Single Purpose Internet Devices

fOne enormous challenge for first-time users of the internet in developing countries is knowing what the internet is and does. If you have always lived in a technology-free environment, how are you supposed to understand, say, the Android apps on Google Play?

One solution will be the design of single purpose internet devices. Imagine a smart speaker that only tells you the weather, or a tablet that only shows football matches.

A good example of a single purpose internet device is now rolling out in the US. Facebook has launched “Portal“, a videoconferencing system that only allows calling to other Facebook users. You plug it in, link to wifi, link to Facebook, and start requesting calls. The device is powered by complex technology, including Alexa, and has a number of sophisticated design features, such as tracking your movements around a room. It only has one purpose, however: videoconference with others on Facebook.

Does some of this raise privacy issues or other objections? Probably. But the device is easy to use, and that alone may drive its popularity. Simplicity of this sort will be a precondition for internet devices across much of the planet.

Starlink Management Shakeup Points to Agressive Timelines

maxresdefaultReuters is reporting that the SpaceX Starlink program, based in Redmond, Washington, underwent a major management shakeup in June with the goal of speeding the development process of a next generation of internet satellites. According to the report, seven senior managers were fired by Elon Musk with replacements provided by SpaceX headquarters in California.

Starlink, which is in heated competition with other internet satellite initiatives, seeks to launch its next round of satellites in mid-2019. Starlink is currently studying two test satellites in orbit which have proven their ability to stream high-definition video. Among other tests, engineers in Hawthorne, California have competed with engineers in Redmond playing “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” as the satellites pass overhead.

SpaceX seeks to grow the Starlink initiative in order to, among other things, help fund the next generation BFR rocket. The Satellite Industry Association estimates global broadband as a $128 billion annual market, compared to approximately $6 billion annual market for satellite launch services.

Starlink still aspires to launch 4,425 satellites into low earth orbit over the next several years.

AWS Partners with Iridium

AWS_2xAmazon Web Services (AWS) provides a suite of tools for manufacturers who are building Internet-enabled devices or appliances (the “Internet of Things”, or IoT). Devices connect to the cloud to send data, receive instructions, or coordinate with other devices.

The IoT generally connects over cellular networks. Unfortunately, 80% of the Earth lacks cellular coverage. For this reason, AWS has announced a partnership with Iridium to provide IoT cloud connectivity via satellite. The Iridium service, called Iridium CloudConnect, will allow devices not finding cellular coverage to connect to AWS via satellite.

Iridium is currently updating its satellite network. The final ten satellites (of 75) are scheduled for launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in November 2018. Iridium CloudConnect will be available in 2019.

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.