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

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)