned the parents to a Feb. 12 meeting at the Wyoming County Courthouse.

MaryJo Miller was dumbstruck when she opened her letter, which targeted her daughter, Marissa. Skumanick later told her he had a photo of Marissa that showed her from the waist up wearing a bra.

Marissa and her mother say the photo was snapped at a slumber party more than two years ago when Marissa was 12. Neither Marissa nor her mother knows how it got circulated but they don't see the photo as explicit. "It was like an old grandma bra. Nothing skimpy," says Marissa.

Marissa and her parents joined a group of about 50 others at the courthouse. Before showing the photos, Skumanick explained his offer to the crowd, answering one father's question affirmatively, that -- yes -- a girl in a bathing suit could be subjected to criminal charges because she was posed "provocatively."

Skumanick told them he could have simply charged the kids. Instead, he gave them two weeks to decide: take the class or face charges.

He then told the parents and teens to line up if they wanted to view the photos, which were printed out onto index cards. As the 17-year-old who took semi-nude self-portraits waited in line, she realized that Skumanick and other investigators had viewed the pictures. When the adults began to crowd around Skumanick, the 17-year-old worried they could see her photo and recalls she said, "I think the worst punishment is knowing that all you old guys saw me naked. I just think you guys are all just perverts."

Skumanick dismisses the criticism, saying that no one could see photos of teens who weren't their own children.

In the end, parents enrolled 14 teens in the course. But the parents of three other girls, including Marissa Miller, recruited the ACLU's help to sue Skumanick. At a hearing March 26, a federal judge indicated he thought the girls may be successful in their suit and temporarily blocked Skumanick from filing charges, pending a June hearing. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, April 17, 2009

TXT MSG can save stolen car

A text-message to your stolen car, ordering it to shut down, is being heralded as a new way to thwart auto thefts. Engineering students at Canada's University of Saskatchewan say they have developed a program that integrates cellphone technology and the computer system on most cars.

Michael Siourounis and two classmates devised the system as a project for their senior-year studies. "You text your vehicle and inform it that it has been stolen," Siourounis explained. "It will actually initiate a sequence of events that causes the car's internal computers, that we don't modify at all, to think that the car has overheated."

Shae Pederson, one of the other engineering students on the project, said the first signal to the engine tells it to go into a limited power mode. Pederson said the reduced power provides a measure of safety to the driver.

"That 30 seconds gives them the time — the thief or whoever — time to pull over. And then after that it will shut the car down right away."

The next signal comes from the car back to the cellphone, the students said.

"Then an onboard GPS unit on our device texts you back the location of the vehicle," Siourounis said. "So then you can send the police to go recover it or go get it yourself," he added.

Siourounis said the prototype cost about $600, but expected the price would come down if it were commercialized. (info from CBC)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Moto accuses ex-CFO of destroying evidence against him

Motorola alleged in a court filing Wednesday that former Chief Financial Officer Paul Liska wiped his laptop and potentially destroyed evidence related to the pending wrongful termination lawsuit.

It's the latest shot in an increasingly ugly legal battle between the embattled cellphone maker and its former financial chief at a time when the company is trying to resurrect itself.

Motorola claims Mr. Liska has yet to provide an accounting of the documents he took, and requested the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., delay the discovery process until the court settles the issue. Liska's attorney declined to comment.

Liska questioned the rapidly changing financial forecasts for Motorola's troubled mobile devices business, which sank from a top-tier player to an also-ran over the last few years.

Motorola claims Liska was fired because he was "erratic, unprepared, abrasive, divisive -- and often simply absent and "unavailable.'" Back in February, the company said it replaced Mr. Liska because it had postponed the spinoff.

Moto is dealing with this drama even as co-Chief Executive Sanjay Jha attempts to orchestrate a comeback on the back of Google's Android mobile platform. Jha is attempting to turn around years of little innovation which turned its once flagship Razr phone into a bargain bin device.

With the recession and growth slowing in the cellphone business, Moto is getting squeezed. In the fourth quarter, its cellphone sales fell by half and it posted an operating loss of $595 million. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mobile digital TV coming to NC

CBS affiliate television station WRAL announced that it will launch mobile digital television (DTV) broadcasts to consumers this summer, making Raleigh, N.C. the first US market to commercially deploy mobile DTV.

The station is working with technology vendors LG Electronics and Harris to create a system that will use WRAL's digital spectrum to deliver both linear programming and interactive data to Capital Area Transit buses serving passengers throughout the capital city. Beginning this summer, CAT bus passengers will be able to watch WRAL's programming throughout the day. Passengers will also get city-oriented news briefs, real-time weather and other information on digital screens in the buses.

That WRAL would be the first station to declare its plans is not surprising, as the station has long prided itself on being a technology vanguard: it launched the first commercial HDTV broadcasts in the US in July 1996, and began doing field tests of mobile DTV last summer.

LG is providing mobile DTV receivers, flat screen monitors and project development and support, while Harris is supplying its complete "MPH platform for ATSC Mobile DTV", InfoCaster digital signage systems and development and support services. Microspace Communications Corporation will provide wireless networking and digital signage system management, while Digital Recorders, Inc will provide integration of the communications systems on the CAT buses.

The first mobile DTV-capable bus in Raleigh is expected to be fully operational this summer, and additional buses will be equipped and rolled out over the next twelve months. (info from Boradcasting & Cable)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Burglars caught while homeowner watched them on webcam. One robber was a friendly neighbor.

Last October, burglars stole thousands of dollars in jewelry and rare coins from Jeanne Thomas's home in Boynton Beach, Florida. Then, other things began to disappear: a crock pot and the ice cream maker.

So, Thomas bought a video surveillance system to monitor her home while at work using a live video feed over the Internet. Her husband, Tony, thought she was nuts for spending $250 on the system, telling her she would never catch anyone.

Initially he was right. Mrs. Thomas would come home from work and watch hours of uneventful footage (though she did catch her dogs jumping on the sofa). She stopped watching for a while.

But on Wednesday morning, she logged onto the system from her office in Fort Lauderdale. "It was the strangest feeling," she said. "I had a feeling something wasn't right. When I went on, I saw a person standing in my house."

She quickly called 911.

Two men had broken into her home through a doggy door for her Golden Retriever. Thomas watched as the men wandered around her home and took her flat screen television, safe and a gaming machine. She described what she saw to the 911 dispatcher. "The cat is freaking out. The dogs are hiding."

One of the burglars took a bag of shredded cheese from the refrigerator and could be seen on the video stuffing cheese in his mouth.

None of them noticed the small camera that resembles an air freshener. "They walked right up to it and didn't know what it was," said Thomas.

The men kept walking in and out of her bedroom and could be seen taking her son's Wii system and other items from her home.

Thomas kept begging the dispatcher to send police. Within a few minutes, 18 officers from the Boynton Beach Police Department arrived and surrounded the house.

"You could see them on the video freaking out," said Thomas. "They darted around the house trying to figure out how to get out."

One of the men could be seen throwing down a bag that Thomas said was filled with jewelry and other valuables before fleeing the house. They were arrested as soon as they left the home.

According to Boynton Beach police, the men, Curtis Williams and Steven Morales, told police that two other men who were in a house down the street were also involved in the burglary. One of men in the house, Scott George, said he was waiting for the other men to finish the burglary and was going to help load the stolen items into his truck and drive away. He told police exactly what items they were looking to steal.

The fourth burglar was identified as Jonathan Cruz, a neighbor. Thomas said she has known Cruz since he was 8 years old and remembers him helping with neigborhood Easter egg hunts. Her husband would often give him rides to school when he was younger. As an adult, he would wave hello. Thomas never suspected he was involved with the first burglary.

All four men confessed to the burglary. They were charged with burglary and attempted grand theft and taken to jail.

The system now seems like the best investment Thomas made and hopes this will be a lesson for burglars. "You never know who is watching you," she said. (info from Palm Beach Post)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Alltel Spinoff Windstream Sues Alltel Owner Verizon

Arkansas telco Windstream sued Verizon Wireless last week, accusing Verizon of overcharging it $7 million for calls connected through its network.

According to the complaint, Windstream is disputing the charges incurred when customers of other telcos call Alltel customers using Windstream’s networks, i.e., “transit traffic.” Those charges have been lumped in with what the complaint calls “legitimate traffic,” or calls directly from Windstream to Alltel subscribers.

“Since 2006, Windstream received monthly invoices from Alltel (the ‘Invoices’). The Invoices should contain billings solely for Legitimate Traffic,” the complaint says. Windstream says it has paid the invoices but is now seeking damages to recoup the $7 million it says it was overcharged.

What gives the lawsuit an Oedipal aspect is that Windstream is the landline phone company spun off from Alltel, a wireless company now owned by Verizon. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, April 06, 2009

ISPs face Fed fight

Telcos and Cablecos are preparing for a fight as regulators begin work Wednesday on a national broadband strategy that could bring major changes to how Internet services are delivered to American homes.

The $787 billion government stimulus package requires the FCC to provide a plan for how potentially billions of future taxpayer dollars should be spent to build or upgrade Internet access across the US.

The agency will map out how the US can ensure that every American not only has access to broadband, but has service that runs much faster than what's available today. It will also look at how to update policies that haven't kept pace with the way Americans get phone, cable TV and Internet services in their homes.

Implicit in the review is that the federal government plans to invest more money in broadband infrastructure than the $7.2 billion promised through the economic-stimulus plan. Rules for how companies can apply for those stimulus funds are expected in the next month or so.

The FCC plans to examine issues ranging from how to define faster, next-generation broadband to what sort of rules should be applied to guarantee delivery of Internet traffic. It will examine competition between Internet-service providers and what can be done to provide incentives for building broadband infrastructure.

The FCC is required to turn in its plan next February, and will begin Wednesday by opening up the issue for comment.

The plan will raise thorny issues about what sort of requirements, if any, should be imposed on Internet-service providers to share the networks they have built with government help. Phone and cable companies argue that such requirements would likely stifle investment and be counterproductive.

Phone and cable companies, which provide a vast majority of the Internet access in the US, plan to lobby the agency and Congress to ensure that the FCC's plan doesn't require more stringent rules, particularly on how they manage their networks.

Internet-service providers want to control their systems so that big users don't hog bandwidth and slow service for others. But consumers and companies that want to offer services such as online video don't want those services blocked or hobbled.

Future federal funding for expanding broadband access likely would come through changes to the Universal Service Fund, a $7 billion annual program designed to subsidize phone service in rural areas and to low-income Americans. The Obama administration says the fund should provide money for broadband, not just phone service. But any changes to the program are sure to be controversial; rural phone and wireless companies could receive significantly less revenue from the fund if changes are made. Stimulus funding, meanwhile, is an important first step to getting broadband out to more areas where there is little or no Internet service. Most of the $7.2 billion set aside for high-speed Internet in the stimulus plan will have been spent before the FCC produces its wider plan for how the US. should invest in broadband. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Like Y2K, 4/1/09 was no big deal

Back in the 1990s many tech experts predicted that when the calendar showed the first day of the year 2000, computers would choke, elevators would halt, credit cards wouldn't work, phones wouldn't ring and maybe rockets wouldn't launch.

In reality, 1/1/00 was pretty much the same as 12/31/99.

April 1 of 2009, a much-hyped date when a sophisticated computer virus was set to potentially cause havoc, came and went without incident.

The Conficker computer virus, which has infected several million computers since November, was programmed to seek new instructions beginning Wednesday. That triggered speculation about what would happen, leading to media reports that Conficker could launch a massive cyber attack or do something similarly nefarious.

But security experts said there had been no Conficker-related activity. So far, Conficker has done "nothing," said Alfred Huger, vice president of engineering at computer-security company Symantec Corp. The non-event raised criticisms that efforts to use Conficker to spread awareness of cyber threats spun out of hand.

"It's really complicated and media outlets have a hard time understanding it," said Rick Wesson, chief executive of security company Support Intelligence LLC. Mr. Wesson has called Conficker a "digital Pearl Harbor."

On Wednesday, he said that he used that language to get people "to wake up" to the threat posed by cyber criminals, which aren't as obvious as threats in the physical world.

The hype around Conficker picked up in January after a self-proclaimed cabal formed to hunt down the virus's creator. It reached a new level in February, when Microsoft Corp. offered a $250,000 reward.

"In the post mortem of all of this, we're hoping this is an incident where we raised awareness of a very serious issue and that this wasn't crying wolf," said Jose Nazario, manager of security research at Arbor Networks Inc., a member of the cabal.

Security researchers say Conficker is more sophisticated than most viruses and they caution it could still cause trouble. But ultimately, Conficker will most likely be used for the same criminal purposes as other viruses. Security experts add that consumers who have up-to-date antivirus software are at little risk from Conficker and that most businesses deal with similar threats every week. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Panasonic lawyers lose April Fools' fight

April Fooler Michael N. Marcus Rejects Panasonic Gag Order, Urges People to Attend Free Speech Rally at Patrick Henry Memorial in Virginia

Michael N. Marcus is an author, businessman and April Fooler. Born in April, Marcus says April Fools' Day and Halloween are his favorite holidays. For nearly ten years, he's "pranked" electronics manufacturer Panasonic in early April, but this year his perennial victim has gotten tough, and has threatened court action to block the pranking. Marcus remains defiant despite the threat.

Marcus is president of AbleComm, Inc., a Connecticut-based supplier of telecommunications equipment. The company's main phone system brand is Panasonic. Marcus said, "I also own some Panasonic stock, and I review Panasonic electronic products on my GottaGet1 blog. I have a lot of respect for the company, but that doesn't mean I can't have some fun with it."

Marcus continued, "Since the mid 1990s, I've distributed an April Fools' news report about a mythical press conference that took place at a non-existent hotel, where fake people announced fake corporate policy changes and fake new products. For those who were in on it, It became an eagerly awaited annual tradition. Lots of people love my spoofs, but gullible victims, of course, don't. Some of my fake news has actually become real news in later years."

The annual custom reached a new height in April, 2008. Marcus realized that the public and the news media were becoming increasingly sophisticated and skeptical of "news" distributed with a 4/1 date. So, to enhance credibility, he skipped the first of the month and distributed a spoof two days later.

Early on April 3, 2008 he launched a 90%-false press release. The press release contained several revelations, but the most important was that Panasonic would be manufacturing cellphones with plasma video displays. A few months earlier Panasonic demonstrated the world's largest plasma TV, so Marcus decided they should also have the smallest.

Through very lucky timing, a few days before the "news" went out, AT&T had announced their Mobile TV service for watching shows and sports on cellphones, which added usefulness and legitimacy to the fictitious device.

Within a few hours, the story was picked up and published by websites around the world. Many news writers added original material to demonstrate their extensive knowledge of the phony subject; but only one of them called Marcus to check on the story, and Marcus told him that it was a spoof.

Mobileburn.com was particularly fanciful in enhancing the fake news. They said "Panasonic took the stage at CTIA 2008 this week with partner AbleComm to announce that it has been working with AT&T to develop plasma displays for mobile phones, for use with the carrier's new Mobile TV service." There was absolutely nothing in the news release about an appearance at the CTIA event or Panasonic "working with AT&T.".

Crunchgear.com had a headline that read, "AT&T wants Panasonic to develop plasma screens for cellphones." The news release never said that, and neither did AT&T.

Some people at Panasonic laughed as expected, but some, particularly new employees who were unaware of the tradition, were upset. One outraged exec sent an email saying that Marcus caused "people to lose thousands of productive working hours." Panasonic demanded that the news distribution service that Marcus had used issue a retraction -- and this added fuel to the fire.

The retraction generated more coverage of the fake news, and personal insults, Marcus explained. "Several websites that received the retraction accused me of forgetting what day it was. One critic with dubious credentials said it was a "late, poorly executed April Fools' joke," and another called me an April Idiot. Actually it was not late, and it was extremely well executed, and my mother didn't have any stupid kids."

"There's certainly no rule that limits hoaxing to one day per year," Marcus continued. "No one who was filmed for TV's Candid Camera on 3/20 or 10/15 objected because it wasn't 4/1. Similarly the celebrities who were victims on the MTV show Punk'd may have grumbled, but not because they were not punked on the first day of the fourth month. And the subjects of "Stuttering John" interviews on The Howard Stern Show didn't check the date before deciding to participate."

Many of the websites that ran the news of the retraction, but had not run the original fake news, ran it with the retraction, thus increasing the circulation and readership of the spoof.

Some victims were complimentary.

Dailytech.com said, "Yesterday AbleComm sent out a press release that was all very believable talking about how Panasonic was going to be using small plasma displays in a mobile phone designed to be used on the new AT&T Mobile TV service launching in May. The release was professional, interesting and all very plausible replete with quotes from Panasonic and all. It didn't take long before the story was all around the internet…"

Some websites were actually suspicious of the retraction. Phonemag.com said it "Looks like someone let the plasma cat out of the proverbial bag too soon, and is now desperately backtracking to try to salvage a business relationship. It's unclear whether this was a deliberate or accidental occurrence, though the release was sizable and contained multiple quotes from all the parties involved which lends weight to the idea that it was an authentic document prematurely distributed."

In anticipation of another April Fools "attack" this year, Panasonic's law firm Katz, Honigman, Shapiro and Flynn sent a registered letter to Marcus last week warning him against further spoofing. The attorneys told Marcus that "unless you agree to restrain yourself, Panasonic will go to Court to obtain a restraining order against you."

Years earlier, Panasonic's in-house legal department had warned Marcus not to contact the then-new head of Panasonic's Business Telephone Systems division, and Marcus refused to obey.

Now in 2009, Marcus is once again making a stand for freedom of speech and freedom of fun.

He said, "It's ridiculous that the company that I have invested my money in, and that makes products that I sell and recommend, will spend money and time merely because they have no sense of humor. I will not be silenced. I will not obey a "gag order" even if they convince a court to issue one. We are living in dark times, and Panasonic and the rest of the world need to lighten up."

"Freedom of speech is a fundamental part of American culture," Marcus emphasized. "In 1791 it was guaranteed in the very first Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. Even earlier, in 1215, free speech was included in the British Magna Carta, and the caliph Umar incorporated free speech as part of Islamic law in the 7th century."

Marcus invites all supporters of free speech, both serious and spurious, to gather on April 1 at 2:00 p.m. at the Patrick Henry National Memorial in Virginia, about 35 miles south of Lynchburg.

Patrick Henry is known for his immortal words supporting the American Revolution in 1775: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" The rally will take place at the Orator's Stage, near Henry's grave and law office. All attendees will be allowed five minutes each to address the audience on any topic. While there will be no censorship, Marcus urges that speakers "keep it clean" because there will probably be children in the audience. The address is 1250 Red Hill Road, Brookneal, VA 24528.

Marcus noted, "My former spoof victims and passive co-conspirators have been eagerly waiting to see what I would devise for this year. I won't let them down and will not be intimidated by lawyers. I'm reminded of what John Belushi said in his Bluto Blutarski role in Animal House: "Over? Did you say 'over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!"

The merry prankster proclaimed, "I proudly reiterate the defiant words of Bluto Blutarsky. I say to Panasonic and to its uptight attorneys, Hell no!"

"It's time they realize that pranks, spoofs and put-ons are part of normal American life, and should be responded to with a smile, not an injunction," Marcus concluded. "Besides, most people know not to believe anything they read on the first day of April."

Michael N. Marcus is author of the recently published I Only Flunk My Brightest Students: stories from school and real life, Phone Systems & Phones for Small Business & Home, and The AbleComm Guide to Phone Systems, all available at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.


(Patrick Henry painting by George Matthews from the U. S. Senate website. Michael N. Marcus photo by Cloe Poisson. © 2008 The Hartford Courant.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sprint is still in the toilet, but boss gets big bonus

Sprint Nextel Chief Executive Dan Hesse received a $2.6 million bonus in 2008, 30% higher than his targeted payout, even as the company's subscriber defections and losses mounted.

Hesse's overall compensation package for the year was valued in the company's proxy filing at $15.5 million, including equity grants and a base salary of $1.2 million. Sprint's customer base shrunk by 4.6 million during 2008, and it posted net losses totaling $2.8 billion.

Sprint spokesman James Fisher said Sprint has improved in several areas under Mr. Hesse's leadership, with customer call resolution up, $1 billion in cost-cuts in the second half of the year, and renegotiation of key credit agreements that has given Sprint some breathing room financially.

Fisher noted that the actual value of Hesse's equity awards is much smaller now than when they were granted, given the decline in Sprint's stock price. "The board thinks the most effective approach to executive compensation is to link it closely with our company's performance," he said. Sprint shares, which were trading at $3.43 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange, have lost more than 70% of their value since the beginning of 2008.

Hesse took the helm at Sprint in late 2007 when the company was already struggling and losing market share to rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

"By most people's estimation Dan Hesse didn't cause Sprint to be in the situation they're in now," said Christopher King, a telecom analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. "And you can see early signs of some incremental progress that's being made."

Still, it appears Sprint did not achieve some of the goals set out in its own guidance on how bonuses are calculated. According to the proxy, one goal in early 2008 was to increase additions of customers on the Nextel side of the business. That unit, acquired in 2005, has been at the root of many of Sprint's problems in recent years. In 2008, the negative trend continued, with nearly 5 million Nextel users dropping the service.

Sprint's proxy does not say what its internal subscriber target was for the Nextel division. After the first quarter, Sprint dropped Nextel subscriber targets from its formula for calculating bonuses. Sprint also did not disclose its target for reducing churn -- the monthly customer turnover rate. Churn was reduced to 2.16% at the end of 2008 from 2.3% of the subscriber base at the end of 2007, but it is still significantly higher than Sprint's rivals.

AT&T's chief executive Randall Stephenson decided to forego a bonus in 2008. AT&T is considered on Wall Street to be among the best performing telecom companies, and its wireless business has taken market share from Sprint in recent years. Stephenson announced his decision after AT&T reported a 23% drop in fourth-quarter earnings and said it would cut 12,000 jobs.

The proxy also highlights the exit package Hesse would receive under various circumstances. If he were terminated without cause, he would get a package valued at $10.1 million. If he left after a change of control -- such as a sale of Sprint to another carrier -- he would receive a package valued at $10.7 million. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Skype to allow iPhone users to bypass AT&T to make calls

EBay's Skype subsidiary plans to release a version of its Internet-based phone software for Apple's iPhone. The move puts Skype in competition for wireless voice services with network operators such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Skype's free software allows iPhone users to call other Skype users on computers or supported cellphones free if they are in a Wi-Fi hot spot. Or they may call land line phones for a fee, typically 2.1 cents a minute.

Skype already offers software for smart phones using Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system, which the company says has been downloaded 12 million times since 2005. It released a version of the software in January for the Android G1 phone, a product backed by Google, and says it will introduce a version that works on BlackBerry devices later this year.

Skype uses VoIP (Voice over Internet protocol), which treats calls as data like email messages or Web pages and routes them over the Internet, rather than a traditional phone network. It has more than 400 million users around the world.

Skype's chief operating officer Scott Durchslag said the iPhone product is part of Skype's push toward cellphones, as opposed to the calls from computers, for which Skype is known. Mobile devices are "where the majority of the world's conversations are happening these days," he said.

Skype's move into mobile communications could threaten the business of wireless carriers, which generate the bulk of their revenue from cellphone calling plans. One sign of that tension is that the Skype iPhone software makes calls only when users are connected to a Wi-Fi network, and not over the AT&T 3G data network that US iPhone users already pay to access. Wi-Fi offers short-range wireless broadband Internet access around a "hot spot."

The software would also work with the iPod Touch -- which offers the same Wi-Fi capability as the iPhone without having to buy a cellphone plan -- but would require the user to purchase a microphone.

Durchslag said Apple's terms of service for software distributed through its iPhone App Store forbid Skype from accessing the AT&T 3G data network. In the US, Skype users can make calls over the 3G network on Android G1 on Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile, as well as on the HTC Touch Pro on Verizon Wireless.

AT&T's terms of service for wireless data users don't specifically bar Internet calling on its other devices, but generally prohibit applications that would strain the company's network with too much data traffic.

Mobile data services can be expensive. Verizon, for example, charges about $2 a megabyte on some Web browsing plans, and a Skype call typically requires one to 6.25 kilobytes a second -- translating to about $4 in data charges for a 10-minute call. Such charges might undermine Skype's attractiveness, but users have the option of buying unlimited data-usage plans.

Durchslag said Skype, as a software company, has an advantage over network operators and handset makers in attracting customer loyalty. "We are not tied to a single device. We are not tied to a single network. We are ultimately the most flexible and personalizable vehicle for communication," he said. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, March 27, 2009

AT&T will warn web customers accused of media piracy

ATT, the nation's largest Internet service provider, will start sending warnings to its subscribers when music labels and movie studios allege that they are trafficking in pirated material. The phone company is joining other major ISPs that either go beyond legal requirements or interpret their duties under the law to mean that they have to forward such notices.

Jim Cicconi, AT&T's top executive in Washington, confirmed this week that the company is looking to expand a trial program it ran late last year with movie studios. It is currently testing a system with the Recording Industry Association of America and will expand the program with other rights organizations.

Comcast, Cox and Verizon already forward such notices, but the approaches differ, and the legal situation is muddled.

Copyright holders such as movie studios can, in many cases, identify Internet users who download or provide pirated material by their Internet address, but cannot match it up with a subscriber name without the cooperation of the Internet service provider. ISPs have previously identified their customers to copyright holders who bring court orders. The copyright holders and their representatives, like the RIAA, have then been able to sue the customers.

But that strategy had been widely criticized, and the RIAA said late last year it was abandoning its policy of filing lawsuits, opting instead to work with ISPs to cut abusers' access if they ignore repeated warnings. At the time, the RIAA said it agreed with several leading ISPs to notify alleged illegal file-sharers and cut off service if they failed to stop.

Cicconi said AT&T's program was not the result of a deal with the RIAA, and the music industry organization was not part of the first trials the company conducted of the notification system last year.

Under the new system at AT&T, copyright holders would send a notice to the ISP that a certain numerical Internet address is associated with piracy. The ISP would then automatically forward the notice to the customer via e-mail, without telling the copyright holder who the customer is.

AT&T and other participating ISPs are doing more for copyright owners than they are legally obliged to, according to Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. However, they do have an obligation to have a policy in place to kick off repeat offenders, he said.

AT&T will only forward the notice and won't threaten its customers with suspension of service or any other sanction, Cicconi said. If copyright holders want to go further, it's up to them to bring court orders, he said.

Cox, the fifth-largest ISP in the country with about 4 million Internet customers, forwards thousands of notices per month and has cut off a few repeat offenders.

There's confusion about the legal obligations of ISPs, von Lohmann said, because "nobody on either side has had the nerve to go to court over it, probably because the stakes are so high, neither side wants to gamble on what the ultimate answer might be."

In Ireland, the association representing RIAA members sued a local ISP, forcing it to disconnect a subscriber after three recorded copyright violations.

Internet lawyers and consumer advocates have pointed out that many reports of violations from copyright holders are inaccurate. Cox and AT&T said that in many cases, the notices have gone out to parents who didn't know that their children were pirating copyrighted material. In other cases, AT&T's Cicconi said, customers hadn't secured their wireless routers, and someone else near had been using them for downloading, so AT&T has helped customers secure their routers. (info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

T-Mobile finally offers laptop service

T-Mobile USA is opening up its new cellular broadband network to laptops for the first time, with today's launch of a USB "dongle" that lets portable PCs get wireless Internet access.

The plug-in device costs $50 with a two-year contract, or $100 if the buyer is signing up for one year. From then, service costs $60 per month for up to five gigabytes of traffic.

The prices are similar to those at the three larger cellular carriers. T-Mobile is playing catch-up to Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint Nextel in building a nationwide third-generation, or "3G" data network.

T-Mobile inaugurated the network last year for the use of a few phones, most notably the G1 "Google phone." The network reached about 100 million people by the end of 2008, and T-Mobile plans for it to cover 200 million by the end of this year.

T-Mobile subscribers using the dongle will get access to the company's network of 10,000 Wi-Fi hot spots at hotels, airports, and Borders book stores. They will also get free access at Starbucks shops, even though AT&T now operates those hot spots. Wi-Fi downloads are generally faster than 3G, and don't count toward the monthly traffic limit. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Union workers approve strike against AT&T

Union workers at AT&T have given their leaders the authority to call a strike as part of negotiations for a new contract covering 112,500 employees.

Several contracts covering workers at AT&T's landline division expire on April 4. AT&T is trying to make the employees pay more for their health care, among other concessions. The Communications Workers of America says 88 percent of members covered by the contracts voted in favor of a possible strike.

AT&T spokesman Walt Sharp says the strike authorization is "expected and routine at this stage in the negotiations." AT&T is the nation's largest employer of union labor. (info from The Associated Press)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Some 911 wackos greatest hits

A call came into 911 because two couples were going to share a hotel room and there weren't enough towels.

A lady called 911 because of a fight going on in a parking lot. When asked to describe the combatants, she said: "There's one man, and he's dressed like Elvis. He's kicking another man who's laying on the ground and screaming "You ain't nothing but a hound dog."

A man called and requested police call gas stations on all exits of I-95 to find out which ones were open.

A woman called 911 to report she had seen a wild mouse in her house.

Someone called 911 to report the parrot got out of his cage and is in a tree outside.

A man broke up with his girlfriend and wanted police to go over to her house and report to him the owners of any cars, other than hers, in her driveway.

A guy called to ask if they delivered dope. When the person answering told him it was the Sheriff's Department, he hung up.

A woman called to request a police officer come to her residence to change the battery in her smoke detector because she couldn't reach it.

A person called to find out the number to the police station.

Dispatcher: 911 What is your emergency?
Caller: I heard what sounded like gunshots coming from the brown house on the corner.
Dispatcher: Do you have an address?
Caller: No, I have on a blouse and slacks, why?

Dispatcher: 911 What is your emergency?
Caller: Someone broke into my house and took a bite out of my ham and cheese sandwich.
Dispatcher: Excuse me?
Caller: I made a ham and cheese sandwich and left it on the kitchen table and when I came back from the bathroom, someone had taken a bite out of it.
Dispatcher: Was anything else taken?
Caller: No, but this has happened to me before and I'm sick and tired of it!

Caller: Yeah, I'm having trouble breathing. I'm all out of breath. Darn....I think I'm going to pass out.
Dispatcher: Sir, where are you calling from?
Caller: I'm at a pay phone. North and Foster.
Dispatcher: Sir, an ambulance is on the way. Are you an asthmatic?
Caller: No
Dispatcher: What were you doing before you started having trouble breathing?
Caller: Running from the Police.

Dispatcher: 911 What is the nature of your emergency?
Caller: I'm trying to reach nine eleven but my phone doesn't have an eleven on it.
Dispatcher: This is nine eleven.
Caller: I thought you just said it was nine-one-one
Dispatcher: Yes, ma'am nine-one-one and nine-eleven are the same thing.
Caller: Honey, I may be old, but I'm not stupid

Friday, March 20, 2009

AT&T will sell you an iPhone with no contract

Starting next Thursday, AT&T will sell iPhones without requiring a two-year contract, but they will cost $400 more. AT&T will sell the phones for $599 or $699, depending on the storage capacity. The two models cost $199 or $299 under contract.

The company had said in July, when the latest version of the iPhone was launched, that it would sell contract-free phones in the US. Such phones are sold in some other countries.

The new phones will still be "locked" to AT&T and won't work with any other cellular carrier unless they're modified. AT&T will only activate them on the regular iPhone plans, which include a $30 monthly charge for data access. Prepaid service will not be available.

Apple, the maker of the iPhone, has been selling the device from its stores and Website, but would not say if it would sell the contract-free version.

Apple is expected to release a new version of the phone this summer. (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Craigslist busted for prostitution

Craigslist, the giant classified ad website, has antagonized the authorities over the ads in its adult section. Recently the sheriff in Cook County, Illinois called the site the “largest source of prostitution in America,” and filed a civil lawsuit to get Craigslist’s “erotic services” section shut down.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announces at a news conference that he has filed suit, accusing the site of knowingly promoting and facilitating prostitution.

Dart said: “They’ve actually catered their site so it facilitates (prostitution), where you can actually and more specifically and quickly get to what you want.” He continued: “How is that different than somebody who’s aggressively and actively working with a pimp to try to get the word out about the women working for him?”

Craigslist, in a blog post by chief executive Jim Buckmaster, said that it doesn’t tolerate illegal activity on the site and has taken steps to stop it.

While the company thinks the latest complaint is “not well founded in law,” he writes, “we still very much appreciate and commend the good work of Sheriff Dart’s department, and will continue to provide any and all assistance whenever we are called upon to help in their efforts to protect and serve the people of Cook County.”

Responding to government complaints last fall, Craigslist agreed to crack down on ads posted by prostitutes, by requiring posters of erotic-services ads to give a working phone number and pay a fee with a valid credit card. (The adult ads, like most others on the site, were previously free.)

Does the sheriff’s suit have a legal leg to stand on?

Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman doesn’t think so. “I would be surprised if it went very far,” he said today. Aside from Craigslist already cooperating with authorities, a federal court has already ruled that Websites are immune to liability for what a third party posts, so long as the site doesn’t directly help create that content. And if it ever got that far, constitutional freedom of speech protections likely also apply to Craiglist, he said.

He makes a practical point, too: Shutting down erotic ads on Craigslist probably wouldn’t make prostitution go away. “But wouldn’t one rather have a centralized location where people are posting information about illegal activity,” he asked. Such a database could make the sheriff’s job “a little easier.”

But all of that begs the question: Why does Craigslist have an “erotic services” section in the first place? As anybody who has ever picked up the classifieds section of a local newspaper has noticed, these sorts of ads can be a great source of income.

Craigslist has a more philosophical answer: Users asked for it, so that potentially objectionable ads wouldn’t be mixed in with the ordinary personals. The company says it isn’t interested in the money from erotic ads — it donates 100% of net revenue from “erotic services” ads to charities. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AT&T's 3G network could not handle demand

Over the weekend, hordes of attendees at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas overloaded AT&T's wireless network with their iPhones and other 3G-enabled devices. In response, AT&T doubled its network capacity in the city in a matter of hours.

When the iPhone 3G launched in July 2008, it was pretty clear from the start that there were lots of problems related to its ability to access AT&T's 3G network. Apple -- not AT&T -- took the fall, and in September issued a major firmware update for the 3G iPhone that "fixed" the iPhone's ability to connect to AT&T's 3G network.

In a blog posted yesterday, Om Malik said, "AT&T keeps denying that it has any network bandwidth problems and continued its state of denial in an article in the New York Times this past weekend. Kristin S. Rinne, senior VP of architecture and planning for AT&T, blamed the phones and the chipsets on handsets for some of the problems." At the same time, SXSW was kicking off in Austin. Om continues, "AT&T’s network choked and suddenly everyone was up in arms."

AT&T operates its network in the 850- to 1,900-MHz bands across the United States. Cellphones sold by AT&T can access either band. Between the two slices of spectrum, AT&T has major portions of the US covered, so cellphones will work wherever it has either 850- or 1,900-MHz spectrum.

In Austin, AT&T was using just the 1,900MHz band. In response to the outcry by SXSW attendees, AT&T doubled its network capacity in Austin by firing up the 850-MHz band on eight different towers that cover downtown Austin. This spectrum had been used for AT&T's analog network, and, according to Malik, AT&T will be turning on 850 MHz in San Francicso and New York City at some point later this year to add to its 3G capacity in those markets. Malik contends that AT&T is knowingly selling 3G devices that it doesn't necessarily have the capacity to support. (info from Information Week)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Telcos and cablecos oppose Federal financing of competitors

Cable TV companies and big phone companies don't want $7.2 billion in Federal stimulus money set aside for new high-speed Internet lines to subsidize upstarts planning to compete with existing broadband services.

Stimulus money should be used for "extending broadband [service] to unserved areas," the cable industry's lobbying group emphasized in a letter to members of Congress last week. The group repeated those remarks in a paper released Monday. Lobbyists for AT&T and Verizon are spreading the same message, urging regulators to spend the money only on wiring homes in rural areas that still rely on dial-up Internet service.

The definition of unserved, and how that is different from underserved, could be critical in deciding who gets stimulus money to extend broadband services, and where the money goes.

That isn't the only issue overshadowing the Obama administration's efforts to extend fast Internet services to more Americans. Advocates of an open Internet, or net neutrality, are wrangling with big telecommunications companies over what conditions, if any, are attached to grants. Meanwhile, industry groups want the money to be given to companies directly, instead of requirements that they work with local governments on grants. Local officials frown on that idea.

The biggest issue, however, is the debate over unserved areas versus underserved areas. Established broadband providers are concerned that the government not give federal grants to competitors looking to build new -- and potentially faster -- Internet services in markets that already have some form of broadband.

"We believe that the rules that will result here should not overly fund competitors in a market where there are already multiple broadband providers," said Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association, which represents smaller cable operators.

Midsize phone companies and consumer advocates argue that some stimulus money should be spent on new Internet lines in areas that already have service. New "middle mile" Internet lines could be used by multiple phone and wireless companies to offer faster service over longer distances, they say, and potentially increase competition.

Last year, a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only about 10% of Americans still use dial-up service. Upwards of 10 million households don't have any access to broadband service, according to a July 2008 Brookings Institution study, which found most unserved areas were in rural communities that are expensive to wire.

Cable and large phone companies would also like some of the $7.2 billion in stimulus funds to go toward spurring demand by consumers who have access to broadband now but don't subscribe. Incentives for such consumers might include things like subsidized purchases of PCs or discounted broadband access for low-income households, for instance, through an existing federal telephone-subsidy program.

Decisions on rules for the broadband stimulus grants are expected to be made in a few weeks, much faster than the usual government rule-making process. On Monday, hundreds of lobbyists packed in to the Commerce Department for the first workshop, which focused on eligibility requirements for private companies. Later this week, scheduled meetings will focus on issues including how to define unserved areas and how much of a role state officials should play in the grant-making process. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, March 16, 2009

AT&T wants to cut union wages & benefits. Strike is possible.

AT&T, the largest employer of union workers in the US, is renegotiating contracts that cover 112,500 workers, and seeks to take advantage of the recession to reduce its health care costs. Five regional union contracts expire on April 4. A sixth that expires a few months later is being negotiated at the same time.

The last time this batch of contracts was up for negotiation, five years ago, there was a four-day strike that was seen as a minor victory for the Communications Workers of America. But this time, the economic meltdown has shifted the balance of power decidedly toward the employer.

The contracts cover AT&T's shrinking wired phone business, rather than the growing cellphone division. AT&T wants concessions on health benefits, saying the wireline workers pay far fewer of their health care costs than employees on the mobile phone side. Retirees' health benefits are also likely to be affected. AT&T spends $5.5 billion a year on health care; its 2008 revenue was $124 billion.

UBS analyst John Hodulik wrote last week that a strike is likely, but that the company would come out on top. Management employees have received extensive training to keep the company running if there is a strike, he said, and AT&T could reap large savings on its health care costs.

Not only is the threat of job losses sharper in the current economy, said Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett, the union war chest is likely also badly depleted by the weak stock market. Unions in general also aren't very popular since they're getting some blame for the troubles of the auto industry. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have negotiated concessions from their unions.

Since the last contract negotiation, cable companies, with a largely nonunion work force, have grown into a formidable competitor for home phone customers. Comcast announced last Wednesday that it was the third-largest provider of home phone service in the country, surpassing Qwest.

AT&T spokesman Walt Sharp said the workers covered by the expiring contracts pay 8 percent of their yearly health care costs, compared to the national average of 34 percent. Their total health care costs are also higher because the benefits structure doesn't promote responsibility, he said.

Meanwhile, AT&T employees are well paid, compared to the competition, Sharp said. A 2007 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the hourly wages of phone company line installers and repairers at $26.80 per hour, compared to $19.50 per hour at cable companies.

Sharp also emphasized that AT&T in general has a good relationship with its unions. Of its 300,000 employees, 160,000 are unionized. It's the only wireless carrier with a large union work force. (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

If you live near a border, don't call 911 with your cellphone

Radio waves don't recognize and stop at municipal and state borders.

Years ago I called 911 from my car to report an accident on the NY Thruway in Yonkers. I connected through a cell tower across the Hudson River and was connected to New Jersey State Police. I hung up and had the same problem two more times. On the third attempt I asked if they could transfer my call to the New York cops. They couldn't transfer, and I couldn't find a phone booth. I hope a cop discovered the crash in time to help the victims.

Now the Staten Island Advance has reported a similar problem:

After Jacyln Massa and her husband moved to Livingston, they got a word of caution from their neighbors: Do not use your cellphone to call 911 because, chances are, the people who pick up will be across the Kill van Kull in Bayonne, New Jersey. The advice also holds true for those dialing from slivers of land along the waterfront in Port Richmond and Mariners Harbor, according to Bayonne officials.

"I'm a nurse myself, and in a situation where it could be life or death, it's really insane to be patched to New Jersey," said Mrs. Massa, who did a test call with her Verizon phone, and sure enough reached Bayonne from in front of her home. "It's kind of scary."

Whereas 911 dialed from a land line will allow the emergency center to locate the caller, the same does not hold true for cellphone calls.

Emergency calls can also be routed to distant centers when one center becomes overloaded. Such was the case on Sept. 11 when Bayonne received dozens of calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers.

Bayonne operators are instructed to answer the 911 calls by saying "Bayonne Police."

But if they forget to make that clear, or if the panicked caller does not hear, precious seconds can be lost before the call gets put through the direct link to New York City 911 dispatchers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ATT will subsidize netbook purchases

AT&T hopes to have the same discount-based sales success with netbooks as it did with Apple's iPhone. By forging marketing alliances with makers of the compact low-cost laptops, it hopes to expand its wireless customer base. With AT&T rebates, consumers can buy netbooks from Acer and Dell for $99 (about a third of the normal retail price), and AT&T is talking with other computer makers.

AT&T boosted demand for the iPhone by providing subsidies to Apple that lowered the device's retail cost to $199. AT&T gained by signing iPhone customers to two-year service contracts. AT&T charges iPhone users $30 a month for data service and garners $40 to $100 for calling plans.

While subsidies cost AT&T in the short term, it gains more high-spending consumers paying for its services. It wants use that strategy with other hardware, starting with the very popular netbooks. AT&T says it will expand its subsidy program to cameras, portable video game machines, GPS devices -- anything that uses lots of wireless data.

"The economics for us are terrific. We're willing to invest to get a customer," said AT&T's Glenn Lurie. "We're very comfortable with the margins we're going to receive on these netbooks, in the deals we're talking about."

The netbooks are equipped with built-in chips for wireless Internet access. AT&T charges netbook users $60 a month for data services, the same as it charges customers who use larger portable computers.

In Germany, wireless service provider T-Mobile began subsidizing netbook sales in September. AT&T's main US rival, Verizon Wireless, offers a $200 rebate for Sony's high-end Vaio Pocket netbook and also offers $100 rebates for some laptop PCs.

Wireless subscriber growth has slowed for AT&T, Verizon and other wireless firms. Also, AT&T is signing up fewer customers for DSL service at homes, another reason to invest in wireless broadband. AT&T spent billions of dollars upgrading its wireless phone network to 3G technology. In December, AT&T bought Wayport for $275 million. Wayport manages 20,000 Wi-Fi wireless hot spots nationwide. (info from Investor's Business Daily)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New rivals to iPhone App Store

Apple faces a growing threat to its iPhone business, as renegade stores spring up online to sell unauthorized software for the device.

The developer behind some popular iPhone software plans to open a service called Cydia Store that could potentially sell hundreds of iPhone applications that are not available through Apple's official store. Users must download special software that alters their iPhones before they can run these programs. Another small company plans a store called Rock Your Phone for iPhone users who have not yet modified their devices to make it easier to download and buy unauthorized applications. A third start-up is building an online store that specializes in selling adult games for the iPhone.

The new stores take aim at one of the underpinnings of the iPhone's success, Apple's App Store. It sells thousands of independently developed applications ranging from from games to news and entertainment features. People download them to their iPhones, often for free or as little as 99 cents.

When Apple opened the App Store, it provided building blocks so programmers could create software that worked on its phone. But the company tests submissions to maintain quality control and to protect the user experience. Apple collects a 30% commission from sellers on its store. 2008 sales were estimated to be about $150 million and are projected to reach $800 million this year.

The upstart sites can carry software programs that Apple won't, such as free app called Cycorder, which turns the iPhone into a camcorder. A $29 program dubbed PdaNET lets people use their iPhones as laptop modems to connect to the Internet.

Jay Freeman, who created Cycorder and is behind the Cydia Store, says he decided to open the store so developers like himself have a way to make money from their efforts. A big hurdle the Cydia Store and others face is that the applications they offer typically only work on iPhones that have been modified, or "jailbroken," to allow users to download unauthorized programs.

People have downloaded more than 500 million applications from the App Store, but the App Store rejects some submissions for technical and content reasons. It is also so sprawling that it can be difficult for a new developer to get programs noticed.

Apple appears to be preparing for a fight. While the company hasn't taken legal action against anyone for modifying iPhones or building applications for them, it filed a statement with the US Copyright Office. Apple maintains that use of software to modify iPhones is illegal, according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Cydia Store's Freeman says he has lined up a lawyer in case Apple takes legal action. "The overworking goal is to provide choice," he says. "It's understandable that [Apple] wants to control things, but it has been very limiting for developers and users." (info from TheWall Street Journal)