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Transportation Weekly: Polestar CEO speaks, Tesla terminology, and a tribute

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Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch . This is the fourth edition of our newsletter, a weekly jaunt into the wonderful world of transportation and how we (and our packages) move.

This week we chat with Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath, dig into Lyft’s S-1, take note of an emerging trend in AV development, and check out an experiment with paving. Oh, and how could we forget Tesla.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up here, here and here. As I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. (An email subscription is coming). 


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.

This week, we’re featuring excerpts taken from a one-on-one interview with Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath.

On February 27, Volvo’s standalone electric performance brand Polestar introduced its first all-electric vehicle, a five-door fastback called the Polestar 2. The EV, which has a 78 kWh battery pack and can travel 275 miles (estimated EPA guidance) on a single charge, will be manufactured at a new factory in Chengdu, China. Other notable specs: The infotainment system will be powered by Android OS, Polestar is offering subscriptions to the vehicle, and production starts in 2020.

Here is what Ingenlath had to say to me about …

EV charging infrastructure

To be very unpolitical, I think it would be totally stupid if we were to aim to develop electric charging infrastructure on our own or for our brand specifically. If you join the electric market today, of course, you would see partnerships; that’s sensible thing to do. Car companies together are making a big effort in getting out a network of necessary charging stations along the highway. 

That’s what we’re doing; we’re teaming up and have the contracts being designed and soon signed.

On the company’s approach to automation 

The terminology is important for us. We very clearly put that into a different picture, we’re not talking about, and we clearly do not ever want to label it, anautopilot.” The focus of this system is a very safe distance control, which brakes for you and accelerates for you, and of course, the lane keeping. This is not about developing an autopilot system, it is about giving your safety. And that’s where we don’t want to provoke people thinking that they have full rollout autopilot system there. But it is a system that helps you being safe and protected on the road.

I also reached out to Transportation Weekly readers and asked what they wanted to know and then sent some of those questions to Ingenlath.

TW Reader: How did it feel taking one of your personal styling elements – the C shaped rear lamps – from your previous brand over to Polestar?

Ingenlath: It’s an evolutionary process. Polestar naturally builds on its “mothers” DNA and as a new branch develops its own personality. Thor’s hammer, the rear light signature -—with each new model launch (Volvo and Polestar) those elements diverge into a brand specific species.

TW Reader: How much do you still get to do what you love, which is design?

Ingenlath: Being creative is still my main job, now applied on a broader scope — trying to lead a company with a creative and  brand building mindset. Still, I love the Fridays when I meet up with Robin and Max to review the models, sketches and new data. We really enjoy driving the design of both brands to new adventures.


Dig In

Tesla is finally going to offer customers a $35,000 Model 3. How the automaker is able to sell this electric vehicle at the long-awaited $35,000 price point is a big piece of that story — and one that some overlooked. In short, the company is blowing up its sales model and moving to an online only strategy. Tesla stores will close or be converted to “information centers” and retail employees will be laid off.

But this is not what we’re going to talk about today. Tesla has also brought back its so-called “full self-driving” feature, which was removed as an option on its website last year. Now it’s back. Owners can opt for Autopilot, which has automatic steering on highways and traffic-aware cruise control, or FSD.

FSD capability includes several features such as Navigate on Autopilot that is supposed to guide a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including navigating interchanges and making lane changes. FSD also includes Advanced Summon, Auto Lane Change, and Autopark. Later this year, the system will recognize and respond to traffic lights in more complex urban environments, Tesla says.

All of these features require the driver to be engaged (or ready to take over), yet it’s called “full self-driving.” Now Tesla has two controversially named automation features. (The other is Autopilot). As Andrew Hawkins at The Verge noted in his coverage, “experts are beginning to realize that the way we discuss, and how companies market, autonomy is significant.”

Which begs the obvious question, and one that I asked Musk during a conference call on Thursday. “Isn’t it a problem that you’re calling this full self-driving capability when you’re still going to require the driver to take control or be paying attention?” (I also wanted to ask a followup on his response, but the moderator moved onto the next reporter).

His response:

“We are very clear when you buy the car what is meant by full self driving. It means it’s feature complete, but feature complete requiring supervision.

As we get more — we really need billions of miles, if not maybe 10 billion sort of miles or kilometers on that order collectively from the fleet — then in our opinion probably at that point supervision is not required, but that will still be up to regulators to agree.

So we’re just very clear.  There’s really three steps: there’s being feature complete of full self driving that requires supervision, feature complete but not requiring supervision, and feature complete not requiring supervision and regulators agree.

In other Tesla news, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a crash, that at first glance seems to be similar to the fatal crash that killed Tesla owner Joshua Brown.


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

blinky-cat-bird

It’s no secret that Pittsburgh is one of the hubs of autonomous vehicle development in the world. But what’s not so widely known — except for a group of government and company insiders — is that Mayor William Peduto is on the verge of issuing an executive order that will give more visibility into testing there. 

The city’s department of mobility and infrastructure is the central coordinator of this new executive order that aims to help guide testing and policy development there. The department is going to develop guidelines for AV testing, we’re told. And it appears that information on testing will be released to the public at least once a year.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.


Deal of the week

Daimler and BMW are supposed to be competitors. And they are, except with mapping (both part of the HERE consortium), mobility services (car sharing, ride-sharing), and now the development of highly automated driving systems. The deal is notable because it illustrates a larger trend that has emerged as the AV industry hunkers down into the “trough of disillusionment.” And that’s consolidation. If 2016, was the year of splashy acquisitions, then 2019 is shaping up to be chockfull of alliances and failures (of some startups).

Also interesting to note, and one that will make some AV safety experts cringe, both companies are working on Level 3 driving automation, a designation by the SAE that means conditional driving automation in which multiple high levels of automation are available in certain conditions, but a human driver must be ready to take over. This level of automation is the most controversial because of the so-called “hand off” problem in which a human driver is expected to take control of the wheel in time.

Speaking of partnerships, another deal that got our attention this week involved New York-based mapping and data analytics startup Carmera and Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development. TRI-AD is an autonomous drive unit started by Toyota with Denso and Aisin. TRI-AD’s mission is to take the research being done over at the Toyota Research Institute and turn its into a product.

The two companies are going to test a concept that will use cameras in Toyota test vehicles to collect data from downtown Tokyo and use it to create high definition maps for urban and surface roads.

TRI-AD considers this the first step towards its open software platform concept known as Automated Mapping Platform that will be used to support the scalability of highly automated driving, by combining data gathered from vehicles of participating companies to generate HD maps. AMP is new and has possible widespread implications at Toyota. And TRI-AD is full of A-listers, including CEO James Kuffner, who came from the Google self-driving project and Nikos Michalakis, who built Netflix’s cloud platform, and Mandali Khalesi, who was at HERE.

Read more on Khalesi and the Toyota’s open source ambitions here.

Other deals:


Snapshot

Snapshot this week is a bit untraditional. It’s literally a snapshot of myself and my grandmother, months before her 100th birthday. Her memorial service was held Saturday. She died at 101.

I suppose I could blame my emotions and timing for her sudden inclusion in this week’s newsletter. But if Evelyn deserves a tribute anywhere, it’s here at TechCrunch.

I often wonder, that if given the opportunity, what technical field she would have ended up in? Given her specific skill set, I think she would have been a wonderful mechanical engineer. She was a closet techie, a lover of science fiction who was equally fascinated by the very real breakthroughs in science and space travel that occurred throughout her lifetime. Her 30-year career as a factory worker at an avionics manufacturer certainly wasn’t romantic. But it did give her a certain technical acumen (not to mention tenacity) that I admired.

And, she was one of my favorite test car companions. She loved cars and fast ones, but not so much driving them. Every time I got a new press car, we’d hit the road and she’d encourage me to take the turns a bit faster — sometimes beyond my comfort zone.

She also loved road trips and in the 1920s and 30s, her father would drive the family on the mostly dirt roads from New Jersey to Vermont and even Canada. In her teens, she loved riding in the rumble seat, a feature found in a few vehicles at the time including the Ford Model A.

She was young at heart, until the very end. And my one regret is that I didn’t find a way to get her into an autonomous vehicle.

Next week, we’ll focus on the youngest drivers and one automotive startup that is targeting that demographic.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

Lyft’s S-1 lays out the risks associated with its micromobility business and its intent to continue relying on third parties to manufacture its bikes and scooters. Here’s a key nugget about adoption:

“While some major cities have widely adopted bike and scooter sharing, there can be no assurance that new markets we enter will accept, or existing markets will continue to accept, bike and scooter sharing, and even if they do, that we will be able to execute on our business strategy or that our related offerings will be successful in such markets. Even if we are able to successfully develop and implement our network of shared bikes and scooters, there may be heightened public skepticism of this nascent service offering.”

And another about seasonality:

“Our limited operating history makes it difficult for us to assess the exact nature or extent of the effects of seasonality on our network of shared bikes and scooters, however, we expect the demand for our bike and scooter rentals to decline over the winter season and increase during more temperate and dry seasons.”

Lyft, which bought bike-share company Motivate back in July, also released some data about its electric pedal-assist bikes this week, showing that the pedal assist bikes are, unsurprisingly, more popular than the traditional bikes. They also traveled longer distances and improved winter ridership numbers. Now, Lyft is gearing up to deploy 4,000 additional electric bikes to the Citi Bike system in New York City.

One more thing …

Google Maps has added a feature that lets users see Lime scooters, pedal bikes and e-bikes right from the transit tab in over 80 new cities around the world. Users can click the tab to find out if Lime vehicle is available, how long it’ll take to walk to the vehicle, an estimate of how much their ride could cost, along with total journey time and ETA.


Notable reads

If take the time to read anything this week (besides this newsletter), spend some time with Lyft’s S-1. The ride-hailing company’s prospectus mentions autonomous 109 times. In short, yeah, it’s something the company’s executives are thinking about and investing in.

Lyft says it has a two-pronged strategy to bring autonomous vehicles to market. The company encouraging developers of autonomous vehicle technology to use its open platform to get access to its network and enable their vehicles to fulfill rides on the Lyft platform. And Lyft is trying to build its own autonomous vehicle system at its confusingly named “Level 5 Engineering Center.”

  • The company’s primary investors are Rakuten with a 13 percent stake, GM with 7.8 percent, Fidelity with 7.7 percent, Andreessen Horowitz with 6.3 percent and Alphabet with 5.3 percent. GM and Alphabet have business units, GM Cruise and Waymo respectively, that are also developing AV technology.
  • Through Lyft’s partnership with AV systems developer and supplier Aptiv, people in Las Vegas have taken more than 35,000 rides in Aptiv autonomous vehicles with a safety driver since January 2018.
  • One of the “risks” the company lists is “a failure to detect a defect in our autonomous vehicles or our bikes or scooters”

Other quotable notables:

Check out the Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State report, a newly released report from Volvo Car USA and The Harris Poll called  The State of Electric Vehicles in America.


Testing and deployments

Again, deployments doesn’t always mean the latest autonomous vehicle pilot.

On Saturday, Sidewalk Labs hosted its Open Sidewalk event in Toronto. This is part of Sidewalk Toronto, a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a “mixed-use, complete community” on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront

The idea of this event was to share ideas and prototypes for making outdoor public space the “social default year-round.” One such prototype “hexagonal paving” got our attention because of its use case for traffic control and pedestrian and bicyclist safety. (Pictured below)

These individual precast concrete slabs are movable and permeable, can light up and give off heat. The idea is that these hexagonal-shaped slabs and be used to clear snow and ice in trouble spots and light up to warn drivers and pedestrians of changes to the street use or to illuminate an area for public uses or even designate bike lanes and hazard zones. And because they’re permeable they can be used to absorb stormwater or melted snow and guide it to underground stormwater management systems.

Sidewalk Labs tell me that the pavers have “plug and play” holes, which allow things like bike racks, bollards, and sign posts to be inserted. Sidewalk Labs initially built these with wood, and the new prototype is the next iteration, featuring modules built from concrete.


On our radar

There is a lot of transportation-related activity this month.

The Geneva Motor Show: Press days are March 5 and March 6. Expect concept, prototype and production electric vehicles from Audi, Honda, Kia, Peugeot, Pininfarina, Polestar, Spanish car company Hispano Suiza, and Volkswagen.

SXSW in Austin: TechCrunch will be at SXSW this coming week. Here’s where I’ll be.

  • 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. March 9 at the Empire Garage for the Smart Mobility Summit, an annual event put on by Wards Intelligence and C3 Group. The Autonocast, the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, will also be on hand.
  • 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. March 12 at the JW Marriott. The Autonocast and founding general partner of Trucks VC, Reilly Brennan will hold a SXSW podcast panel on automated vehicle terminology and other stuff.
  • 3:30 p.m over at the Hilton Austin Downtown, I’ll be moderating a panel Re-inventing the Wheel: Own, Rent, Share, Subscribe. Sherrill Kaplan with Zipcar, Amber Quist, with Silvercar and Russell Lemmer with Dealerware will join me.
  • TechCrunch is also hosting a SXSW party from 1 pm to 4 pm Sunday, March 10, 615 Red River St., that will feature musical guest Elderbrook. RSVP here

Self Racing Cars

Finally, I’ve been in contact with Joshua Schachter who puts on the annual Self Racing Car event, which will be held March 23 and March 24 at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, California.

There is still room for participants to test or demo their autonomous vehicles, drive train innovation, simulation, software, teleoperation, and sensors. Hobbyists are welcome. Sign up to participate or drop them a line at contact@selfracingcars.com.

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos la próxima vez.

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AI can run your work meetings now

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Enlarge / Headroom is one of several apps advertising AI as the solution for your messy virtual/video meetings.

Julian Green was explaining the big problem with meetings when our meeting started to glitch. The pixels of his face rearranged themselves. A sentence came out as hiccups. Then he sputtered, froze, and ghosted.

Green and I had been chatting on Headroom, a new video conferencing platform he and cofounder Andrew Rabinovich launched this fall. The glitch, they assured me, was not caused by their software, but by Green’s Wi-Fi connection. “I think the rest of my street is on homeschool,” he said, a problem that Headroom was not built to solve. It was built instead for other issues: the tedium of taking notes, the coworkers who drone on and on, and the difficulty in keeping everyone engaged. As we spoke, software tapped out a real-time transcription in a window next to our faces. It kept a running tally of how many words each person had said (Rabinovich dominated). Once our meeting was over, Headroom’s software would synthesize the concepts from the transcript; identify key topics, dates, ideas, and action items; and, finally, spit out a record that could be searched at a later time. It would even try to measure how much each participant was paying attention.

Meetings have become the necessary evil of the modern workplace, spanning an elaborate taxonomy: daily stand-ups, sit-downs, all-hands, one-on-ones, brown-bags, status checks, brainstorms, debriefs, design reviews. But as time spent in these corporate conclaves goes up, work seems to suffer. Researchers have found that meetings correlate with a decline in workplace happiness, productivity, and even company market share. And in a year when so many office interactions have gone digital, the usual tedium of meeting culture is compounded by the fits and starts of teleconferencing.

Recently, a new wave of startups has emerged to optimize those meetings with, what else, technology. Macro (“give your meeting superpowers”) makes a collaborative interface for Zoom. Mmhmm offers interactive backgrounds and slide-share tools for presenters. Fireflies, an AI transcription tool, integrates with popular video conferencing platforms to create a searchable record of each meeting. And Sidekick (“make your remote team feel close again”) sells a dedicated tablet for video calls.

The idea behind Headroom, which was conceived pre-pandemic, is to improve on both the in-person and virtual problems with meetings, using AI. (Rabinovich used to head AI at Magic Leap.) The use of video conferencing was already on the rise before 2020; this year it exploded, and Green and Rabinovich are betting that the format is here to stay as more companies grow accustomed to having remote employees. Over the last nine months, though, many people have learned firsthand that virtual meetings bring new challenges, like interpreting body language from other people on-screen or figuring out if anyone is actually listening.

“One of the hard things in a videoconference is when someone is speaking and I want to tell them that I like it,” says Green. In person, he says, “you might head nod or make a small aha.” But on a video chat, the speaker might not see if they’re presenting slides, or if the meeting is crowded with too many squares, or if everyone who’s making verbal cues is on mute. “You can’t tell if it’s crickets or if people are loving it.”

Headroom aims to tackle the social distance of virtual meetings in a few ways. First, it uses computer vision to translate approving gestures into digital icons, amplifying each thumbs up or head nod with little emojis that the speaker can see. Those emojis also get added to the official transcript, which is automatically generated by software to spare someone the task of taking notes. Green and Rabinovich say this type of monitoring is made clear to all participants at the start of every meeting, and teams can opt out of features if they choose.

More uniquely, Headroom’s software uses emotion recognition to take the temperature of the room periodically, and to gauge how much attention participants are paying to whoever’s speaking. Those metrics are displayed in a window on-screen, designed mostly to give the speaker real-time feedback that can sometimes disappear in the virtual context. “If five minutes ago everyone was super into what I’m saying and now they’re not, maybe I should think about shutting up,” says Green.

Emotion recognition is still a nascent field of AI. “The goal is to basically try to map the facial expressions as captured by facial landmarks: the rise of the eyebrow, the shape of the mouth, the opening of the pupils,” says Rabinovich. Each of these facial movements can be represented as data, which in theory can then be translated into an emotion: happy, sad, bored, confused. In practice, the process is rarely so straightforward. Emotion recognition software has a history of mislabeling people of color; one program, used by airport security, overestimated how often Black men showed negative emotions, like “anger.” Affective computing also fails to take cultural cues into context, like whether someone is averting their eyes out of respect, shame, or shyness.

For Headroom’s purposes, Rabinovich argues that these inaccuracies aren’t as important. “We care less if you’re happy or super happy, so long that we’re able to tell if you’re involved,” says Rabinovich. But Alice Xiang, the head of fairness, transparency, and accountability research at the Partnership on AI, says even basic facial recognition still has problems—like failing to detect when Asian individuals have their eyes open—because they are often trained on white faces. “If you have smaller eyes, or hooded eyes, it might be the case that the facial recognition concludes you are constantly looking down or closing your eyes when you’re not,” says Xiang. These sorts of disparities can have real-world consequences as facial recognition software gains more widespread use in the workplace. Headroom is not the first to bring such software into the office. HireVue, a recruiting technology firm, recently introduced an emotion recognition software that suggests a job candidate’s “employability,” based on factors like facial movements and speaking voice.

Constance Hadley, a researcher at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says that gathering data on people’s behavior during meetings can reveal what is and isn’t working within that setup, which could be useful for employers and employees alike. But when people know their behavior is being monitored, it can change how they act in unintended ways. “If the monitoring is used to understand patterns as they exist, that’s great,” says Hadley. “But if it’s used to incentivize certain types of behavior, then it can end up triggering dysfunctional behavior.” In Hadley’s classes, when students know that 25 percent of the grade is participation, students raise their hands more often, but they don’t necessarily say more interesting things. When Green and Rabinovich demonstrated their software to me, I found myself raising my eyebrows, widening my eyes, and grinning maniacally to change my levels of perceived emotion.

In Hadley’s estimation, when meetings are conducted is just as important as how. Poorly scheduled meetings can rob workers of the time to do their own tasks, and a deluge of meetings can make people feel like they’re wasting time while drowning in work. Naturally, there are software solutions to this, too. Clockwise, an AI time management platform launched in 2019, uses an algorithm to optimize the timing of meetings. “Time has become a shared asset inside a company, not a personal asset,” says Matt Martin, the founder of Clockwise. “People are balancing all these different threads of communication, the velocity has gone up, the demands of collaboration are more intense. And yet, the core of all of that, there’s not a tool for anyone to express, ‘This is the time I need to actually get my work done. Do not distract me!’”

Clockwise syncs with someone’s Google calendar to analyze how they’re spending their time, and how they could do so more optimally. The software adds protective time blocks based on an individual’s stated preferences. It might reserve a chunk of “do not disturb” time for getting work done in the afternoons. (It also automatically blocks off time for lunch. “As silly as that sounds, it makes a big difference,” says Martin.) And by analyzing multiple calendars within the same workforce or team, the software can automatically move meetings like a “team sync” or a “weekly 1×1” into time slots that work for everyone. The software optimizes for creating more uninterrupted blocks of time, when workers can get into “deep work” without distraction.

Clockwise, which launched in 2019, just closed an $18 million funding round and says it’s gaining traction in Silicon Valley. So far, it has 200,000 users, most of whom work for companies like Uber, Netflix, and Twitter; about half of its users are engineers. Headroom is similarly courting clients in the tech industry, where Green and Rabinovich feel they best understand the problems with meetings. But it’s not hard to imagine similar software creeping beyond the Silicon Valley bubble. Green, who has school-age children, has been exasperated by parts of their remote learning experience. There are two dozen students in their classes, and the teacher can’t see all of them at once. “If the teacher is presenting slides, they actually can see none of them,” he says. “They don’t even see if the kids have their hands up to ask a question.”

Indeed, the pains of teleconferencing aren’t limited to offices. As more and more interaction is mediated by screens, more software tools will surely try to optimize the experience. Other problems, like laggy Wi-Fi, will be someone else’s to solve.

This story first appeared on wired.com

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Comcast raising TV and Internet prices, including a big hike to hidden fees

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Enlarge / Comcast Xfinity cable television installation truck parked on a street in front of a suburban home, San Ramon, California, May 17, 2018. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Getty Images | Smith Collection | Gado

Comcast is raising prices for cable TV and Internet service on January 1, 2021, with price hikes coming both to standard monthly rates and to hidden fees that aren’t included in advertised prices.

TV customers are getting an especially raw deal, as Comcast is adding up to $4.50 a month to the “Broadcast TV” fee and $2 to the Regional Sports Network (RSN) fee. That’s an increase of up to $78 a year solely from two fees that aren’t included in advertised rates.

As in past years, even customers who still are on promotional pricing will not be spared from the Broadcast TV and RSN fee increases. “Customers on promotional pricing will not see that pricing change until the end of the promotion, but the RSN and Broadcast TV fees will increase because they’re not part of the promotional pricing,” a Comcast spokesperson told Ars.

Without the upcoming increase, the Broadcast TV fee currently ranges from $7.90 to $14.95 depending on the market, the spokesperson said. The RSN fee maxes out at $8.75 a month in most of Comcast’s territory, but Comcast said this fee is $14.45 for Chicago-area customers with access to the Sinclair-owned Marquee Sports Network that airs Chicago Cubs games. The RSN fee is not charged in some markets that don’t have RSNs.

Six Internet-only packages that cost $53 to $113 a month will all rise $3 a month, and the price for professional installations or in-home service visits is rising from $70 to $100. Comcast revealed price increases in a notice that has been shared on Reddit:

List of Comcast price increases taking effect in Chicago on January 1, 2021.

List of Comcast price increases taking effect in Chicago on January 1, 2021.

While the above price-increase notice is for Chicago only, a Comcast spokesperson confirmed to Ars that price hikes will be nationwide. The Chicago price-change list doesn’t include the Regional Sports Network fee “because their RSN fee increased on October 1, 2020 with the addition of the Marquee Sports Network. The RSN Fee will increase by $2 in all other markets effective January 1, 2021,” Comcast told Ars.

“Other changes for 2021 include a Broadcast TV Fee increase of up to $4.50 depending on the market; $3 increase for Internet-only service; and up to to a $2.50 increase for TV boxes on the primary outlet, with a decrease of up to $2.45 for TV boxes on additional outlets,” the Comcast spokesperson added. The fee for a customer’s primary TV box is rising from $5 to $7.50, while the fee for additional boxes is being lowered from $9.95 to $7.50.

While the Chicago price list says the base price of the Choice TV package is rising from $25 to $30 a month, it’s not clear which TV packages will get price increases in other areas. Comcast told us that changes to base TV prices will vary by market.

Comcast charges a $30 monthly fee to upgrade from the 1.2TB plan to unlimited data, or $25 a month for customers who purchase xFi Complete, which includes unlimited data and rental of the Comcast gateway modem/router. The xFi Complete fee is only $20 in some markets, but Comcast told Ars it is raising the price in those markets to $25 to match what’s charged in the rest of the country.

Comcast blames programmers

Comcast defended the price increases with this statement:

Rising programming costs—most notably for broadcast TV and sports—continue to be the biggest factors driving price increases for all content distributors and their customers, not just Comcast. We’re continuing to work hard to manage these costs for our customers while investing in our network to provide the best, most reliable broadband service in the country and the flexibility to choose our industry-leading video platform with X1 or the highest quality streaming product with Flex, the only free streaming TV device with voice remote that’s included with broadband service.

But Comcast can’t solely blame other programmers for price hikes because Comcast itself owns NBCUniversal and thus determines the price of all NBCUniversal content, including the national channels and eight RSNs in major markets. Despite Comcast owning NBC, the cable company recently warned customers that they could lose NBC channels if Comcast is unable to reach a new carriage contract with… NBC. The absurd situation was summarized by TechDirt in an article aptly titled, “Comcast Tells Customers They May Lose Access To Comcast Channels If Comcast Can’t Agree With Comcast.”

On the broadband side, Comcast seems to be justifying price hikes based on the company’s investment in improving its network. But Comcast reduced capital spending on its cable division in 2019 and reduced cable-division capital spending again in the first nine months of 2020.

As we reported Monday, Comcast will also be enforcing the 1.2TB monthly data cap throughout its entire 39-state territory in 2021. Currently, Comcast enforces the cap in 27 states.

Comcast is the largest cable company and broadband provider in the US, followed by Charter, which has also raised prices on a regular basis. The companies do not compete against each other and each has a virtual monopoly over high-speed wired broadband in large portions of the US. Charter is raising prices on its Spectrum service in December. Charter is prohibited from imposing data caps until May 2023 thanks to a merger condition, but has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to drop the data-cap ban in May 2021 instead.

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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SpaceX Starlink engineers take questions in Reddit AMA—here are highlights

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Enlarge / Starlink logo imposed on stylized image of the Earth.

SpaceX Starlink engineers answered questions in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Saturday, covering topics such as data caps (which they hope to never implement), when the public beta will expand to more users, and how the satellite-broadband service will expand and change in the future.

“Starlink is an extremely flexible system and will get better over time as we make the software smarter. Latency, bandwidth, and reliability can all be improved significantly,” the engineers wrote under the Reddit username “DishyMcFlatface,” which is also SpaceX’s nickname for the Starlink satellite dish.

Here are some highlights from the AMA.

No data caps “at this time”

When asked if users will ever face data caps, the Starlink team gave a vague answer: “At this time, the Starlink beta service does not have data caps.”

While that response covered the present but not the future, a subsequent comment from DishyMcFlatface gave a more detailed answer that suggests SpaceX is trying to avoid data caps:

So we really don’t want to implement restrictive data caps like people have encountered with satellite Internet in the past. Right now we’re still trying to figure a lot of stuff out—we might have to do something in the future to prevent abuse and just ensure that everyone else gets quality service.

Expanded beta in January—no bribes required

Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle's Coeur d'Alene National Forest.

Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle’s Coeur d’Alene National Forest.

Many people who haven’t been able to get the Starlink beta are eagerly awaiting updates on availability, and the AMA provided an answer. SpaceX is “steadily increasing network access over time to bring in as many people as possible,” the Starlink team wrote. “Notably, we’re planning to move from a limited beta to a wider beta in late January, should give more users an opportunity to participate.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a similar update on Twitter a few weeks ago when a user asked when the beta will come to Florida. “Lower-latitude states need more satellites in position, so probably January,” Musk wrote at the time.

As before, people hoping to get Starlink can enter their email and service address on the Starlink website and hope to hear back. Bribes apparently won’t help. When one Reddit user asked, “How are beta users chosen and what’s a good bribe amount?” the Starlink team answered, “No bribes necessary, our goal is serve everyone eventually.”

More engineers needed

The Starlink team told Reddit users several times that SpaceX is looking for more engineers. In the answer about when the beta will expand, DishyMcFlatface wrote, “If you really want to help drive that, the best thing you can do is send great software engineers over to Starlink to help make it happen.”

Over a dozen jobs in Starlink production design, product design, and software are available, and links to the job posts can be found in this DishyMcFlatface comment. “We are super excited about the initial response and future potential of Starlink, but we still have a ton to learn,” the Starlink team wrote. “If you know any great people who can help us with that, please have them email their resume to starlink@spacex.com.”

Will Starlink work away from home?

A few weeks ago, we wrote about a Starlink beta user who took the satellite dish and a portable power supply to a national forest in Idaho, where he was able to get fast Internet service. But that doesn’t mean you can take the dish just anywhere, as SpaceX currently only promises that it will work at each beta user’s service address.

One Reddit user who lives and works on a boat docked in South Florida wanted to know if Starlink will provide service on the open seas. “A mobile system that gives me reliable connectivity will truly set me free to roam the coastal US, Bahamas, and eventually beyond,” the user wrote.

Starlink answered:

Right now, we can only deliver service at the address you sign up with on starlink.com. You might get lucky if you try to use Starlink in nearby locations, but service quality may be worse.

Mobility options—including moving your Starlink to different service addresses (or places that don’t even have addresses!)—is coming once we are able to increase our coverage by launching more satellites & rolling out new software.

SpaceX recently asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to test Starlink user terminals “on seagoing platforms” and on private jets.

Storms and extreme temperatures

A Reddit user asked if the satellite dish will work in heavy wind, such as when mounted “on the tail of a flatbed trailer flying down the interstate into a collapsing thunderstorm.” The SpaceX team said that is not a recommended use, and that the “dish is not designed for tropical storms, tornadoes, etc.”

One Reddit user who lives in Canada asked if the dish will work in temperatures as low as 45° below zero Celsius (that’s 49° below in Fahrenheit). Starlink engineers responded that the dish is certified to operate from 30° below zero to 40° above zero on the Celsius scale (that’s 22° below zero up to 104°F). SpaceX has performed “testing down to these cold temperatures with no issues.”

Starlink satellite dishes “have self-heating capabilities to deal with a variety of weather conditions,” the team also said. In the coming weeks and months, they plan to deploy software updates that will “upgrade our snow melting ability.”

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