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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."

Gaming on the go: Verizon and its cable competitors see big money in offering on-demand casual games over their networks to TV subscribers. The target demographic for these services is people who may not want to spend hundreds of dollars for the new Xbox console, but are willing to spend a few dollars to rent games on demand over their set-top boxes. Experts say the potential revenue on these services is huge.

Verizon believes it can differentiate itself from cable by allowing subscribers to access these games across all three of the company's platforms, TV, PC, or phone. The games are actually executed in the network, which makes it easy to port them to different devices, said William Garrett, director of mass market services innovation for Verizon. The service not only allows people to play one other, using different devices, but it also allows people to change devices while they're playing.

"We are leveraging the bandwidth in the Fios network to offer high-quality games," Garrett said. "And the user doesn't have to be limited by the device they're using to play the game."

Again intelligence in the network knows whether the player is playing the game on a big-screen TV or on a small cell phone. Depending on which device is being used, the images can be sized appropriately. This means that the cellular network is not flooded with high bandwidth video traffic that is trying to jam too much information onto a tiny cell phone screen.

Interactive advertising: Remember Web TV? Well Verizon is trying to revive the concept, sort of. The company showed off how advertisers can leverage the interactive functionality of Verizon's IP television service to target viewers with more relevant advertisements. The way it works is that when a subscriber is watching TV, he can click on the Fios button on his remote control to see related content that might include menus associated with a cooking show or books being sold by authors appearing on Oprah.

Consumers would be able to buy items with a simple click of their remotes using a credit card or have the purchases billed to them on their phone bill. For high-end advertisements like cars, the service could also direct viewers to their nearest dealership.

Home networking on steroids: Using the cable TV lines already installed in the home, Fios Internet and TV subscribers have a ready-to-go high-bandwidth home network at their fingertips. And Verizon sees many ways to leverage this network to connect various devices in the home. The company demonstrated how a Wi-Fi-enabled camera can be detected by a home broadband router and automatically download pictures to a PC or storage device. Pictures can also be immediately sent through the home network and displayed on TV, PC, and digital picture screens.

Additionally, this same home network could also be used for security and monitoring. Subscribers could log onto the network to view IP-enabled video cameras to keep an eye on their property when they're not at home. They could also hook up telemetry monitors that could be used to trigger a thermostat to either heat or cool the home automatically.

Wi-Fi to cellular: Verizon also demonstrated how it could use IMS technology to seamlessly transfer phone calls from a home Wi-Fi network to a Verizon phone on the cellular network. T-Mobile USA has been offering a similar service called Hot Spot @Home since the summer. Eric Rabe, vice president of communications for Verizon, said the company is also looking at using , which boosts cellular phone signals indoors. Sprint introduced a femtocell product earlier this year. The company hasn't yet decided which technology solution it will offer, he added.

Verizon executives said that most of the technology used in the demonstrations is available today. But whether these demos will ever turn into real life services depends mostly on whether Verizon can come up with viable business models. The company will also have to find innovative ways to market these new services to consumers, something the company hasn't always done well in the past.

"The phone companies are not highly skilled at marketing new technology to consumers," Forrester's Golvin said. "The big challenge is explaining in a simple way why the technology is useful and why consumers should pay extra to use it."