Listening to voice mail on a TV — or reading e-mail on a cell phone. Programming a digital recorder from that cell phone. Finding a lost child. These are some of the services that the consortium of Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc., Advance/Newhouse Communications and Sprint Nextel Corp. are working on to try and distinguish their coming wireless phone services from those already in the marketplace, from Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless or other existing competitors.
Integrated voice-mail and e-mail, video programming and the ability to program a digital video recorder using a cell phone all are examples of the kind of “converged” services that use features from both cable and wireless networks — and that should be available later this year, according to John Garcia, president of the joint venture formed late last year by Sprint Nextel Corp. and the four cable companies.
“We’ll focus the effort to innovate in places where the wireless and wireline networks intersect,” Garcia said. “It will be converged services, converged content and converged applications.”
Sprint and the cable companies in the joint venture would not comment on how these services would work, saying those details are under development.
The answer starts with the magic of Internet Protocol technology, though, said Greg Vaudreuil, a consulting member of the technical staff in the chief technology officer at Lucent Technologies, based in Murray Hill, N.J.
Lucent is working on hardware and software that can create services which work across both cellular-telephone and cable networks — such as integrated voice mail and e-mail.
To program a digital video recorder, Sprint would likely include a Web browser on the cell phone, Lucent’s Vaudreuil said. That browser would connect to a Web server inside the cable system’s equipment headend, which houses the subscriber’s program guide information.
The cell phone would be able to call up and display the same guide that runs on the home TV. Using the buttons on the phone, the subscriber could choose to record a program, just as if a remote remote control, Vaudreuil said.
The instructions would then be relayed from the cell phone to a Web server in the cable headend. Cable systems already have servers in their headends that handle text information displayed on set-top boxes, such as interactive program guides.
Details of the choice to record a program — say American Idol — are relayed from the server in the headend to the set-top box using an Internet protocol-based pathway established with the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS).
A model exists for providing video services through Sprint cell phones — one that already involves Comcast.
Sprint currently offers its users two video services, Mobi TV and Sprint TV. Both provide a mix of live television channels and prepackaged video clips for $10 a month.
For instance, Emeryville, Calif.-based Mobi TV offers 30 channels, including live feeds from MSNBC, CNBC, C-SPAN, Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel. There are also video clips packages from ESPN and Fox Sports.
Mobi TV licenses the content from the programmers and obtains the live-TV feeds from Comcast Corp.’s Comcast Media Center satellite-downlink facility in Denver. MobiTV then encodes the feeds into 100 different formats, said Ben Feinman, director of product management at MobiTV, corresponding to the various service providers (Sprint, Cingular, Bell Canada and Rogers Communications Inc.) and video-capable cell phones involved.
Voice mail and e-mail messages are typically stored on a central Internet server, Vaudreuil said. To display cell-phone messages on a TV screen, he said, a cable subscriber would call up that voice-mail application on their TV using their remote control. The set-top box would send a message up through the cable-system headend to an Internet router, which would locate the Web server that is hosting the subscriber’s cell-phone voice mail, Vaudreuil said.
The voice-mail message from the cell phone provider would go through a piece of software called a transcoder, which would transform information about the message for display on a TV screen. This changeover would enable a cable viewer to see the name of who called, the time of day, the incoming phone number and even a text message from the caller, he said.
The TV acts just like any other terminal, such as a landline phone, that attempts to retrieve a voice-mail message from a cell phone, Vaudreuil said. By pressing buttons on a remote control, the recipient then can play back the message.
Collecting e-mail using a cell phone follows much the same process, only in reverse, he said.
A cable company typically stores e-mail on a central server, he said. Using an Internet Protocol connection, a Sprint cell phone subscriber would type in a Comcast.net e-mail address, for instance, and access a Comcast Web server to retrieve their e-mail. Messages would be transformed for display, in text form, on the cell phone screen.
“Sprint can reach into the Comcast network, and vice versa,” Vaudreuil said.
Another application Sprint and the cable operators are looking at ties cell-phone technology to the Global Positioning System, which would allow parents to track where their children are, Garcia said.
To do this, the children would have to be given cell phones that include a global positioning system chip set and antenna. The parent’s cell phone, in turn, would include software that would send a command via the cell phone network to that antenna on the child’s phone. At that point, satellites get involved.
The child’s cell phone would recognize the command and automatically send a signal to the satellite-based positioning network. Using multiple satellites, the system figures out where exactly the cell phone — and child — is located.
That location then is sent to the parent’s cell phone. A map would appear on the parent’s phone, showing the whereabouts of the child — or the phone, at least — and Mom or Dad would have to figure out if the child indeed was at school, walking home or going someplace else.
Several companies are working on such applications today. Wherify, a Redwood Shores, Calif.-based company, will launch a cell phone GPS tracking application later this year for global system mobility (GSM) phones, said director of communications Jeff Cunningham.
Wherify plans to launch the service with a regional cell carrier. Users would buy a new phone, with the global positioning system chipset and antenna and the Wherify software built in.
TruePosition, a Berwyn, Pa.-based company that counts Liberty Media Corp. as an investor, is developing a similar service for both major cell phone networks, including the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology Sprint and Verizon uses.
With TruePosition’s approach, a parent would open up a Java application on a cell phone, which sends a message to a server on the cell-phone network. That server would ping the global positioning system to find the child’s handset. The GPS would send a signal to track the phone using the integrated chip set in the child’s cell phone. Then, the location information would be sent back to the parents’ phone over the cell phone network.
TruePosition senior vice president Kenny Young said his company uses a combination of global positioning system and terrestrial signaling, which can provide locations in less than 30 seconds. Satellites, by themselves, may need several minutes to coordinate the calculation of a cell phone’s location, Young said.