Narrowband Goes Broad

Seems LoRa is really taking off. Citing data from research firm Analysys Mason, Chris Donkin writes that 85 new networks were announced as live, in a trial phase or in development in 2016 compared with 29 in 2015.

While early LPWA deployments were concentrated in the US and Western Europe, Analysys Mason found interest in the technology spread during 2016, with strong traction being seen in the APAC market.

During 2015, two thirds of initiatives took place in the US and Western Europe whereas in 2016 the figure was down to less than a third. Simultaneously APAC showed growth from 4 per cent in 2015 to 30 per cent in 2016.

The report identified developments in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as being especially significant in the regional shift identified last year.
– via Mobile World Live

While a lot of these led by SigFox or operators using the NB-IoT standard — a stripped down 3G, more interesting, I think is the LoRa version, which actually provided the single largest group — 29 deployments vs 27 Sigfox.

The LoRa Alliance says 17 nationwide deployments have been publicly announced, and there are live networks in more than 150 cities. So I’m guessing AM’s numbers are somewhat conservative. The Things Network, an open source implementation of LoRa, boasts dozens of communities — people who are working on networks, however small — and while most are in Europe and the US, Australia is strong — Sydney’s Meshed Network Pty has installed five gateways around the city.

The author of the AM piece, Aris Xylouris, says “we can expect more announcements to be made before Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017. It is likely that the launch of the first real commercial deployment of an NB-IoT network will be among the announcements at MWC 2017.”

Here’s my take from August on narrowband.

Why we hate video calls

Good piece in the New Scientist about why we’ve always hated video calls:

When another New York Times reporter went to Pittsburgh in mid-1971, however, he found only 33 Picturephones in operation, with just 12 able to dial outside their own buildings. Aside from impracticalities such as cost, it seemed that, against all predictions, no one actually wanted video calling. Users were more interested in seeing graphics than face-to-face video conversation. At Bell Labs, Lucky recalls that the only person who called his Picturephone was his boss, Arno Penzias. “I found it very awkward because I had to stare at him,” he says.

More than that, I think the enduring non-appeal of video is that it doesn’t start to replace talking face to face. Face to face talking is not about seeing the other person, or looking them in the eyes — it’s about non-verbal communication — gestures, body language, touching, etc. It’s also about allowing other things to intervene — movement, distraction, interaction with objects.

Video calls are exhausting, because you are trying to replace all that with just maintaining eye contact, or at least giving the appearance of remaining engaged. It’s a new form of communication, and we’ve tried and rejected it. Whenever Cisco drag me over to their HQ for some elaborate video conference I always feel it’s a waste of time, and a major overengineering of a flawed medium.

Talking on the phone, meanwhile, suits us perfectly (although I’ve come to hate it almost as much as video calling.) As George Costanza once said, after going through a phone conversation with a blind date:

George: She had to be impressed by that conversation, had to! It was a great performance. I am unbelievable on the phone. On the date they should just have two phones on the table at the restaurant, done.

Phone calls have become useful because we are able to transfer a lot of the body language and non-verbal cues into speech (and silence). We’re still working on text chat, but we’re getting there. It works — it’s not exhausting. It’s communicating what we want to communicate, and filtering out what we don’t — and not reading, at least for the most part, anything into anything else.

Singapore’s M1 aims narrowband deployment at the sea

Singapore telco M1 is getting Nokia to install an NB-IoT network atop its 4G one, interestingly with an eye not just to land but to sea. 

NB-IoT stands for Narrowband Internet of Things, and is the GSM world’s answer to narrowband technologies such as LoRa and Sigifox that threaten to take away a chunk of their business when the Internet of things does eventually take off. Why use expensive modems and services when you’re just trying to connect devices which want to tell you whether they’re on or off, full or empty, fixed or broken?  

Techgoondu reports: “While that network caters to heavy users who stream videos or songs on the go, a separate network that M1 is setting up at the same time is aimed at the smart cars, sensors and even wearables.

They said pricing will likely vary with each solution or package, with some companies saving costs from deploying large amounts of connected sensors. However, others that require the bandwidth, say, to deliver surveillance videos over the air, would likely stick with existing 4G networks.

And while many NB-IoT devices are still on the drawing board – standards for the network were only finalised in June – M1 executives were upbeat about jumping on the bandwagon early.

Alex Tan, the telco’s chief innovation officer, said the technology would open up new business opportunities in the years ahead.”

A press release from M1 says it’s working with the ports authority — Singapore is one of the biggest ports in the world — to  “explore the deployment of a network of offshore sensors to augment the situational awareness of our port waters,” according to Andrew Tan, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Port Authority, MPA.

This follows Sigfox’s deployment in the city state last month. It also pips to the post rival Singtel who have been talking since February about running a trial of NB-IoT with Ericsson.  (Update: “Our preparation to trial NB-IoT is well underway. We are working with our vendors and industry partners to conduct lab trials in December, with a view to launch an NB-IoT network by mid-2017.”)

Here’s my earlier piece on LoRa

LoRa offers a cheaper link to the Internet of Things | Reuters

My piece on the rise of narrowband networks: LoRa offers a cheaper link to the Internet of Things | Reuters:

Remote control : LoRa offers a cheaper link to the Internet of Things

By Jeremy Wagstaff

LAUNCESTON, Australia, Reuters – The future of communications may be 5G, where mobile networks push bandwidth-heavy video to phones and pull data from self-driving cars, but some firms see an alternative: farm irrigation equipment, donation boxes and oysters, connected by a technology called LoRa.

LoRa (for Long Range) is among a clutch of narrow band technologies that connect devices cheaply over unlicensed spectrum and vast distances, needing very little power.

The catch: they can only send small parcels of data rather than the gigabytes most wired and mobile standards aspire to.

But, advocates say, that may be more than enough.

‘It turns out you don’t need that huge an infrastructure, and it can be driven by small devices that are very smart and not very expensive,’ says Mike Cruse, CEO of Definium Technologies, which is building LoRa-based devices for farmers, universities and mines.

The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) has long promised to hook up devices, from aircraft to hair dryers, enabling owners to monitor, control and collect data from them remotely. Spending on the IoT will hit $6 trillion between 2015 and 2020, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But the reality has been slow catching up. Ericsson this year almost halved the number of connected devices – including smartphones – it sees by 2020 to 28 billion.

Part of what’s holding things back, critics say, is that solutions are too expensive and elaborate for what is needed. Most involve cellular connections, which are either impractical in rural areas or beyond a user’s budget.

Take Richard Gardner, who runs a 2,500 hectare (6,178 acre) farm in Tasmania and pays A$1,200 per sensor for a cellular-based soil moisture measuring system. He’s working with Definium to design one costing a tenth of that.

‘There’s a lot of technology out there that works now, it’s just very expensive. We’ve got something now that we think has better attributes and is cheaper,’ says Gardner, who has invested in Definium and says he already has other farmers keen to buy the company’s products.

 

Making all this possible is LoRa, a narrow band standard adopted by the likes of Cisco and IBM, where the thumbnail-sized radios that send and receive data sell for a dollar or less.

Dutch enthusiasts are building a global community of open-source LoRa gateways, called the Things Network. Nodes send and receive messages – about a tenth of the size of an SMS – every couple of minutes to once every few hours. Followers have rolled out their own experimental networks using the community’s software in cities from Colombia to Russia.

Founder Wienke Giezeman says a $300 gateway – the router connecting the LoRa nodes to the Internet – will be available next month. Half a dozen would be enough to cover an average-sized city. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is going to push the next phase of growth.’

And LoRa isn’t the only narrow band technology in town.

Weightless, a British-based alliance, is one. Another is a proprietary U.S. technology run by a company called Ingenu, as is Sigfox, a French firm, which has raised $150 million from companies including Samsung Electronics.

The biggest potential losers are the telecoms companies, the traditional gatekeepers to the coverage these networks now claim. Ericsson says only 1.5 billion of the 16 billion IoT devices it reckons will be connected in 2021 will rely on cellular networks.

Some telecoms firms are counting on NB-IOT, a narrow band standard adopted by the industry that would use their existing cellular networks. Others are hedging their bets by building LoRa and other narrow band networks.

SK Telecom, for example, has rolled out a network across South Korea which it said would cost users a tenth of what they would pay to attach devices to its 4G network.

RELATED COVERAGE

Likely winners from LoRa networks in IoT Lagging, however, is how best to use these networks.

Charles Anderson, an analyst at IDC, says governments and companies are still pondering what might work, and what end users might want.

In the meantime, smaller players are feeling their way. One visitor to a booth at a recent IoT show in Singapore suggested connecting donation collection boxes so she’d know when they need emptying.

Rishabh Chauhan of The Things Network says the community is still experimenting – from remotely monitoring mouse traps to whether moored rowboats have filled with water. ‘It seems people have a use case, but want to see it on a small level. They’re still prototyping,’ he said.

Much of the pioneering work is outside cities, where existing networks are poor.

Gardner, the farmer, for example, sees the potential for monitoring water flow and levels, the voltage in his electric fences, or his crop sprinklers. Knowing whether they’re working properly would save two trips a day and cut fuel bills, he says.

In a back-room lab, Definium’s Cruse shows some of the sensors he’s designing for clients, all of which could easily connect to a LoRa network.

They include one for measuring salt levels for shrimp farmers in Bangladesh; an LED street lamp for a mining company that could be controlled remotely; a squirrel trap which would alert a catch, and a biosensor attached to an oyster to gauge its health.

Tweetwars: the social challenge in Twitter ‘capital’, Indonesia

My effort to take a closer look at Twitter’s capital. 

Tweetwars: the social challenge in Twitter ‘capital’, Indonesia | Reuters:

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

TWITTER INDONESIA  1

Indonesia has long been the Twitter capital of the world, but rival apps and rancorous political debate are driving users away, illustrating the challenges the microblogging service faces even in markets once considered strongholds.

While Twitter doesn’t break down country figures, Global Web Index data shows Indonesia remains joint first with Mexico in active users among the 34 countries the UK-based metrics company monitors – and significantly ahead in terms of penetration, at 74 percent of all Internet users.

But that masks a deeper shift, analysts and users say, as changing tastes, culture and politics push Indonesians to rival services. The proportion of active Twitter users in Indonesia has dipped 10 percentage points in the past two years, to about one third of Internet users, the Global Web Index data show.

‘Unless Twitter makes changes or there’s some new exciting things on Twitter that can’t be found on other platforms then I don’t think people are coming back to Twitter,’ said Enda Nasution, a blogger and entrepreneur who has nearly 200,000 followers on his Twitter account.

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on the data, saying he had not seen it, but said younger people in major markets like Indonesia and India were eager users. He said the company was expanding in Indonesia and working with airlines, banks and celebrities to add services and content.

He noted Indonesia was one of the top markets for Twitter’s recent acquisition Periscope, which allows users to stream live video.

Twitter on Wednesday reported its first quarter since going public with no growth in users, and announced changes to its global service.

Among younger users – active Twitter users in the 16-24 year age range – Indonesia lags Spain, Mexico and the UK. JakPat, an Indonesian survey company, found last month that teenagers were less likely to use Twitter regularly than those aged 26 and above, and were switching to other apps such as Facebook and its photosharing sibling Instagram.

But there’s also a push factor: Indonesians are leery of Twitter’s core appeal; its default public feed, where everything a user posts is visible to everyone on the network. What was once an attraction in Indonesia’s sociable culture became a liability in 2014’s fractious presidential election.

FISTICUFFS

As politicians saw the power of Twitter to mobilize support, the network was flooded by digital armies of volunteers and automated accounts, or bots, spawning what Shafiq Pontoh, chief strategic officer at Jakarta-based social media consultancy Provetic, described as a ‘tsunami’ of ‘black campaigns, hoaxes, prejudice, racism, spam, harassment, anonymous accounts and political action to frame topics, issues (and) spin doctoring.’

‘Twitter,’ he said, ‘became an uncomfortable place to be.’

This antagonism hit rock bottom when two Twitter users took a dispute over government car-making policies offline and slugged it out near a sports stadium. Cellphone footage of their fist-fight was broadcast on TV.

‘After that it felt like that if you don’t want to get into trouble, people would retreat and find a more comfortable space online,’ said Nasution, the entrepreneur.

Those online spaces include Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger apps, South Korean Kakao’s Path, Japan’s Naver Corp’s LINE and BlackBerry’s Messenger.

Nasution said students he has spoken to use WhatsApp to communicate with their lecturer, and LINE to chat with each other. Or Facebook and Path, says student Jeremiah Mandey, who joined Twitter in 2010. ‘I used Twitter to interact with friends, but now I use it to get news,’ he said.

MISSING A CULTURAL BEAT

Government departments, companies and even President Joko Widodo have embraced Twitter as a public announcement service. The Jakarta police traffic feed, alerting commuters to jams, accidents, potholes and protests, has over 5 million followers.

This provides a service, but is too passive for younger people, says Aulia Masna, an editor. ‘People are on social media to have fun and be entertained,’ he says. ‘Twitter in Indonesia is better known as the place for news, debate and politics. So it attracts the more serious, older crowd.’

The company spokesman said Twitter opened a Jakarta office last year and added staff, in part to expand its user base beyond the capital. The recruits included a government relations expert. It was also working with local bank BNI to allow customers to transact via Twitter.

‘We see great potential in Indonesia, it’s one of the top markets,’ he said, adding Widodo was due to visit Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco next week.

Simon Kemp, regional managing partner of social media marketing agency We Are Social, said Twitter should focus more on understanding how people in places like Indonesia use their service before tweaking things.

‘People are still looking at these things as a technology base,’ he said, ‘while it’s the cultural driver that determines what you use and when you use it.’

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff, with additional reporting by Cindy Silviana and Yuddy Cahya in Jakarta; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)”

The End of the Google+ Era?

Alex Chitu of the Google Operating System sees in Google’s decision to buy into the Twitter firehose the End of the Google+ Era:

Google announced that it will start to display tweets in Google Search for mobile. “When you’re searching on the Google app or any browser on your phone or tablet, you can find real-time content from Twitter right in the search results,” informs Google.

He sees this as the final nail in the coffin of Google+ as a real time social media service: 

It’s the end of the Google+ era. Even if Google+ will continue to exist in one way or another, Google will stop promoting it aggressively and will probably use it as a backend service. Bloomberg reports that Google “is set to reveal an online picture sharing and storage service that will no longer be part of the Google+ social network” and “will let users post images to Facebook and Twitter”.

He could well be right. I know that a lot of folk see positives in Google+ as an active network for certain interests, but Google has never been interested in anything less than mega scale, and won’t settle for that, I’m sure. 

(Via Google Operating System)

The Facebook Experiment: Some Collated Views

A few pieces in the Facebook Experiment. I’m still mulling my view. 

Paul Bernal: The Facebook Experiment: the ‘why’ questions…:

 Perhaps Facebook will look a little bad for a little while – but the potential financial benefit from the new stream of advertising revenue, the ability to squeeze more money from a market that looks increasingly saturated and competitive, outweighs that cost.

Based on the past record, they’re quite likely to be right. People will probably complain about this for a while, and then when the hoo-haa dies down, Facebook will still have over a billion users, and new ways to make money from them. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t mind looking like the bad guy (again) for a little while. Why should he? The money will continue to flow – and whether it impacts upon the privacy and autonomy of the people on Facebook doesn’t matter to Facebook one way or another. It has ever been thus….

(Via Paul Bernal’s Blog)

A contrarian view from Rohan Samarajiva: Confused objections to Facebook emotional contagion research:

I am puzzled by the predominantly negative reaction to the manipulation of Facebook content, in the recent published research article in the mainstream media (MSM), though perhaps less in blogs and such.

It seems to me that MSM’s reaction is hypocritical. They manipulate their content all the time to evoke different emotional responses from their readers/viewers/listeners. The difference is that conducting research on resultant emotional changes on MSM is not as easy as on Facebook. For example, magazines have used different cover images, darkening or lightening faces and so. Their only indicator of success is whether version A sold more than version B. Not very nuanced.

(Via LIRNEasia)

And Ed Felten: Privacy Implications of Social Media Manipulation:

To be clear, I am not concluding that Facebook necessarily learned much of anything about the manipulability of any particular user. Based on what we know I would bet against the experiment having revealed that kind of information about any individual. My point is simpler: experiments that manipulate user experience impact users’ privacy, and that privacy impact needs to be taken into account in evaluating the ethics of such experiments and in determining when users should be informed.

(Via Freedom to Tinker)

And finally from Robin Wilton: Ethical Data Handling and Facebook’s “Emotional Contagion” Study:

Once, in a workshop, while discussing mechanisms for privacy preference expression, I said I would be happier for data subjects to have some means of expressing a preference than none. An older, wiser participant made the following wry remark: “That only brings a benefit if someone is prepared to give weight to their preference. If not… well, ten million times zero is still zero”. And that’s the weight Facebook appears to have given to the legitimate interests of its data subjects.

(Via Internet Society Blog Feed)

BBC: Old Scams Made New

This is a column for a BBC World Service piece. It’s not Reuters content. 

Of all the scams you’d have thought the old ‘I’m a general’s widow and am sitting on a whole pile of cash I want to share with you” one would have gone away by now. But it hasn’t. The scammers are now recruiting church organists. 

Take, for example, LinkedIn, the business networking service. Think Facebook but for suits. People use to flaunt their resume only in the hope of winning contracts, promotions, job offers and to share trade gossip with others. Companies use it to recruit, promote themselves etc. And so do scammers. 

They make a fake profile, add a fake photo, and then start inviting potential victims to connect to them. Once connected, they approach marks with the usual ‘I’ve got lots of money tied up in a bank and i want to share it with you if you’d only send a bit my way to help me grease some bankers’ palms.’ They can also now mine your address book and connect to your contacts and do the same to them. 

I was recently approached, for example, by a lady called Alisha, who claimed to work at a dental clinic (the giveaway there: she called it a detal clinic),by Qatari billionaire Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani (email address sheikfaisalbinalthani at gmail.com) and before her recent troubles by the now deposed prime minister of Thailand — Yingluck Shinawatra, not the other one — who could be reached at angeleena rosa 1967 at yahoo.com

Why do I know these folk are not for real? Well, one red flag is a limited number of connections: 67 in Alisha’s case, 127 in the Sheikh’s and 56 in Ms Yingluck’s. But each was able to reach me because despite the relatively measly number of people they’d persuade to accept their invitation to connect were contacts of mine.

I knew it was getting serious when I was approached by someone claiming to be a manager at Standard Chartered. Let’s call him Mr Christopher to save some blushes. Mr. Christopher claims to have 10 years’ experience in banking and finance management — and, most impressively, more than 500 connections. Among them a colleague, a CEO at a local energy group and the finance director of an Indonesian company. He even has a Facebook page. 

These scammers are putting in the hours. 

 But even then, these scams aren’t really that hard to spot.

Usually a glance at the profile is enough. A guy called Nigel Rozzell, for example, approached me, ostensibly from NatWest Bank. (It turns out there really is a Nigel Rozzell who works for Nat West Bank, but I’m pretty sure his email address isn’t Natwest Nigel at accountant.com, which is what this profile had.) 

And if I still wasn’t sure, I could search google for images that look like his mug shot — it’s actually easier than it sounds. And sure thing, the headshot of fake Nigel Rozzell belongs to an engineer who works on rail projects in Qatar.

And our bank manager friend Mr Christopher, with the 500+ connections and the Facebook page? After I recklessly accepted his LinkedIn invitation he offered me half of 9,649,400 pounds he said he was about to get his hands on. My confidence in him deflated when I discovered via Google that his mug shot belonged to that of the organist at a church near Bristol, who was none too pleased when I told him his visage being used as part of a scam. 

Now, LinkedIn to their credit have taken down all these profiles. And they defend their failure to stop these profiles ever appearing or gathering steam by saying that it’s basically up to users to be careful who they link to and to report anomalies. They also say they see no spike in these kinds of scams. 

But the truth is that scammers like networks and networks don’t police themselves. It took me anything between 10 seconds and two minutes to spot these scams, but I’m a nerd. That vetting process that could easily be automated. LinkedIn should, in my view, try doing that. I’ll miss rubbing shoulders with deposed prime ministers, billionaire sheiks and church organists, but I’ll suffer for the greater good of keeping scammers off my buddy list. 

[Update: Got another scam this morning, from a Douglas Mattes, who once again had 500+ connections and a quite well populated profile. And whom actually I thought might be legit as I hadn’t looked at the image which belongs to one Shaun Goeldner. I’m frankly unclear how these profiles work — are they legitimate accounts hacked or built from scratch?] 

[Update: Is this all part of some Iranian spying scam? ]

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

(Reuters) – The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach.

Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale – the $4,000 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X “Brick” – half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but up to a fifth of the population, or some 1.4 billion people, live where “the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built,” according to a Facebook white paper last month.

Even these figures, says Kurtis Heimerl, whose Berkeley-based start-up Endaga has helped build one of the world’s smallest telecoms networks in an eastern Indonesian village, ignore the many people who have a cellphone but have to travel hours to make a call or send a message. “Everyone in our community has a phone and a SIM card,” he says. “But they’re not covered.”

Heimerl reckons up to 2 billion people live most of their lives without easy access to cellular coverage. “It’s not getting better at the dramatic rate you think.”

The challenge is to find a way to connect those people, at an attractive cost.
And then there’s the frontier beyond that: the oceans.

Improving the range and speed of communications beneath the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet is a must for environmental monitoring – climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, and protecting harbours.

There is also interest from oceanographers looking to map the sea bed, marine biologists, deep-sea archaeologists and those hunting for natural resources, or even searching for lost vessels or aircraft. Canadian miner Nautilus Minerals Inc said last week it came to an agreement with Papua New Guinea, allowing it to start work on the world’s first undersea metal mining project, digging for copper, gold and silver 1,500 metres (4,921 feet) beneath the Bismark Sea.

And there’s politics: China recently joined other major powers in deep-sea exploration, partly driven by a need to exploit oil, gas and mineral reserves. This year, Beijing plans to sink a 6-person ‘workstation’ to the sea bed, a potential precursor to a deep-sea ‘space station’ which, researchers say, could be inhabited.

“Our ability to communicate in water is limited,” says Jay Nagarajan, whose Singapore start-up Subnero builds underwater modems. “It’s a blue ocean space – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

BALLOONS, DRONES, SATELLITES
Back on land, the challenge is being taken up by a range of players – from high-minded academics wanting to help lift rural populations out of poverty to internet giants keen to add them to their social networks.

Google, for example, is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of drones that can stay airborne for years, while Facebook has bought UK-based drone maker Ascenta.

CEO Mark Zuckerburg has said Facebook is working on drones and satellites to help bring the Internet to the nearly two thirds of the world that doesn’t yet have it. As part of its Project Loon, Google last year launched a balloon 20 km (12.4 miles) into the skies above New Zealand, providing wireless speeds of up to 3G quality to an area twice the size of New York City.

But these are experimental technologies, unlikely to be commercially viable for a decade, says Christian Patouraux, CEO of another Singapore start-up, Kacific. Its solution is a satellite network that aims to bring affordable internet to 40 million people in the so-called ‘Blue Continent’ – from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands.

A mix of technologies will prevail, says Patouraux – from fiber optic cables, 3G and LTE mobile technologies to satellites like his HTS Ku-band, which he hopes to launch by end-2016. “No single technology will ever solve everything,” he said.

Indeed, satellite technology – the main method of connectivity until submarine cables became faster and cheaper – is enjoying a comeback. While Kacific, O3b and others aim at hard-to-reach markets, satellite internet is having success even in some developed markets. Last year, ViaSat topped a benchmarking study of broadband speeds by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

And today’s airline passengers increasingly expect to be able to go online while flying, with around 40 percent of U.S. jetliners now offering some Wi-Fi. The number of commercial planes worldwide with wireless internet or cellphone service, or both, will triple in the next decade, says research firm IHS.

WHITE SPACE

Densely populated Singapore is experimenting with so-called ‘white space’, using those parts of the wireless spectrum previously set aside for television signals. This year, it has quietly started offering what it calls SuperWifi to deliver wireless signals over 5 km or more to beaches and tourist spots.

This is not just a first-world solution. Endaga”s Heimerl is working with co-founder Shaddi Hasan to use parts of the GSM spectrum to build his village-level telco in the hills of Papua.

That means an ordinary GSM cellphone can connect without any tweaks or hardware. Users can phone anyone on the same network and send SMS messages to the outside world through a deal with a Swedish operator.

Such communities, says Heimerl, will have to come up with such solutions because major telecoms firms just aren’t interested. “The problem is that these communities are small,” says Heimerl, “and even with the price of hardware falling the carriers would rather install 4G in cities than equipment in these communities.”

The notion of breaking free of telecoms companies isn’t just a pipe dream.

MESH

Part of the answer lies in mesh networks, where devices themselves serve as nodes connecting users – not unlike a trucker’s CB radio, says Paul Gardner-Stephen, Rural, Remote & Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow at Flinders University in South Australia.

Gardner-Stephen has developed a mesh technology called Serval that has been used by activists lobbying against the demolition of slums in Nigeria, and is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross.

Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has called them “the most essential form of digital communication and the cheapest to deploy.”

Even without a balloon and Google’s heft, mesh networks offer a bright future, says Gardner-Stephen. If handset makers were to open up their chips to tweaks so their radios could communicate over long distances, it would be possible to relay messages more than a kilometre.

In any case, he says, the Internet is no longer about instantaneous communication. As long as we know our data will arrive at some point, the possibilities open up to thinking of our devices more as data couriers, storing messages on behalf of one community until they are carried by a villager to another node they can connect to, passing those messages on several times a day.

It’s not our present vision of a network where messages are transmitted in an instant, but more like a digital postal service, which might well be enough for some.

“Is the Internet going to be what it looks like today? The answer is no,” said Gardner-Stephen.

PISTOL SHRIMPS

As the Internet changes, so will its boundaries.

As more devices communicate with other devices – Cisco Systems Inc estimates there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018 – so is interest increasing in connecting those harder-to-reach devices, including those underwater, that are beyond the reach of satellites, balloons and base stations.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to.

That’s partly because there are no agreed standards, says Subnero’s Nagarajan, who likens it to the early days of the Internet. Subnero offers underwater modems that look like small torpedoes which, he says, can incorporate competing standards and allow users to configure them.

This is a significant plus, says Mandar Chitre, an academic from the National University of Singapore, who said that off-the-shelf modems don’t work in the region’s shallow waters.

The problem: a crackling noise that sailors have variously attributed to rolling pebbles, surf, volcanoes, and, according to a U.S. submarine commander off Indonesia in 1942, the Japanese navy dropping some “newfangled gadget” into the water.

The actual culprit has since been identified – the so-called pistol shrimp, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey. Only recently has Chitre been able to filter out the shrimp’s noise from the sonic pulses an underwater modem sends. His technology is now licensed to Subnero.

There are still problems speeding up transmission and filtering out noise, he says. But the world is opening up to the idea that to understand the ocean means deploying permanent sensors and modems to communicate their data to shore.

And laying submarine cables would cost too much.

“The only way to do this is if you have communications technology. You can’t be wiring the whole ocean,” he told Reuters. “It’s got to be wireless.”

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

WhatsApp: Silly Money or New Front in the Platform Wars?

It’s been a few days since Facebook announced to the world it had bought WhatsApp. And Rakuten bought Viber. You are forgiven if only one of those names rings a bell. so while I’m at it, let me throw in a few more: WeChat, LINE, KakaoTalk. Nimbuzz. Mig33. Fring. Telegram. Tango.

OK, that’s enough names. But while I’m at it I’ll throw out a prediction: You’re going to hear a lot more of these messaging services in the years to come. That’s because we’re entering a new phase of what we might pompously call the platform wars. One where those with the biggest network win.

It sounds arcane and complicated but it’s not really, if we strip it down to the fundamentals. Phones were always about the network effect. The first phone, for example, was pretty useless, like the first subway station. But the more phones were added to the network, the more useful the network became, and the more worthwhile it was to get a phone and plug it in.

Networks are about communicating. When SMS came along folk loved it because it offered a less intrusive option for the mobile phone; you didn’t have to talk to people to communicate with them.

Messaging applications like WhatsApp are a return to this simplicity. And of course, it’s cheap. So it’s not surprising that more than 450 million people use it.

And this is the thing. Facebook and Rakuten, the Japanese ecommerce company that bought a smaller version of WhatsApp called Viber, want to get as close to you, the mobile user, as they can. They want to get you to buy stuff, or share stuff, or see stuff because that’s how their business models work.

In that sense it’s simple. But under the hood there’s a larger shift at work in the layout of the engine. In the old days, to get close to the user you built a browser. Remember all those wars over the default browser in Windows?

That’s all old hat now. The conventional wisdom is that on mobile phones, where all the action is, the chokepoint is the operating system. That’s the software that the device runs, and comes with. That means Apple, with their iOS, and Google, with their Android, are in pole position. If you want to do something, like sell an app, you have to go through their app store. Upset them and you’re out. Oh, and they get a cut of anything you make on their device.

Only hang on a minute.

What happens if the choke point, the place where the rubber hits the user, as it were, wasn’t the app store but, say, a messaging app? Or if you wanted to order a taxi? Or buy insurance?

This is what is happening already, in China, South Korea and Japan. And it’s big, because it threatens to undermine a lot of what these big players, not just Apple and Google, but phone makers like Samsung, and telephone operators, and everyone in the mobile game, has been trying to do.

In short, if you can insert yourself in the what folk call the value chain so all the user sees is you, you’re good to go. And that’s what’s happening with the likes of WeChat, KakaoTalk and Line.

You may not have heard of these guys, and you may not again. But if you think them about in that way you’ll have a clearer idea about why Facebook splashed out $19 billion on their Western equivalent WhatsApp, and Rakuten $900 million on Viber.

Big money. But when you’re elbowing big names aside to get to be the first and only thing the nearly 7 billion mobile phone users in the world interact with, maybe it doesn’t look like silly money.

This is a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily program riffing off the Facebook and Rakuten purchases. Podcast here.