Technology

A Cingular Stones Concert


Are you going to miss the Rolling Stones playing Paris on July 28? Well, if you're a Cingular Wireless subscriber, you don't have to. Cingular is using innovative new technology that lets its customers dial a number that connects them to a live feed of the Stones rocking the Stade de France, in Paris. A buck ninety-nine gets you seven minutes of Jagger & Co. The clarity depends, in part, on the quality of your phone's speakers. But the call isn't to some Stones groupie holding up a phone from the bleachers. This connection goes straight to the band's mixing board. So, "the sound quality is superior," says Anthony Macaluso, founder of Single Touch Interactive, which developed the listen-live technology Cingular is using.

Here's how it works: Interested users register for the concert ahead of time by pressing pound (#) and 106, then hitting the send button as if they were making a call. Callers then confirm that they want the service. That's it. When the concert is about to begin, they get an automated call on their mobile phone letting them know the concert is starting. If you miss the call, you can dial pound 106 and tap right into the concert. You can also register on the Web at www.listenlivenow.com.

The idea is to cash in on the popularity of mobile music, driven by the Apple's (AAPL) ubiquitous iPod. In an average month, 3.8 million people listen to music on their phones in the U.S., according to data from wireless researcher M:Metrics. "The idea of mobile access to music is a huge theme," says M:Metrics' senior analyst Seamus McAteer. "It's driving the music industry and the media sector."

NEW PROMINENCE. But if there's one thing these music lovers haven't been able to do until now, it's listen live. The Single Touch software technology has been tested before. Earlier this year, some 15,000 callers tuned in by cell phone to concerts by new Latin singing sensation Daddy Yankee and hip-hop upstart Rihanna. Those concerts took place in L.A. and Indianapolis, respectively.

The Stones concert elevates the concept to a new level. For one thing, it's the first-ever live connection via phone to an overseas venue. And, of course, in landing the Stones, the system gets instant buzz in the entertainment and telecom worlds. The companies involved are testing fans' willingness to pay up to feel like they're part of the show. The rate Cingular is charging works out to about $17 per hour. (But for the Stones concert, you're allowed a maximum of only 14 minutes. The Stones apparently don’t want people forgoing the venue for a mobile connection.)

Suddenly, more content and wireless partners are showing interest. Concerts featuring up-and-coming hip-hop stars Chris Brown and Ne-Yo are slated for the fall. And Macaluso says TV news channels such as Time Warner's (TWX) CNN and News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox News are teed up. That way, fans of, say, The O'Reilly Factor, featuring the controversial pundit Bill O'Reilly, can tune in live to the show as they're on the train or sitting in an airport.

TURNING LISTENERS INTO BUYERS. The innovation, though, is really about more than making phone calls to hear live shows. It could signal something of a breakthrough for the wireless industry's lackluster data sales. Operators such as Cingular, which is owned by AT&T (T) and BellSouth (BLS), have spent billions on networks that let users download music, share pictures, and watch video. But those applications haven't been much of a hit in the U.S. Cingular's data sales, for example, exceeded $800 million in the first quarter, according to researcher Informa Telecoms & Media. That pales next to the likes of Japan's NTT DoCoMo (DCM), which had $2.5 billion in data revenues.

The good news is that a big chunk of callers to the Single Touch programs are buying music clips and wallpaper. Generally speaking, only about 10% of Cingular's base buys ringtones, according to M:Metrics. But by tapping into a captive audience that clearly loves music, it gets a far bigger conversion rate. The previous concerts have converted about 40% of the callers into purchasers of ringtones. Industry sources close to the carriers say that in addition to Cingular, now Sprint Nextel (S), Deutsche Telekom's (DT) T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless, owned by Verizon Communications (VZ) and Vodafone (VOD), are interested in the technology. "You can see why everyone is asking us to the prom," Macaluso says.


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