Texting a Computer Instead of a Cellphone

Service provider Neustar has figured out how to send text messages to and from any device

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.” This is show number 65.

My guest last week noted that text messaging dominates all other cellphone activities, even for smartphones equipped with Web browsers, e-mail, games, iTunes. Last month, AT&T, the largest U.S. cellular provider, doubled its monthly charge for text messaging—presumably for no better reason than that it can. Texting is a service we can’t live without. I suspect many of us would give up actual phone calls before doing without texts.

One company, Neustar, is about to make texting even more useful. They’ve figured out how to let us text to and from iPads, computers, and other devices that aren’t cellphones. I don’t know how to explain Neustar except to say it’s a company that turns many of the numbers of our lives into network connections. It’s the official administrator for the North American Numbering Plan, which means that among other things, for many listeners, it’s in charge of your phone’s area code. It’s also a leading service for cellphone portability—the ability to switch to a new carrier and keep your old cellphone number. According to a company fact sheet, it also keeps track of 1.8 billion phone numbers around the world and 2.8 billion IP addresses.

My guest this week is Neustar's vice president of marketing for carrier services, Jean Foster. Jean, welcome to the podcast.

Jean Foster: Thank you, Steven. And thank you for that introduction on Neustar—you understand our business.

Steven Cherry: Great. So let’s talk about the service itself. Maybe you could just start by explaining: How will I send a text message from my phone to my wife’s iPad?

Jean Foster: So if you think—if you tried to do this today, you could send a text to a number—it goes through the routing; it goes through what we call the wireless ecosystem, which is where all the carriers and the aggregators get together. When you send that text it will identify whether the number you’re sending it to is a wireless number or not; if it’s not, the text won’t go through. That’s essentially what happens today. So you can’t send a text to an iPad if it’s not on a carrier’s network and doesn’t have a mobile number associated with it. You certainly can’t send it to your TV set. What we’re doing—because we run the centralized database and have access to all of these numbers—is we are able to put rules into the routing system in the U.S. that says, “For these numbers, enable a text to go through.” So it’s a directory service that allows our customers—and our customers could be, you know, cable companies, communication providers—it allows them to identify a list of numbers that are text enabled. Those numbers could be attached to an iPad that’s running on a Wi-Fi network; they could be attached to a set-top box on a cable network. But those services are now able to receive texts based on our directory listing service.

Steven Cherry: So in the case of an iPad, would there be like some iPad app that my wife would have to run and then she’d be able to receive texts on that device?

Jean Foster: Yup. There’s going to be an application we’re developing with our customers—our target customers for this service—some applications, and we actually have a demo application out there that’s running on the iPhone operating system. We’re also doing similar things for some of the other operators, and the goal is to have this as just an easy downloadable app for people to use if they want to send and receive texts.

Steven Cherry: Now in the case of—you mentioned set-top boxes. So let’s say I have Time Warner cable. They would have to basically add something like that app to the software that the set-top box runs, and then I could see a text show up on my screen, perhaps—on my TV screen?                                                                                                                                               

Jean Foster: The main offer and the services that we’re rolling out at the moment is very much targeting that community—it’s targeting the cable operators. What we’ve been doing for those operators is working with them to enable the delivery of texts to the set-top box; to identifying that set-top box with a telephone number, enabling the routing of that. And again, it’d be a very specific piece of software development for that operator or for that cable company that would enable us to route the traffic through; it doesn’t need specific consumer-facing apps on the set-top box, but if you wanted to do it from your iPhone—or your iPad, a better example—then you would use the application.

Steven Cherry: And I guess you could even send a text to my landline phone if my landline were hooked up to something that could display it, like my TV.

Jean Foster: Yeah, that example is actually the genesis of this product. Several years ago, you may remember that Verizon launched the Hub Phone, which they were bringing out—an IP-based phone that could send and receive multiple types of information, including texts. And we worked with Verizon at that time and enabled delivery of texts to the Hub Phone. So that was the very early case or early example of this product. And what we’ve been doing—and our smart technical guys have been working on it, been noodling on it since then—is to say “How do we really take this out into the market?” So we’ve been developing the service; we’ve been working with our customers to package this service. And what we’ve discovered as we’ve done that is new additional use cases or scenarios that some of our customers have started saying, “Can it do this? Can it do this? Can the service do that?” and we’ve developed—we’ve been developing the service extensively.

Steven Cherry: So let me switch from my wife—who at least has a cellphone that I could be texting directly to—to a friend of mine who doesn’t. Let’s call him “Whiskey Mike,” because that’s what a lot of people call him. Whiskey Mike doesn’t even have an answering machine, so last-minute changes in plans are pretty hard to arrange. Let’s say I talk him into buying an iPod Touch and I show him how to use Wi-Fi. How would I text him? Or how would he text me?

Jean Foster: In that scenario if you’re texting him, so that iPod Touch will come with a telephone number associated with it; even if it’s not connected to a wireless network, it will still have a telephone number associated with that. So when Whiskey Mike is a customer of, I don’t know, say Verizon, and he wants to enable this service, then that number would be listed in our system of accepting texts, and then you would be able to do—from your normal phone, you know, just do a normal text. Or if you’re doing it from your iPad, you would use our application and send that text, and then, likewise, he would be able to use his iPod Touch with the service to send texts back.

Steven Cherry: Is he going to have to pay any money to send that text to my phone?

Jean Foster: It’s really going to depend on who he has service with, because our customers are going to implement different commercial models. Some of the companies that we’re talking to are just going to offer this as a bundled service, as a differentiator; some want to charge. So it’s really depends on the service provider and what model they choose. Mike would not be my customer; it would be his service provider that would be my customer.

Steven Cherry: In the case of the iPad and maybe even for the Touch as well, if it’s just an app that runs on the phone, would Neustar be the provider of that app?

Jean Foster: We are going to be working with our customers to help them create apps. We have an app available—it’s in the iPhone app store. So we have that today, but that’s really not our core business. We’ll be working with those customers, those service providers, to enable them to create those apps, you know; we’ll be developing software-development kits and giving them demonstration apps, but we are—it would be the service provider that would create those apps, because we want to do it based on their own brand and their own service.

Steven Cherry: And when do you expect this to be widely available?

Jean Foster: We’re launching the service publicly in October, so in a couple weeks’ time. We’re working with 10 customers today to trial this, so many of the cable companies are actually working with us today to actually trial and prototype the service in their labs. And we expect a number of customers to be using this commercially before the end of the year.

Steven Cherry: Very good. You know, I was thinking about Whiskey Mike again, and the next step I think after this is for somebody to come up with a phone that doesn’t even make phone calls. So do you think you could work that out with, I don’t know, maybe Samsung or Sprint or somebody like that?

Jean Foster: [laughs] We should. I just saw a piece of research that I think was published a couple of days ago from the Pew Research Center, and they said that 31 percent of text-message users prefer texting to voice calls. Not surprisingly, that’s young, so I think that scenario of a text-only device is very, very real. I mean, you know yourself, if you try to reach a teenager these days they don’t answer their cellphone, but they’ll be very quick to respond by text.

Steven Cherry: Very cool. Well, thanks a lot. We really appreciate it.

Jean Foster: Great. Thanks for your time, Steven.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Jean Foster, vice president of marketing for carrier services at Neustar, a provider of managed telecommunications services. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 12 September 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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