Verizon shows off its future tech

As it builds out its superfast fiber-optic and wireless networks, the company contemplates which newly developed applications and services it will offer.

BASKING RIDGE, N.J.--Intelligent services are on the way for Verizon Communications customers as the company expands its fiber-to-the-home and 3G wireless networks.

Imagine how much easier life could be if your phone company's network was smart enough to route your messages to the device you're using right now, freeing you from keeping track of independent and separate e-mail, SMS, and instant messaging accounts.

Or what if you could start playing your favorite game, Bejeweled, on your PC and then continue playing the same game without interruption on your cell phone as you leave the house to commute to work.

For Verizon customers, services such as these may be just around the corner. Last week, Verizon invited several members of the press to its development facility here, where Chief Technology Officer Mark Wegleitner and his team of executives showed off how some of these innovative services might work.

While many of these services are technically possible today, none is offered yet by Verizon. Executives were careful not to make big promises, but the applications and services they're showcasing are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of new services that are possible using Verizon's all-fiber network called Fios and the newly expanded 3G wireless network of Verizon Wireless, its joint wireless venture with Vodafone.

There's been an ongoing debate about whether intelligence should be on the end devices or in the network. But the answer is really that it needs to be in both.
--Mark Wegleitner,
CTO, Verizon

But new, faster pipes are only part of Verizon's story. The company plans to use these pipes to integrate services in an intelligent fashion so that content can be delivered on any device whether it be the TV, PC, or cell phone. And the services will be smart enough to know which device you're using on which network and if you're available for a phone call, IM chat, or video conference.

"It's all about the cooperative processing and cooperative activity between the network and the devices at the consumer home," Wegleitner said. "There's been an ongoing debate about whether intelligence should be on the end devices or in the network. But the answer is really that it needs to be in both."

AT&T has also been touting the same philosophy with its "three screen" strategy, which would allow people to access all of AT&T's content and services on a cell phone, PC or TV. Meanwhile, some cable operators have struck a deal with Sprint Nextel to offer integrated cell phone service with their TV and broadband services.

"All the major phone companies and cable operators see this strategy of integration as the future," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. "But where Verizon and AT&T have a lead is really being able to integrate services across the wireless platforms."

Indeed, the idea is that if Verizon can pull these services together better than anyone else, it will differentiate its services from its cable competitors.

Here's a peek at some of the services the company could offer in the future:

IM for the masses: Verizon has big plans for instant messaging and the notion of presence. Today, IM only works between IM clients that reside either on a PC or a cell phone. Using intelligence built into the network, Verizon can take IM across platforms and integrate it into the cellular messaging platforms of SMS and MMS (multimedia messaging service). For example, someone could take a picture with their cell phone and using MMS send it to someone who is sitting at a PC logged on to IM.

Using advanced "presence" technology, which essentially knows whether a person is available, the network can route the message in the appropriate format to whichever device that person is using.

"Today services are tied to a device," said Michael Weintraub, director of business services innovation at Verizon. "What would be better is if services were tied to the user, so that when the user accesses a service, he can do it from any device depending on the need."

If this idea sounds familiar, it should. It's the same basic concept of "unified communications" that Cisco Systems and Microsoft have been touting for more than a year. While solutions from Cisco and Microsoft are geared toward business customers, a service like this offered by Verizon could be offered to consumers, Weintraub said.

Souped-up presence: Today, presence, which is mostly associated with IM, is managed manually. Users must tell the IM client if they are busy or available and their status is displayed in their buddy list. Using a combination of IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), which is an architectural framework for delivering IP multimedia to mobile users, and Web 2.0 technologies, Verizon can extend this notion of presence so that the network automatically knows someone should be left along because the person is watching the final game in the World Series. Or it can tell if someone has turned on a cell phone and is ready to accept calls on that device instead of on the home or office phone.

Of course, the biggest issue with services that use this level of intelligence to detect presence is privacy. Verizon executives said any service that offers information about where and which devices subscribers use would also have the option to go "off network," so that a person's presence could not be detected.

Still, questions about Verizon's ability to collect such sensitive and detailed user information might make some consumer groups and privacy experts nervous.

"There's no question that integrating technologies to enhance presence is a useful concept," said William Goodman, director of multimedia services architecture for Verizon. "But this is just a lab demonstration. And the appropriate privacy and operational policies would have to be worked out before this could be a service. That said, Verizon is also very serious about protecting customer information."

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