Satellite TV for African Villages

startimes_logoAt the end of 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a cooperative China – Africa plan descriptively titled “Access to Satellite TV for 10,000 African Villages.”

The plan proposes to offer 10,000 villages across 25 countries a package of free services to enable satellite TV. Each village will receive two projector TVs, a 32 inch digital TV, and 20 additional satellite dish systems allowing access. The projectors and digital TV are to be set up in public spaces in the village. To address power shortages, each will also have solar panels and batteries allowing six hours of viewing with no power.

While this initiative doesn’t address internet or broadband issues, it is another example of communications and media extending into resource-poor environments.

The plan is progressing, with completion scheduled for 2019. The implementing firm is StarTimes, a Chinese multimedia company with extensive experience in Africa.

Jio is Conquering India

Reliance-JioPhone-2What happens when the country with the world’s largest population of people without internet access offers free phones and almost free unlimited data?

We’re finding out in India.

In 2016 Reliance Industries, the petrochemical consortium and India’s largest publicly traded company, launched Jio, a telecommunications initiative. Jio is the brainchild of Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, who seeks to provide internet access to everyone in India at affordable prices.

Reliance has spent the last few years constructing 200,000 new cell towers and laying 150,000 miles of fiber optic cable to provide fast 4G connectivity across the country, spending $35 billion.

Jio launched its service at the end of 2016, offering free calling, free texting, and six months of free data, after which data charges were about 1/4 industry average. Usage skyrocketed, both in terms of subscribers, now over 200 million, and data usage, now the highest in the world for any company.

In 2017 Jio introduced the “JioPhone”, a hybrid feature phone / smart phone that takes advantage of 4G data speeds. Among other features the phone comes preloaded with 500 streaming TV channels and music in 17 languages. The phone is essentially free: it requires a $23 deposit which is returned with the return of the phone.

Josh Woodward of Google, who has led teams building new web services in India, says that thanks to Jio and the JioPhone, “hundreds of millions of users are now going to come online faster than all the models projected.”

Ambani relates a story that a few years ago he was at home (“home” — 27 stories of rooms complete with helipad) when his daughter came home for break from Yale. “Dad, the internet in our house sucks” she complained. That apparently set in motion the largest, fastest cellular expansion in history.

Ambani’s ambitions apparently haven’t slowed. In July he claimed his network was still only at 20% capacity and that “We are determined to connect everyone and everything, everywhere.”

Viasat

int_vsat_tm_rgb_grdIn the rush towards low earth orbit satellite constellations by SpaceX and others, some traditional satellite broadband providers are receiving limited attention. This may be an oversight. Viasat, which provides broadband services in North America and some other regions, has plans to launch three high capacity geosynchronous satellites between 2019 and 2021 which will bathe the globe in broadband. In their own words, Viasat will “likely become the world’s first global broadband provider.”

The three ViaSat-3 satellites each will have the network capacity comparable to the total of “the approximately 400 commercial communications satellites in space today”.

Viasat hasn’t revealed prices for future services, including in developing countries. Current US broadband services range from $70 to $150 per month depending on bandwidth.

Military Studying Satellite Constellations

darpa logoThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced plans to launch 20 test satellites into low earth orbit. The program, called Blackjack, will test prototype spy satellites, aiming for the first 20 to be in orbit by 2021.

One goal of the program is to reduce costs of satellites, from approximately $1 billion for current geosynchronous satellites to about $6 million for individual low earth orbit satellites. A satellite constellation in theory will be both more effective and harder for adversaries to defeat.

The Blackjack program plans to award $117 million in contracts to aerospace companies developing satellite bus technologies. Future awards will be for other design aspects and launch services for the new networks.

New Details about SpaceX Starlink

maxresdefaultThe SpaceX Starlink program seeks to launch over 4,000 low earth orbit satellites to provide broadband coverage across the planet. The project is relatively secretive, so analysts review whatever information comes available.

Earlier this month, a Starlink patent application was published online describing a new low-cost, easy to manufacture approach to phased array antennas. The antenna technology for the network will be critical in allowing fast-moving satellites to communicate effective with ground stations and with each other.

The technical filing also reportedly details a new integrated circuit design used for processing on board communications.

In June Elon Musk tweeted that latency of the two test satellites currently in orbit is a respectable 25 ms. He also said that one more set of revised test satellites will be required before ramping up production.

Update on Hate Speech in Myanmar

fFacebook has posted an update on efforts to control hate speech in Myanmar.

The company has been criticized for years for its slow response in Myanmar to hate speech targeting the Rohingya minority. According to the United Nations, Facebook played “a determining factor” in the genocide and forced migration last fall of 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh.

Facebook now elaborates on many steps it has taken to address hate speech in Myanmar, including:

  • hiring more Burmese language content editors
  • making reporting tools easier to use
  • improving AI systems to flag questionable content
  • better coordination with civil society groups
  • building digital literacy programs for users
  • updating content policies
  • banning a number of users
  • increasing the use of unicode-compliant fonts
  • hiring third party auditors

By Facebook’s own accounting, the company is catching much more hate content for prompt removal.

Given that Facebook’s efforts in Myanmar have been variously described by civil society groups there as insufficient and secretive, the company’s new blog post taking responsibility for its actions and citing specific steps it is taking is encouraging and commendable.

Simultaneously, however, Reuters has released a new, mostly scathing investigative report on Facebook’s efforts in Myanmar. The detailed analysis finds over 1000 posts, comments, and graphic images online targeting the Rohingya, some as old as six years.

Reuters researchers tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to report hateful content to Facebook. The Reuters analysis also pointed to many technical shortcomings of Facebook systems. In one glaring example of how the Burmese to English translation engine falls short, Reuters reports that a Burmese comment reading “Kill all the kalars you see in Myanmar; none of them should be left alive” is translated to English as “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar.”

So in competing reports, Facebook says it is doing a lot with respect to Myanmar and making solid progress. Reuters reports that Facebook is not doing nearly enough, and the situation is still very dangerous. Both views are undoubtedly true.

Airbus Solar Drone Sets Record

zephyrZephyr S, the solar-powered drone built by Airbus, has set a new flight-endurance record of nearly 26 days. Flying at an altitude of 21 km by day, the drone recharges batteries using solar panels, and uses two electric motors to stay aloft. At night the drone relies on battery power and also makes a slow descent to about 17 km.

Solar-powered drones may someday do at least some of the work of satellites, providing platforms for earth imaging, telecommunications, and scientific research. Drones cost only a fraction of the cost of satellites.

Airbus has built a launch facility in Western Australia which it plans to use for worldwide deployment of its aircraft, but the company says it can also establish regional launch facilities if necessary. Zephyr drones can traverse between one and two thousand kilometers per day.

Airbus is one of several companies pursuing solar drones — although that list does not now include Facebook, which dropped out of the race. Airbus soon will launch a larger version Zephyr T, used for bigger payloads.

Will Elon Musk Eliminate Global Poverty?

muskElon Musk aims high with the companies he founds. He intends to combat global warming through electrification of society (Tesla, Solar City), reinvent transportation through use of tunnels (The Boring Company, Hyperloop), save society from abuses of Artificial Intelligence (OpenAI), recast how humans communicate with computers (Neuralink), and safeguard humanity’s future through colonization of Mars (SpaceX).

His greatest legacy, however, may be none of these. His greatest legacy may be the elimination of global poverty. He himself possibly doesn’t even know this may be an outcome of his efforts.

Bear with me here.

The planet has made great progress in the reduction of global poverty. Since 2000, the percentage of people living under $1.90 per day (the World Bank’s current definition of “extreme poverty”) has dropped from 35% to less than half that today (thanks mostly to great progress in India, and especially China). The UN has established as one of its “Sustainable Development Goals” the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030.

The challenge is that the remaining populations living in extreme poverty are the hardest to reach and assist. They are almost all rural (or remote), most in Africa, and most with little connection to government or international programs of assistance. Most have no electricity and no internet connection.

Which is where Elon Musk comes in.

With respect to electricity, poorest communities have given up on trying to link to a national electric grid (which is much too expensive) and are jumping straight to household “microgrids”. For example, India has launched a program to give by the end of 2018 all households with no electricity a microgrid comprising a solar panel, battery, five lights, fan, and cell charger. Microgrids have gotten much cheaper and better, in great part thanks to improvements in battery technology. Battery technology is being driven mostly by the popularity of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are becoming more popular due in great part to Tesla and Elon Musk.

And with respect to internet connections, Elon Musk’s role is even more direct. SpaceX has an ambitious, relatively secretive effort to launch nearly 12,000 satellites into low earth orbit to bathe the planet in broadband. The system will be initially operational in 2020 and fully operational by 2025. This means that those places that are too difficult or expensive to reach with traditional internet connections will suddenly be online. Since less than half the planet currently has usable, affordable access to the internet, this is a really big deal.

If a household has electricity and it has internet, it can link to information services, education resources, health guidance, government programs and other services. It may be simplistic to say that extreme poverty is incompatible with global broadband — but for many reasons that is probably true.

So Elon — please keep at the global warming / transport / safe computing / saving humanity tasks — we appreciate it. And while you’re at it, you may also eliminate global poverty. Thank you in advance!

Facebook Ditches Aquila

aquilaFacebook recently announced that they will be stopping their Aquila drone initiative, instead relying on other companies to build high altitude aircraft. In a company blog post, Facebook said that they no longer plan to build their own equipment since the broader industry is now interested in the concept.

Facebook continues to support connectivity programs for the ~four billion people currently without internet access, including fiber programs, terragraph, and policy initiatives such as a proposal for 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) systems. Facebook also is quietly investing in a next generation satellite program.

The Promise of Mobile Banking

mpesa_logoAround two billion people on the planet are “unbanked” — which is to say they have no access to financial services. Their transactions are all in cash. Any savings need to be hidden in their home. They are vulnerable to crime. They can’t earn interest. They can’t transfer money to others. They don’t qualify for loans.

Fortunately, new technologies are offering important opportunities, particularly through cell phones.

The best-known and most celebrated online financial service utilizing cell phones is M-Pesa, launched in Kenya in 2007. M-Pesa allows users to deposit cash into their M-Pesa accounts (usually via the ubiquitous cell phone agents that sell users minutes all across Kenya), store money, and transfer money to others. They can also pay bills, purchase air time, and in some cases buy products.

M-Pesa was launched when Safaricom, a leading mobile operator in Kenya, saw that new cell phone users were “banking” minutes on their phones. Apparently, if someone had some money, it was safer to buy and store minutes than to hold cash. When Safaricom allowed users to share minutes, they saw people start to make payments to one another in this new “currency”. So Safaricom decided to allow users to not only store and share minutes, but also money. M-Pesa was born.

The service spread quickly in Kenya, and currently includes over 25 million active users (which is about the entire adult population of the country). A study of M-Pesa by MIT and Georgetown researchers concluded that between 2008 and 2014, M-Pesa was responsible for lifting 200,000 families out of poverty (about 2% of total households).

M-Pesa has also been launched in Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan, India, and several Eastern European countries — to mixed success.

M-Pesa also provides a financial platform for other services. For example, the Kenyan company M-Kopa sells personal solar systems for households that are lacking electricity. Payments for the system are made daily for a year through M-Pesa. If a payment is missed, the system is disabled until payments resume.

Online banking is convenient for those of us in developed countries. In developing countries, it is transformative.