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Facebook loses CPO Chris Cox and WhatsApp VP Chris Daniels – TechCrunch

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Thirteen-year Facebook veteran, chief product officer and the spirit animal of the social network Chris Cox is departing the company after two years of seeking to do something new. Cox’s exit is part of a big executive reshuffle as Facebook embarks on prioritizing privacy through messaging, groups, Stories and back-end unification of its chat features.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the departure of his long-time friend, saying, “For a few years, Chris has been discussing with me his desire to do something else . . . But after 2016, we both realized we had too much important work to do to improve our products for society, and he stayed to help us work through these issues and help us chart a course for our family of apps going forward. At this point, we have made real progress . . .  As we embark on this next major chapter, Chris has decided now is the time to step back from leading these teams.”

VP of WhatsApp Chris Daniels leaves Facebook

Cox bowing out after so long is understandable, but more surprising is today’s departure of Chris Daniels, an eight-year employee who was moved from being head of Internet.org to VP of WhatsApp just last May in a major re-org. Daniels always felt like a strange choice to oversee international chat leader WhatsApp and its struggles with misinformation in India, given he’d led Internet.org when its zero-rated Free Basics app was banned in India for violating net neutrality.

The changes solidify that Facebook is entering a new era as it chases the trend of feed sharing giving way to private communication. Cox and Daniels may feel they’ve done their part advancing Facebook’s product, and that the company needs renewed energy as it shifts from a relentless growth focus to keeping its users loyal while learning to monetize a new from of social networking.

Here’s the breakdown of the executive changes:

  • Chris Cox will depart Facebook, but hasn’t revealed plans for what’s next. He will not be immediately replaced
  • Chris Daniels will leave WhatsApp, and Facebook declined to provide any details on why or the circumstances
  • Will Cathcart will go from running the main Facebook app to VP of WhatsApp
  • Fidji Simo, who was the VP of Product for Facebook video, news and advertising, will take over Cathcart’s role running Facebook’s main app
  • Javier Olivan, who was Facebook’s VP of growth, will lead the task of identifying how to integrate Facebook’s products, including the plan to unify the backend of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram direct to expand encryption and allow cross-app messaging that some see as a shield against Facebook being broken up
  • Instagram VP Adam Mosseri, Messenger’s VP Stan Chudnovsky, Simo, and Cathcart will now report directly to  Zuckerberg, while Chief Marketing Officer Antonio Lucio reports to COO Sheryl Sandberg

Cox was one of Facebook’s first 15 engineers, joining in 2005 after Zuckerberg convinced him to drop out of a Stanford grad program. He became Facebook’s director of Human Resources and, in 2008, its VP of product. He was promoted to CPO in 2014 and aided in Facebook’s clean-up after the 2016 presidential election, working on misinformation and at-risk countries to deter future attacks on democracy. Over the years, he remained a fixture of Zuckerberg’s inner circle of friends and lieutenants. Oh, and he’s a wicked keyboardist who plays is a very respectable reggae band.

Known for his hit talk revealing the Timeline profile at F8 2011 and giving rousing orientation speeches to each batch of new Facebook employees, Cox’s departure could drag on Facebook’s already shaky morale. Some staffers saw him as a preferred replacement for Zuckerberg should he ever leave the CEO role. That leaves the line of succession an open question at Facebook, with Sandberg, Olivan and Mosseri as the most likely candidates. Cox was seen as so essential that Facebook filed an 8-K disclosure with the SEC about his departure.

The biggest clue to Cox’s departure might be the juxtaposition of a line from his departure note with one from Zuckerberg’s. Cox writes about redefining Facebook around privacy and encryption that “This will be a big project and we will need leaders who are excited to see the new direction through.” Meanwhile, Zuckerberg wrote “Will [Cathcart] has helped lead our teams focused on security and integrity, and he believes deeply in providing end-to-end encryption to everyone in the world across our services.” Reading between the lines, it seems Cathcart was more enthusiastic about executing Facebook’s new roadmap of encryption than Cox.

Some consider encryption as a potential hinderance to other safety work, as it could make it difficult to detect the spread of misinformation or illegal activity. TechCrunch’s investigation into child sexual abuse imagery on WhatsApp revealed that its end-to-end encryption makes it much tougher to catch bad actors.

The change in priority from growth to sustainability through privacy is cemented by Olivan’s new responsibilities. While rarely in the spotlight, his team was seen as one of the most important and powerful at the company. His talents will be applied to making Facebook’s apps work together to prevent churn of its enormous user base, which will take careful product design and a savvy understanding of people’s expectations. Instagram and WhatsApp have become golden geese for Facebook, and Olivan will have to ensure they’re not tarnished through deeper connections to Facebook’s battered brand.

Hey everyone — I want to share some important updates as we organize our company to build out the privacy-focused social platform I discussed in my note last week. Embarking on this new vision represents the start of a new chapter for us.

As part of this, I’m sad to share the news that Chris Cox has decided to leave the company. Chris and I have worked closely together to build our products for more than a decade and I will always appreciate his deep empathy for the people using our services and the uplifting spirit he brings to everything he does. He has played so many central roles at Facebook — starting as an engineer on our original News Feed, building our first HR teams and helping to define our mission and values, leading our product and design teams, running the Facebook app, and most recently overseeing the strategy for our family of apps. Along the way, Chris has helped train many great leaders who are now in important roles across the company — including some who will now take on bigger roles in our new product efforts.

For a few years, Chris has been discussing with me his desire to do something else. He is one of the most talented people I know and he has the potential to do anything he wants. But after 2016, we both realized we had too much important work to do to improve our products for society, and he stayed to help us work through these issues and help us chart a course for our family of apps going forward. At this point, we have made real progress on many issues and we have a clear plan for our apps, centered around making private messaging, stories and groups the foundation of the experience, including enabling encryption and interoperability across our services. As we embark on this next major chapter, Chris has decided now is the time to step back from leading these teams. I will really miss Chris, but mostly I am deeply grateful for everything he has done to build this place and serve our community.

At the same time, as we embark on this new chapter, Chris Daniels has also decided to leave the company. Chris has also done great work in many roles, including running our business development team, leading Internet.org, which has helped more than 100 million people get access to the internet, and most recently at WhatsApp, where he has helped define the business model for our messaging services going forward. Chris is one of the clearest and most principled business thinkers I’ve met and the diversity of challenges he has helped us navigate is impressive. I’ve really enjoyed working with Chris and I’m sure he will do great work at whatever he chooses to take on next.

While it is sad to lose such great people, this also creates opportunities for more great leaders who are energized about the path ahead to take on new and bigger roles.

I’m excited that Will Cathcart will be the new head of WhatsApp. Will is one of the most talented leaders at our company — always focused on solving the most important problems for people and clear-eyed about the challenges and tradeoffs we face. Most recently he has done a great job running the Facebook app, where he has led our shift to focusing on meaningful social interactions and has significantly improved the performance and reliability of the app. In his career here, Will has helped lead our teams focused on security and integrity, and he believes deeply in providing end-to-end encryption to everyone in the world across our services.

I’m also excited that Fidji Simo will be the new head of the Facebook app. She is one of our most talented product and organizational leaders — passionate about building community and supporting creativity, and focused on building strong teams and developing future leaders. She has played key roles in building many aspects of the Facebook app, including leading our work on video and advertising. She believes deeply in helping people get more value out of the networks they’ve built. She has already led this team for much of last year while Will was out on parental leave, and she is the clear person to lead these efforts going forward.

Our family of apps strategy has been led jointly by Chris Cox and Javier Olivan. Chris managed the leaders of the apps directly and Javi has been responsible for all of the central product services that work across our apps, including safety and integrity, analytics, growth, and ads. Javi will now lead identifying where our apps should be more integrated. Javi is an incredibly thoughtful, strategic and analytical leader, and I’m confident this work will continue to go well. Since we have now decided on the basic direction of our family of apps for the next few years, I do not plan on immediately appointing anyone to fill Chris’s role in the near term. Instead, the leaders of Facebook (Fidji Simo), Instagram (Adam Mosseri), Messenger (Stan Chudnovsky), and WhatsApp (Will Cathcart) will report directly to me, and our Chief Marketing Officer (Antonio Lucio) will report directly to Sheryl.

This is an important change as we begin the next chapter of our work building the privacy-focused social foundation for the future. I’m deeply grateful for everything Chris Cox and Chris Daniels have done here, and I’m looking forward to working with Will and Fidji in their new roles as well as everyone who will be critical to achieving this vision. We have so much important work ahead and I’m excited to continue working to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. 

It is with great sadness I share with you that after thirteen years, I’ve decided to leave the company.

Since I was twenty-three, I’ve poured myself into these walls. The pixels, the code, the products we’ve built together, the language, the culture, the values, the big ideas, and most of all, the people. Most all my personal highs and lows of the last decade have been tied up in the journey of this company, with Mark, and with so many of you. This place will forever be a part of me.

On Monday I gave my last orientation at Facebook to a hundred new faces. For over a decade, I’ve been sharing the same message that Mark and I have always believed: social media’s history is not yet written, and its effects are not neutral. It is tied up in the richness and complexity of social life. As its builders we must endeavor to understand its impact — all the good, and all the bad — and take up the daily work of bending it towards the positive, and towards the good. This is our greatest responsibility.

As Mark has outlined, we are turning a new page in our product direction, focused on an encrypted, interoperable, messaging network. It’s a product vision attuned to the subject matter of today: a modern communications platform that balances expression, safety, security, and privacy. This will be a big project and we will need leaders who are excited to see the new direction through.

I’m proud of the team who will succeed me: Fidji, Will, Adam, Stan, and Antonio. They are strong leaders, serious thinkers, good managers, craftspeople, and most importantly, deeply good people. I trust that, along with Mark, they will carry on the work of building out our platforms in a way that honors the responsibilities we have to the billions of people who rely upon our tools each day.

Mark, thank you for creating this place, and for the chance to work beside a dear friend for over thirteen years. Thank you Sheryl, Schrep, and Javi for your partnership, and for showing me what a wise and dedicated team is meant to be. And to the company: thank you for your creativity, humanity, resilience, and sleepless nights. It has been an honor to work alongside you and I will miss you dearly.

-Chris

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Snowman, the studio behind Alto’s Adventure and others, launches a kids app company, Pok Pok – TechCrunch

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Snowman, the small studio behind award-winning iOS games Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey, Skate City, and others, is spinning out a new company, Pok Pok, that will focus on educational children’s entertainment. Later this month, Pok Pok will debut its first title, Pok Pok Playroom, aimed at inspiring creative thinking through play for the preschool crowd.

The launch takes Snowman back to its roots as an app maker, not a games studio.

In fact, the company’s first iOS app, Checkmark, had been in the productivity space, offering location-based reminders to iPhone users. But Snowman later shifted to making games, tapping into the demand for mobile games with early launches like Circles and Super Squares. But it wasn’t until Alto’s Adventure came out that Snowman really kicked off its foray into gaming.

“We’ve never really considered Snowman to be a video game studio,” explains Snowman co-founder and Creative Director Ryan Cash. “A lot of people would assume that because it’s really all that we’re known for at the moment. It’s kind of our core business. But we like to think of ourselves more as like a team of tinkerers who like working on creative stuff. And for now, it happens to be video games, but you never know kind of what might be around the corner,” he says.

Image Credits: Snowman

Pok Pok actually emerged from Snowman’s culture of tinkering.

Snowman employees Mathijs Demaeght and Esther Huybreghts, now Pok Pok Design Director and Creative Director, respectively, went looking for an app to entertain their young son James when he was a toddler. They soon found that there weren’t many options that fit what they had been hoping to find.

They had wanted something that wouldn’t rile him up, something that wasn’t too technical, and something that wasn’t gamified, Esther explains.

When they later had their second son Jack, they decided to just built the app they wanted for themselves. After showing a rough prototype to Ryan, he saw the potential and told them to run with it.

Ryan’s sister, Melissa Cash, whose background was in developing products at Disney for babies and toddlers, had been helping with the Alto’s Odyssey launch at the time. When she saw what Esther and Mathijs were working on, she was impressed.

Image Credits: Snowman

“I’ve worked in the kid space for five years, and I’ve never seen anything that’s even remotely like this. And then, I just knew this is what I wanted to work on for the next 20 years,” she says. Melissa became involved with the project and is now CEO of the Pok Pok spinout.

Although legally a distinctive entity, Pok Pok remains closely tied to Snowman.

“We’ve been incubating the company within Snowman. We moved desks to a corner and we all work together as mentor, colleagues, and collaborate as a group,” Melissa notes. Ryan is still involved, as well. “Ryan is everything — our advisor, our helper — we haven’t even come up with a title for him,” she adds.

Today, the Pok Pok team is six full-time employees, but works with contractors and educators on its projects. Snowman, meanwhile, is over 20 people, mostly in Toronto. However, some Snowman employees spend 30% to 50% of their time on Pok Pok, Ryan says.

For the time being, Pok Pok is self-funded thanks to Snowman’s success on other fronts, which not only includes the Alto’s series, but also Apple Arcade’s Where Cards Fall and Skate City, both of which are now expanding to PC and console. The company is also working on DISTANT, a collaboration with Slingshot and Satchel.

Pok Pok Playroom, which is aimed at kids ages 2 to 6, will be the first title to go live from Pok Pok, arriving on May 20th. The app itself will initially contain six “digital toys,” so to speak, which encourage kids to creatively play. These toys also grow with the child as they age up.

For example, a stacking blocks toy could appeal to toddlers who just want to move the shapes around, but an older child might build a town with them. A drawing toy can encourage scribbles at younger ages or become a real canvas for art when the child is older. There’s also a calming toy called “musical blobs” that’s sort of like a lava lamp with differently-shaped that bounce around and respond to touches.

All the toys are designed to be open-ended — there’s no right or wrong way to use them. And Pok Pok Playroom is not a game. There are no levels to beat or objectives to achieve. There’s nothing to buy.

What is different about Pok Pok Playroom, compared with games and “digital toys” from rivals like Toca Boca, for example, is that it’s designed to be more educational and realistic.

“We take a more educational approach, and we still plan to do that for future apps and for whatever Pok Pok Playroom will grow into after launch,” says Esther. “For example, we have no unicorns or no wizards in Pok Pok Playroom. Everything is grounded in reality. I think we want to explore with children what the world looks like and how it works. We have tons of ideas for taking a more education-based approach for all the children, as well, that isn’t necessarily the ABCs, 1,2,3’s pedagogical, so to speak.”

Image Credits: Snowman

Pok Pok also won’t use talking animals or fantasy characters in order to avoid the subject of diversity. Instead, its apps will features all races, all genders, all family constructs, all different sorts of abilities and disabilities, as they’re built.

“I think it’s very important to us to have kids be able to recognize themselves, and family members and friends in the app,” says Esther. “It’s really important to our entire team that everyone feels respected in who they are and what their family looks like, and… I think that’s still really lacking in the kid space right now. We want to be the front-runner there,” she notes.

The new app, which has been in development for nearly three years, will be priced on a subscription basis with more “digital toys” added over time.

Though Pok Pok will aim more at the preschool crowd, the company envisions a future where it designs creative projects for the next age group up and for other types of learning.

Pok Pok Playroom has been beta tested with around 250 families ahead of its launch.

It will be available on iPhone and iPad starting on May 20th at 9 AM ET, with a 14-day free trial. It will then be priced at $3.99 per month or $29.99 per year, and will not feature in-app purchases.

 

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Apptopia raises $20M to expand its competitive intelligence business beyond mobile – TechCrunch

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Boston-based Apptopia, a company providing competitive intelligence in the mobile app ecosystem, has closed on $20 million in Series C funding aimed at fueling its expansion beyond the world of mobile apps. The new financing was led by ABS Capital Partners, and follows three consecutive years of 50% year-over-year growth for Apptopia’s business, which has been profitable since the beginning of last year, the company says.

Existing investors, including Blossom Street Ventures, also participated in the round. ABS Capital’s Mike Avon, a co-founder of Millennial Media, and Paul Mariani, are joining Apptopia’s board with this round.

The funding follows what Apptopia says has been increased demand from brands to better understand the digital aspects of their businesses.

Today, Apptopia’s customers include hundreds of corporations and financial institutions, including Google, Visa, Coca-Cola, Target, Zoom, NBC, Unity Technologies, Microsoft, Adobe, Glu, Andreessen Horowitz and Facebook.

In the past, Apptopia’s customers were examining digital engagement and interactions from a macro level, but now they’re looking to dive deeper into specific details, requiring more data. For example, a brand may have previously wanted to know how well a competitor’s promotion fared in terms of new users or app sessions. But now they want to know the answers to specific questions —  like how many unique users participated, whether those users were existing customers, whether they returned after the promotion ended, and so on.

The majority of Apptopia’s business is now focused on delivering these sorts of answers to enterprise customers who subscribe to Apptopia’s data — and possibly, to the data from its competitors like Sensor Tower and App Annie, with the goal of blending datasets together for a more accurate understanding of the competitive landscape.

Apptopia’s own data, historically, was not always seen as being the most accurate, admits Apptopia CEO Jonathan Kay. But it has improved over the years.

Kay, previously Apptopia COO, is now taking over the top role from co-founder Eliran Sapir, who’s transitioning to chairman of the board as the company enters its next phase of growth.

Apptopia’s rivals like Sensor Tower and App Annie use mobile panels to gather app data, among other methods, Kay explains. These panels involve consumer-facing apps like VPN clients and ad blockers, which users would download not necessarily understanding that they were agreeing to having their app usage data collected. This led to some controversy as the app data industry’s open secret was exposed to consumers by the media, and the companies tweaked their disclosures, as a result.

But the practice continues and has not impacted the companies’ growth. Sensor Tower, for example, raised $45 million last year, as demand for app data continued to grow. And all involved businesses are expanding with new products and services for their data-hungry customer bases.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Apptopia, meanwhile, decided not to grow its business on the back of mobile panels. (Though in its earlier days it did test and then scrap such a plan.)

It gains access to data from its app developer customers — and this data is already aggregated and anonymized from the developers’ Apple and Google Analytics accounts.

Initially, this method put Apptopia at a disadvantage. Rivals had more accurate data from about 2016 through 2018 because of their use of mobile panels, Kay says. But Apptopia made a strategic decision to not take this sort of risk — that is, build a business that Apple or Google could shut off at any time.

“Instead, what we did is we spent years investing into data science and algorithms,” notes Kay. “We figured out how to extract an equal or greater signal from the same data set that [competitors] had access to.”

Using what Kay describes as “huge, huge amounts of historical data,” Apptopia over time learned what sort of signals went into an app’s app store ranking. A lot of people still think an app’s rank is largely determined by downloads, but there are now a variety of signals that inform rank, Kay points out.

“Really, a rank is just an accumulation of analytical data points that Apple and Google give points for,” he explains. This includes things like number of sessions, how many users, how much time is spent in an app, and more. “Because we didn’t have these panels, we had to spend years figuring out how to do reverse engineering better than our competitors. And, eventually, we figured out how to get the same signal that they could get from the panel from rank. That’s what allowed us to have such a fast-growing, successful business over the past several years.”

As Apptopia was already profitable, it didn’t need to fundraise. But the company wanted to accelerate its expansion into new areas, including its planned expansion outside of mobile apps.

Today, consumers use “apps” on their computers, on their smartwatches and on their TV, in addition to their phones and tablets. And businesses no longer want to know just what’s happening on mobile — they want the full picture of “app” usage.

“We figured out a way to do that that doesn’t rely on any of what our competitors have done in the past,” says Kay. “So, we will not be using any apps to spy on people,” he states.

However, the company was not prepared to offer further details around its future product plans at this time. But Kay said Apptopia would not rule out partnerships or being acquisitive to accomplish its goals going forward.

Apptopia also sees a broader future in making its app data more accessible. Last year, for instance, it partnered with Bloomberg to bring mobile data to investors via the Bloomberg App Portal on the Bloomberg Terminal. And it now works with Amazon’s AWS Data Exchange and Snowflake to make access to app data available in other channels, as well. Future partnerships of a similar nature could come into play as another means of differentiating Apptopia’s data from its rivals.

The company declined to offer its current revenue run rate or valuation, but notes that it tripled its valuation from its last fundraise at the end of 2019.

In addition to product expansions, the company plans to leverage the funds to grow its team of 55 by another 25 in 2021, including in engineering and analysts. And it will grow its management team, adding a CFO, CPO, and CMO this year.

To date, Apptopia has raised $30 million in outside capital.

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When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working – TechCrunch

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The internet is now our nervous system. We are constantly streaming and buying and watching and liking, our brains locked into the global information matrix as one universal and coruscating emanation of thought and emotion.

What happens when the machine stops though?

It’s a question that E.M. Forster was intensely focused on more than a century ago in a short story called, rightly enough, “The Machine Stops,” about a human civilization connected entirely through machines that one day just turn off.

Those fears of downtime are not just science fiction anymore. Outages aren’t just missing a must-watch TikTok clip. Hospitals, law enforcement, the government, every corporation — the entire spectrum of human institutions that constitute civilization now deeply rely on connectivity to function.

So when it comes to disaster response, the world has dramatically changed. In decades past, the singular focus could be roughly summarized as rescue and mitigation — save who you can while trying to limit the scale of destruction. Today though, the highest priority is by necessity internet access, not just for citizens, but increasingly for the on-the-ground first responders who need bandwidth to protect themselves, keep abreast of their mission objectives, and have real-time ground truth on where dangers lurk and where help is needed.

While the sales cycles might be arduous as we learned in part one and the data trickles have finally turned to streams in part two, the reality is that none of that matters if there isn’t connectivity to begin with. So in part three of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, we’re going to analyze the changing nature of bandwidth and connectivity and how they intersect with emergencies, taking a look at how telcos are creating resilience in their networks while defending against climate change, how first responders are integrating connectivity into their operations, and finally, exploring how new technologies like 5G and satellite internet will affect these critical activities.

Wireless resilience as the world burns

Climate change is inducing more intense weather patterns all around the world, creating second- and third-order effects for industries that rely on environmental stability for operations. Few industries have to be as dynamic to the changing context as telecom companies, whose wired and wireless infrastructure is regularly buffeted by severe storms. Resiliency of these networks isn’t just needed for consumers — it’s absolutely necessary for the very responders trying to mitigate disasters and get the network back up in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, no issue looms larger for telcos than access to power — no juice, no bars. So all three of America’s major telcos — Verizon (which owns TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media, although not for much longer), AT&T and T-Mobile — have had to dramatically scale up their resiliency efforts in recent years to compensate both for the demand for wireless and the growing damage wrought by weather.

Jay Naillon, senior director of national technology service operations strategy at T-Mobile, said that the company has made resilience a key part of its network buildout in recent years, with investments in generators at cell towers that can be relied upon when the grid cannot. In “areas that have been hit by hurricanes or places that have fragile grids … that is where we have invested most of our fixed assets,” he said.

Like all three telcos, T-Mobile pre-deploys equipment in anticipation for disruptions. So when a hurricane begins to swirl in the Atlantic Ocean, the company will strategically fly in portable generators and mobile cell towers in anticipation of potential outages. “We look at storm forecasts for the year,” Naillon explained, and do “lots of preventative planning.” They also work with emergency managers and “run through various drills with them and respond and collaborate effectively with them” to determine which parts of the network are most at risk for damage in an emergency. Last year, the company partnered with StormGeo to accurately predict weather events.

Predictive AI for disasters is also a critical need for AT&T. Jason Porter, who leads public sector and the company’s FirstNet first-responder network, said that AT&T teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory to create a climate-change analysis tool to evaluate the siting of its cell towers and how they will weather the next 30 years of “floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.” “We redesigned our buildout … based on what our algorithms told us would come,” he said, and the company has been elevating vulnerable cell towers four to eight feet high on “stilts” to improve their resiliency to at least some weather events. That “gave ourselves some additional buffer.”

AT&T has also had to manage the growing complexity of creating reliability with the chaos of a climate-change-induced world. In recent years, “we quickly realized that many of our deployments were due to weather-related events,” and the company has been “very focused on expanding our generator coverage over the past few years,” Porter said. It’s also been very focused on building out its portable infrastructure. “We essentially deploy entire data centers on trucks so that we can stand up essentially a central office,” he said, empathizing that the company’s national disaster recovery team responded to thousands of events last year.

Particularly on its FirstNet service, AT&T has pioneered two new technologies to try to get bandwidth to disaster-hit regions faster. First, it has invested in drones to offer wireless services from the sky. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana last year with record-setting winds, our “cell towers were twisted up like recycled aluminum cans … so we needed to deploy a sustainable solution,” Porter described. So the company deployed what it dubs the FirstNet One — a “dirigible” that “can cover twice the cell coverage range of a cell tower on a truck, and it can stay up for literally weeks, refuel in less than an hour and go back up — so long-term, sustainable coverage,” he said.

AT&T’s FirstNet One dirigible to offer internet access from the air for first responders. Image Credits: AT&T/FirstNet

Secondly, the company has been building out what it calls FirstNet MegaRange — a set of high-powered wireless equipment that it announced earlier this year that can deploy signals from miles away, say from a ship moored off a coast, to deliver reliable connectivity to first responders in the hardest-hit disaster zones.

As the internet has absorbed more of daily life, the norms for network resilience have become ever more exacting. Small outages can disrupt not just a first responder, but a child taking virtual classes and a doctor conducting remote surgery. From fixed and portable generators to rapid-deployment mobile cell towers and dirigibles, telcos are investing major resources to keep their networks running continuously.

Yet, these initiatives are ultimately costs borne by telcos increasingly confronting a world burning up. Across conversations with all three telcos and others in the disaster response space, there was a general sense that utilities just increasingly have to self-insulate themselves in a climate-changed world. For instance, cell towers need their own generators because — as we saw with Texas earlier this year — even the power grid itself can’t be guaranteed to be there. Critical applications need to have offline capabilities, since internet outages can’t always be prevented. The machine runs, but the machine stops, too.

The trend lines on the frontlines are data lines

While we may rely on connectivity in our daily lives as consumers, disaster responders have been much more hesitant to fully transition to connected services. It is precisely in the middle of a tornado and the cell tower is down that you realize a printed map might have been nice to have. Paper, pens, compasses — the old staples of survival flicks remain just as important in the field today as they were decades ago.

Yet, the power of software and connectivity to improve emergency response has forced a rethinking of field communications and how deeply technology is integrated on the ground. Data from the frontlines is extremely useful, and if it can be transmitted, dramatically improves the ability of operations planners to respond safely and efficiently.

Both AT&T and Verizon have made large investments in directly servicing the unique needs of the first responder community, with AT&T in particular gaining prominence with its FirstNet network, which it exclusively operates through a public-private partnership with the Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority. The government offered a special spectrum license to the FirstNet authority in Band 14 in exchange for the buildout of a responder-exclusive network, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which found that first responders couldn’t communicate with each other on the day of those deadly terrorist attacks. Now, Porter of AT&T says that the company’s buildout is “90% complete” and is approaching 3 million square miles of coverage.

Why so much attention on first responders? The telcos are investing here because in many ways, the first responders are on the frontiers of technology. They need edge computing, AI/ML rapid decision-making, the bandwidth and latency of 5G (which we will get to in a bit), high reliability, and in general, are fairly profitable customers to boot. In other words, what first responders need today are what consumers in general are going to want tomorrow.

Cory Davis, director of public safety strategy and crisis response at Verizon, explained that “more than ever, first responders are relying on technology to go out there and save lives.” His counterpart, Nick Nilan, who leads product management for the public sector, said that “when we became Verizon, it was really about voice [and] what’s changed over the last five [years] is the importance of data.” He brings attention to tools for situational awareness, mapping, and more that are a becoming standard in the field. Everything first responders do “comes back to the network — do you have the coverage where you need it, do you have the network access when something happens?”

The challenge for the telcos is that we all want access to that network when catastrophe strikes, which is precisely when network resources are most scarce. The first responder trying to communicate with their team on the ground or their operations center is inevitably competing with a citizen letting friends know they are safe — or perhaps just watching the latest episode of a TV show in their vehicle as they are fleeing the evacuation zone.

That competition is the argument for a completely segmented network like FirstNet, which has its own dedicated spectrum with devices that can only be used by first responders. “With remote learning, remote work and general congestion,” Porter said, telcos and other bandwidth providers were overwhelmed with consumer demand. “Thankfully we saw through FirstNet … clearing that 20 MHz of spectrum for first responders” helped keep the lines clear for high-priority communications.

FirstNet’s big emphasis is on its dedicated spectrum, but that’s just one component of a larger strategy to give first responders always-on and ready access to wireless services. AT&T and Verizon have made prioritization and preemption key operational components of their networks in recent years. Prioritization gives public safety users better access to the network, while preemption can include actively kicking off lower-priority consumers from the network to ensure first responders have immediate access.

Nilan of Verizon said, “The network is built for everybody … but once we start thinking about who absolutely needs access to the network at a period of time, we prioritize our first responders.” Verizon has prioritization, preemption, and now virtual segmentation — “we separate their traffic from consumer traffic” so that first responders don’t have to compete if bandwidth is limited in the middle of a disaster. He noted that all three approaches have been enabled since 2018, and Verizon’s suite of bandwidth and software for first responders comes under the newly christened Verizon Frontline brand that launched in March.

With increased bandwidth reliability, first responders are increasingly connected in ways that even a decade ago would have been unfathomable. Tablets, sensors, connected devices and tools — equipment that would have been manual are now increasingly digital.

That opens up a wealth of possibilities now that the infrastructure is established. My interview subjects suggested applications as diverse as the decentralized coordination of response team movements through GPS and 5G; real-time updated maps that offer up-to-date risk analysis of how a disaster might progress; pathfinding for evacuees that’s updated as routes fluctuate; AI damage assessments even before the recovery process begins; and much, much more. In fact, when it comes to the ferment of the imagination, many of those possibilities will finally be realized in the coming years — when they have only ever been marketing-speak and technical promises in the past.

Five, Gee

We’ve been hearing about 5G for years now, and even 6G every once in a while just to cause reporters heart attacks, but what does 5G even mean in the context of disaster response? After years of speculation, we are finally starting to get answers.

Naillon of T-Mobile noted that the biggest benefit of 5G is that it “allows us to have greater coverage” particularly given the low-band spectrum that the standard partially uses. That said, “As far as applications — we are not really there at that point from an emergency response perspective,” he said.

Meanwhile, Porter of AT&T said that “the beauty of 5G that we have seen there is less about the speed and more about the latency.” Consumers have often seen marketing around voluminous bandwidths, but in the first-responder world, latency and edge computing tends to be the most desirable features. For instance, devices can relay video to each other on the frontlines, without necessarily needing a backhaul to the main wireless network. On-board processing of image data could allow for rapid decision-making in environments where seconds can be vital to the success of a mission.

That flexibility is allowing for many new applications in disaster response, and “we are seeing some amazing use cases coming out of our 5G deployments [and] we have launched some of our pilots with the [Department of Defense],” Porter said. He offered an example of “robotic dogs to go and do bomb dismantling or inspecting and recovery.”

Verizon has made innovating on new applications a strategic goal, launching a 5G First Responders Lab dedicated to guiding a new generation of startups to build at this crossroads. Nilan of Verizon said that the incubator has had more than 20 companies across four different cohorts, working on everything from virtual reality training environments to AR applications that allow firefighters to “see through walls.” His colleague Davis said that “artificial intelligence is going to continue to get better and better and better.”

Blueforce is a company that went through the first cohort of the Lab. The company uses 5G to connect sensors and devices together to allow first responders to make the best decisions they can with the most up-to-date data. Michael Helfrich, founder and CEO, said that “because of these new networks … commanders are able to leave the vehicle and go into the field and get the same fidelity” of information that they normally would have to be in a command center to receive. He noted that in addition to classic user interfaces, the company is exploring other ways of presenting information to responders. “They don’t have to look at a screen anymore, and [we’re] exploring different cognitive models like audio, vibration and heads-up displays.”

5G will offer many new ways to improve emergency responses, but that doesn’t mean that our current 4G networks will just disappear. Davis said that many sensors in the field don’t need the kind of latency or bandwidth that 5G offers. “LTE is going to be around for many, many more years,” he said, pointing to the hardware and applications taking advantage of LTE-M standards for Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a key development for the future here.

Michael Martin of emergency response data platform RapidSOS said that “it does feel like there is renewed energy to solve real problems,” in the disaster response market, which he dubbed the “Elon Musk effect.” And that effect definitely does exist when it comes to connectivity, where SpaceX’s satellite bandwidth project Starlink comes into play.

Satellite uplinks have historically had horrific latency and bandwidth constraints, making them difficult to use in disaster contexts. Furthermore, depending on the particular type of disaster, satellite uplinks can be astonishingly challenging to setup given the ground environment. Starlink promises to shatter all of those barriers — easier connections, fat pipes, low latencies and a global footprint that would be the envy of any first responder globally. Its network is still under active development, so it is difficult to foresee today precisely what its impact will be on the disaster response market, but it’s an offering to watch closely in the years ahead, because it has the potential to completely upend the way we respond to disasters this century if its promises pan out.

Yet, even if we discount Starlink, the change coming this decade in emergency response represents a complete revolution. The depth and resilience of connectivity is changing the equation for first responders from complete reliance on antiquated tools to an embrace of the future of digital computing. The machine is no longer stoppable.


Future of Technology and Disaster Response Table of Contents


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