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)

Awesomeness Fatigue

This is a commentary piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service.

I call it awesomeness fatigue – the exhaustion that comes from being bombarded with stories, videos and pictures designed to amaze you. The problem is not that they don’t work: it’s that they’re too good.

In the past week or so I’ve watched people fly off mountains, some figure skating guy and a kid who sued his school after being bullied. All are awesome.

No, the problem is that a sort of “awesome inflation” kicks in, meaning that as your Facebook page, or Twitter feed, or however you consume social media, fills up with these things, so each one needs to be a little more extraordinary than the last one to gain your attention.

And this is the problem. In the past year we’ve seen the rapid emergence of a number of services designed to do just that – to find amazing things on the net and then write a headline that you can’t resist.

Upworthy, one of the most successful, pays a team of freelancers to each unearth no more than seven videos a week. Then they get to work crafting headlines – at least 25 of them for each post, which are then tested rigorously on small focus groups to find the one which would be most viral.

A couple of recent headlines. Resist them if you can: Remember When Music Videos Used To Mean Something? Some Still Do. or Martin Luther King Jr.’s Badass Speech That Everyone Forgot About.

See? They sort of understand us. And so it has worked. Within 18 months, Upworthy has overtaken websites of the New York Times and Disney’s Go.com in the US.

According to Newswhip, a company which measures these things, upworthy got almost as many people to share its 246 items last October as the British newspaper the Daily Mail did with its more than 12,000.

In short, sites like Upworthy have fine-tuned what makes stuff irresistible to us, to click on, watch and then share.

An advertiser’s dream, of course, but this is not a sustainable model.

A few years ago we were quite happy watching a video of baby laughing (‘Baby laughing’, 2006, 21 million hits), or a 7-year old boy groggy from novocaine (‘David After Dentist’, 2009, 122 million hits. Or a guy combining mentos and cola (‘Diet Coke + Mentos’, 17 million hits) to make a fountain.

Now it’s got to be awesome, with a focus-group tested headline.

But it’s hard to envisage how we can keep coming up with amazing things that surprise us. And, more importantly, that we end up getting sick of looking at things that are awesome, and just start yearning for some normality. I am much more selective about which awesomeness I click on. Some of my friends, frankly, are a bit too easily amazed and have slipped in my estimation.

And this is the problem. Digital is making us so hyperefficient that it’s fast squeezing out of life the joys of surprise and serendipity. Surprise that we might define for ourselves the awesomeness – or not – of what we see. Serendipity in discovering something ourselves – rather than having it delivered on a focus-group tested platter.

That our social networks are now being filled with stuff that’s got virality baked deep in somewhat takes the joy out of what social media used to be: finding things ourselves and sharing them with others.

And that word awesome? Awesome as a word has lost most of its awesomeness through overuse– I was told I was awesome by an online magazine for subscribing, and I notice my three-year old daughter is informed by her iPad games that she’s awesome a tad too frequently. Me?

I’m back to being impressed if I can remember my wife’s birthday or to charge my phone before I go to bed. Wake up with a fully-charged phone? Now that’s awesome.

Myanmar’s mobile revolution too slow for many

A piece I wrote from Yangon on the state of mobile communications in Myanmar

Mobile revolution in Myanmar is on the cards, but too slow for many | Reuters:

Myanmar is on the cusp of a mobile revolution. Only it’s happening way too slowly for many locals.

Last week the government invited expressions of interest for two mobile phone licenses – a first step towards increasing mobile penetration from its current 5-10 percent to 80 percent in three years. That would lift it off the bottom of the world’s ladder of mobile use and put it on a par with neighbors like Bangladesh.

ZTE confirms security hole in U.S. phone

This is a piece I wrote with my colleague Lee Chyen Yee on the ZTE vulnerability. 

ZTE Corp, the world’s No.4 handset vendor and one of two Chinese companies under U.S. scrutiny over security concerns, said one of its mobile phone models sold in the United States contains a vulnerability that researchers say could allow others to control the device.

The hole affects ZTE’s Score model that runs on Google Inc’s Android operating system and was described by one researcher as “highly unusual.”

“I’ve never seen it before,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike. The hole, usually called a backdoor, allows anyone with the hardwired password to access the affected phone, he added.

Read the rest at ZTE confirms security hole in US phone

 

Social media stress? There’s an app for that

A piece on how one marketing company is capitalizing on what it says is growing stress among social media users. 

Nestle, purveyor of the decades-old KitKat snack, has launched an app it says addresses a growing problem among young social media users – giving them a break from the stress of posting updates by doing it for them.

The software, Social Break, automatically sends random updates to users’ Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. It will be officially launched in Singapore later this week and is free to download from kitkat.com.sg/socialbreak.

While the application is a tongue-in-cheek marketing gimmick, the developers behind the software, ad agency JWT, say it also highlights a serious problem among younger users, especially in Asia: growing stress about time spent maintaining a presence on social networks.

JWT surveyed 900 19-26 year olds in China, Singapore and the United States and found that more than half considered it too time-consuming to keep up with all their social media commitments and conceded that the time they spent on such sites had a negative impact on their job or studies.

More at Social media stress? There’s an app for that 

In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule?

A piece I wrote on potential roadbumps in Samsung’s ride to smartphone dominance. 

Samsung Electronics is the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer and biggest user of Google’s Android operating system.

And, for some, that’s the problem.

Samsung’s meteoric rise – in the first quarter of 2011 it shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but is now market leader – has handed it a dilemma. Does it risk becoming a commodity manufacturer of hardware, squeezed like the PC makers of old between narrowing margins and those who control the software that makes their devices run, or does it try to break into other parts of the business – the so-called mobile ecosystem?

“It comes down to this sense of what it is they want to be,” said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum. “Do they really want to be one of the power players or are they happy enabling someone else’s ecosystem?”

To be sure, Samsung isn’t in any kind of trouble, and isn’t likely to be so any time soon. Later on Thursday, it will launch the Galaxy S3, the latest addition to its flagship range of smartphones. Juniper Research expects Samsung to remain the No.1 smartphone manufacturer this quarter. The next iPhone upgrade is expected around the third quarter.

“Android has done wonders for them,” says India-based Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta.

But still the company has its critics. They worry that Samsung has yet to address the central contradiction of it making devices that use someone else’s operating system. By licensing the free Android OS from Google, Samsung saves itself millions of dollars in software development costs and license fees, but leaves itself dependent on Google.

More at In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule? | Reuters

Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world

A piece I wrote for Reuters with Lee Chyenyee: 

(Reuters) – In the 1990s, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei visited the United States several times, hoping to learn from its leaders of industry about how to turn his Chinese telecoms equipment maker into a global company. On one trip in 1992, in the days before China had credit cards, he paid all his bills with cash from a $30,000 stash in his briefcase.

Sixteen years later, Ren was listed among Forbes’ 400 richest Chinese and Huawei was one of the world’s largest telecoms gear vendors, but the United States still treated him as an outsider. He was keen to win customers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint but had secured just $200 million of business in the U.S. in 2007 – in a $23 billion global market. Early that year, the United States effectively vetoed Huawei’s bid for U.S. networking equipment manufacturer 3Com on security grounds.

Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world | Reuters

In Asia, BlackBerry’s RIM sees a glimmer of hope

A piece I wrote from Jakarta on RIM’s efforts to expand in those emerging markets where it had already done well: 

(Reuters) – The launch in India of a new BlackBerry by Research In Motion Ltd is not just a nod to its lower-end users who love it less for its security, push email and seamless roaming than for its simplicity and its Messaging. It’s a strategy the Canadian company hopes will help fill both a hole in its balance sheet and a half-year wait for its next big thing — the BlackBerry 10 platform.

But will it work?

The handset itself won’t impress devotees: its main selling point is a dedicated side button that lets users chat over its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and a built-in FM radio, which lower-end Nokia phones have had for a decade. It works only on the slower 2G networks, and the camera isn’t that great. But, RIM says, that’s the point.

Rest at Analysis: In Asia, BlackBerry’s RIM sees a glimmer of hope 

Google charts a careful course through Asia’s maps

Here’s a piece I wrote to coincide with Google’s launch of Street View in Thailand: Google charts a careful course through Asia’s maps

Google rushed out its panoramic Street View maps in Thailand on Friday as part of the country’s efforts to show tourist hot spots have recovered from last year’s floods.
But it also marked something of a change of fortunes for Google itself, which has weathered several storms in Asia over its mapping products.
Google rolled out 360-degree images of the streets of Bangkok, the resort island of Phuket and the northern city of Chiang Mai. Street View allows users to click through a seamless view of streets via the company’s Google Maps website.
Google plans to use a tricycle-mounted camera to photograph places that can’t be reached by car, such as parks and monuments. The Tourism Authority of Thailand will launch a poll to choose which sites to photograph first.
“We really want to show that Thailand isn’t still underwater,” said David Marx, Google’s Tokyo-based communications manager. “People should see Thailand for what it is.”
Pongrit Abhijatapong, marketing information technology officer at the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said it was less about showing that Thailand was back to normal.
“Rather, we hope tourists can see with their own eyes what Thailand is like. Street View will help their decision-making process in a positive way in regards to visiting Thailand.”
Google has not always been able to count on such enthusiasm elsewhere in Asia, illustrating the challenges the company has faced besides high-profile spats with China over privacy and India over removing offensive content.

Read the rest at Reuters.com.

Here are some links and bits and pieces I didn’t have room for:

Measures (Guidance) for Google, Inc. concerning Protection of “Secrecy of Communications”) – Japan’s Nov 11 2011 instructions to Google over privacy

Stefan Geens has done a great job charting the various sandbanks and undersea obstructions Google has encountered, particularly in Asia. His blog is well worth a read: Ogle Earth | Notes on the political and scientific impact of digital maps and geospatial imagery

I didn’t have enough space to go into detail about OpenStreetMap‘s challenge to Google, particularly in Asia. But in those parts of the region I know, it’s at least a match for Google, in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Afghanistan. Their annual conference, State of the Map, will be held for the first time in Asia this year, in Tokyo on September 6.

My thanks to Daniel Kastl for explaining OSM and Japan to me. I understand that Yahoo Japan and OSM are about to announce some sort of cooperation in the next few days.

One thing I didn’t point out in the story is that Google doesn’t always get there first when it comes to street-level panoramic mapping. In Singapore, for example, gothere.sg was ahead of them, both in mapping and 360-degree views, and remains in some ways better than Google Maps. Hong Kong-based MapJack has offered street-level maps of Thailand’s Phuket. Chiangmai and several other resorts, though not Bangkok, since 2008.

Slow connection: Myanmar test for IT crowd

Here’s a piece I did for Reuters on the state of IT in Myanmar. The Economist pipped us to the post slightly, but always nice to know other people are thinking along the same lines.

Myanmar has fewer phones per capita than any other country and probably the fewest Internet connections, and that has regional telecoms and IT companies licking their lips.
But behind those statistics lies more than simply a virgin market waiting to be tapped. Myanmar has been run by generals for decades, leaving not only pent-up demand for connectivity, but also a complex web of interests and a unique ecosystem of technological make-do. All of which will require careful navigation by would-be investors.
A recent gathering of techies in Yangon’s Myanmar Info-Tech complex illustrates the promise, changes and problems Myanmar presents as the next frontier for investors.
The meeting was organized by a loose triumvirate of business-oriented folk, bloggers and the country’s IT diaspora. It was a so-called barcamp – an unstructured conference and chat-fest whose format was dreamed by up California techies tired of the exclusive, closed-door meets that are a regular feature of Silicon Valley.

Rest of the story at reuters.com