Last month I wrote about Ubiquitilink, which promised, through undisclosed means, it was on the verge of providing a sort of global satellite-based roaming service. But how, I asked? (Wait, they told me.) Turns out our phones are capable of a lot more than we think: they can reach satellites acting as cell towers in orbit just fine, and the company just proved it.
Utilizing a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, Ubiquitilink claimed during a briefing at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that pretty much any phone from the last decade should be able to text and do other low-bandwidth tasks from anywhere, even in the middle of the ocean or deep in the Himalayas. Literally (though eventually) anywhere and any time.
Surely not, I hear you saying. My phone, that can barely get a signal on some blocks of my neighborhood, or in that one corner of the living room, can’t possibly send and receive data from space… can it?
“That’s the great thing — everybody’s instinct indicates that’s the case,” said Ubiquitilink founder Charles Miller. “But if you look at the fundamentals of the RF [radio frequency] link, it’s easier than you think.”
The issue, he explained, isn’t really that the phone lacks power. The limits of reception and wireless networks are defined much more by architecture and geology than plain physics. When an RF transmitter, even a small one, has a clear shot straight up, it can travel very far indeed.
It’s not quite as easy as that, however; there are changes that need to be made, just not anything complex or expensive like special satellite antennas or base stations. If you know that modifying the phone is a non-starter, you have to work with the hardware you’ve got. But everything else can be shaped accordingly, Miller said — three things in particular.
- Lower the orbit. There are limits to what’s practical as far as the distance involved and the complications it brings. The orbit needs to be under 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles. That’s definitely low — geosynchronous is 10 times higher — but it’s not crazy either. Some of SpaceX’s Starlink communications satellites are aiming for a similar orbit.
- Narrow the beam. The low orbit and other limitations mean that a given satellite can only cover a small area at a time. This isn’t just blasting out data like a GPS satellite, or communicating with a specialized ground system like a dish that can reorient itself. So on the ground you’ll be looking at a 45 degree arc, meaning you can use a satellite that’s within a 45-degree-wide cone above you.
- Lengthen the wavelength. Here simple physics come into play: generally, the shorter the wavelength, the less transparent the atmosphere is to it. So you want to use bands on the long (lower Hz) side of the radio spectrum to make sure you maximize propagation.
Having adjusted for these things, an ordinary phone can contact and trade information with a satellite with its standard wireless chip and power budget. But there’s one more obstacle, one Ubiquitilink spent a great deal of time figuring out.
Although a phone and satellite can reach one another reliably, a delay and Doppler shift in the signal due to the speeds and distances involved are inescapable. Turns out the software that runs towers and wireless chips isn’t suited for this; the timings built into the code assume the distance will be less than 30 km, since the curvature of the Earth generally prevents transmitting farther than that.
So Ubiquitilink modified the standard wireless stacks to account for this, something Miller said no one else had done.
“After my guys came back and told me they’d done this, I said, ‘well let’s go validate it,’ ” he told me. “We went to NASA and JPL and asked what they thought. Everybody’s gut reaction was ‘well, this won’t work,’ but then afterwards they just said ‘well, it works.’ ”
The theory became a reality earlier this year after Ubiquitilink launched their prototype satellites. They successfully made a two-way 2G connection between an ordinary ground device and the satellite, proving that the signal not only gets there and back, but that its Doppler and delay distortions can be rectified on the fly.
“Our first tests demonstrated that we offset the Doppler shift and time delay. Everything else is leveraging commercial software,” Miller said, though he quickly added: “To be clear, there’s plenty more work to be done, but it isn’t anything that’s new technology. It’s good solid hardcore engineering, building nanosats and that sort of thing.”
Since his previous company was Nanoracks and he’s been in the business for decades, he’s qualified to be confident on this part. It’ll be a lot of work and a lot of money, but they should be launching their first real satellites this summer. (And it’s all patented, he noted.)
The way the business will work is remarkably simple given the complexity of the product. Because the satellites operate on modified but mostly ordinary off-the-shelf software and connect to phones with no modifications necessary, Ubiquitilink will essentially work as a worldwide roaming operator that mobile networks will pay to access. (Disclosure: Verizon, obviously a mobile network, owns TechCrunch, and for all I know will use this tech eventually. It’s not involved with any editorial decisions.)
Normally, if you’re a subscriber of network X, and you’re visiting a country where X has no coverage, X will have an agreement with network Y, which connects you for a fee. There are hundreds of these deals in play at any given time, and Ubiquitilink would just be one more — except its coverage will eventually be global. Maybe you can’t reach X or Y; you’ll always be able to reach U.
The speeds and services available will depend on what mobile networks want. Not everyone wants or needs the same thing, of course, and a 3G fallback might be practical where an LTE connection is less so. But the common denominator will be data enough to send and receive text at the least.
It’s worth noting also that this connection will be in some crucial ways indistinguishable from other connections: it won’t affect encryption, for instance.
This will of course necessitate at least a thousand satellites, by Miller’s count. But in the meantime, limited service will also be available in the form of timed passes — you’ll have no signal for 55 minutes, then signal for five, during which you can send and receive what may be a critical text or location. This is envisioned as a specialty service at first, then as more satellites join the constellation, that window expands until it’s 24/7 and across the whole face of the planet, and it becomes a normal consumer good.
While your network provider will probably charge you the usual arm and leg for global roaming on demand (it’s their prerogative), there are some services Ubiquitilink will provide for free; the value of a global communication system is not lost on Miller.
“Nobody should ever die because the phone in their pocket doesn’t have signal,” he said. “If you break down in the middle of Death Valley you should be able to text 911. Our vision is this is a universal service for emergency responders and global E-911 texting. We’re not going to charge for that.”
An emergency broadcast system when networks are down is also being planned — power outages following disasters are times when people are likely to panic or be struck by a follow-up disaster like a tsunami or flooding, and reliable communications at those times could save thousands and vastly improve recovery efforts.
“We don’t want to make money off saving people’s lives, that’s just a benefit of implementing this system, and the way it should be,” Miller said.
It’s a whole lot of promises, but the team and the tech seem capable of backing them up. Initial testing is complete and birds are in the air — now it’s a matter of launching the next thousand or so.
Apple’s App Privacy Report launches into beta to show you what your apps are up to – TechCrunch
Apple has now launched a beta version of its “App Privacy Report,” a new feature that aims to provide iOS users with details about how often their everyday apps are requesting access to sensitive information, and where that information is being shared. The feature was first introduced at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June, amid other privacy-focused improvements, including tools to block tracking pixels in emails, a private VPN, and more. Apple explained at the time the new report would include details about an app’s access to user data and sensors, including the user’s location, photos, contacts, and more, as well as a list of domains that the app contacts.
Though announced as a part of the iOS 15 update, the App Privacy Report was not available when the new version of iOS rolled out earlier this fall. It’s still not accessible to the general public but has entered into a wider beta test with the release of the iOS 15.2 and iPadOS 15.2 betas.
The new report goes beyond the potentially fallible App Privacy labels, which detail what sort of sensitive data an app collects and how it’s used. Developers may not always fill out their labels accurately — either by mistake or with a desire to mislead end users — and Apple’s App Review team may not always catch those ommissions.
Instead, the new App Privacy Report works to collect information about how apps are behaving more directly.
When enabled by users in their device’s Privacy Settings, the App Privacy Report will create a list of their apps’ activity over the past seven days. You can then tap on any app to see further details about when the app last accessed sensitive data or one of the device’s sensors — like the microphone or location, for example. This information is available in a list where each access is logged with a timestamp.
In another section, “App Network Activity,” users will be able to see a list of domains apps have communicated with over the past seven days. This list could include domains used by the app itself to provide its functionality, but will also reveal those from third-party trackers and analytics providers the app works with for analytics and advertising purposes, for example.
The “Website Network Activity” offers a similar list, but focuses on websites that contacted domains, some of which may have been provided by an app. You can also view the most contacted domains and drill down into individual domains to see which trackers and analytics they may be using as well as which apps have been contacting them, and when.
Ahead of the beta launch, Apple made a feature called “Record App Activity” available, which allowed developers to preview what users would see when the App Privacy Report became available. This option produced a JSON file where they could confirm their app was behaving as expected. Already, this feature produced some interesting findings. For instance, Chinese super app WeChat was found to be scanning users’ phones for new photos every few hours.
While the App Privacy Report will put into users’ hands a treasure trove of data, it could present complications for developers who may have to now explain to users that some of these data requests are not truly privacy violations — they’re about providing the promised app functionality. A weather app, for example, may need to pull a users’ location on a regular basis if the user has requested push notifications about changing weather patterns, like storm updates, to help them prepare for travel.
When presenting the app to developers, Apple said the report would give them an opportunity to “build trust” with users by providing transparency about what their app is doing. The company also suggested it could give the developers themselves better insight into the SDKs they’ve chosen to install, to ensure their behavior aligns with what the developer wants and expects.
Apple has not said when the new feature may exit beta, but it’s possible it will ship when iOS 15.2 becomes publicly available.
Bolt to expand EV option in South Africa – TechCrunch
Estonian on-demand transport firm Bolt is set to roll out electric taxi options in South Africa four months after introducing e-bike food delivery services in the country.
Bolt’s plan follows the introduction of a ‘green category’ – which lets riders hail an electric or a hybrid vehicle. This comes as the company expands its services to environmentally friendly modes of transport.
“We are looking to roll out a green taxi category in South Africa in the next few months, and plan to roll out green categories in other African markets,” said Bolt’s regional director for Africa and Middle East, Paddy Partridge.
The company already offers a green option in Kenya, where it also runs e-bike food delivery. It also plans to launch e-mobility options for food delivery in its other markets across East Africa, including Uganda and Tanzania.
Founded in 2013 by Markus Villig, the tech firm, which has operations in 45 countries – including seven in Africa – runs a gamut of services comprising ride-hailing, car, scooter and bike rentals, food delivery, and recently grocery delivery, fashioning itself as a transport and deliveries company.
“In East Africa we see a lot of potential on the motorbike side, and especially for delivery. We plan to invest more in this direction as it also serves to eliminate the challenges associated with constantly fluctuating fuel prices, currently the most significant operating cost for our couriers,” said Partridge.
Opportunities for electric mobility are said to be huge, but a majority of countries lack the necessary infrastructure to support their adoption, says a UNEP report.
A lack of recharging infrastructure, low grid power connectivity, and generally expensive e-vehicles remain hindrances to the adoption of electric transportation options in many African countries.
A transition to electric power would offer countries in sub-Saharan Africa a range of gains, including affordable transport and a reduction in emissions, with fossil-fuel vehicles contributing 12% of the region’s total emissions, according to the SSA Nature Sustainability report.
Bolt is planning arrangements with banking institutions in its markets in Africa to help its drivers access credit for purchasing electric vehicles, exploring other options away from its current scheme with leasing companies.
“The purchase cost and import duties are often high, thereby deterring ownership. We are exploring a number of vehicle financing partnerships in Kenya and South Africa for electric cars and bikes, which would help make it easier for drivers to get access to, and eventually own, electric vehicles,” he said.
The company’s plan to expand its offering across the continent comes in the wake of growing competition from companies such as Uber, which is currently testing a carpooling service in Nairobi, with plans to roll it out in Ghana and Nigeria.
Bolt recently launched the food delivery service in Nigeria, and also expanded its reach in South Africa by rolling out the service in Johannesburg after introducing it in Cape Town last year.
This comes in the wake of the company’s recent $696 million (€600M) funding round that the tech firm said will go into growing the new grocery delivery service, Bolt Market, as well as in expanding its other transport and delivery services.
Sequoia Capital, Tekne Capital, and Ghisallo, G Squared, D1 Capital, and Naya Capital are some of the investors that participated in the funding round that increased its valuation to €4 billion. The new funding came after the International Finance Corporation injected $24 million (€20) into the business at the beginning of the year.
Among the services it is looking to grow is Bolt Drive, the car rental service launched early this year to offer different choices including compact, mid-size, electric, premium, SUV, and van. The service is currently available in Estonia’s capital Tallin with plans to roll it out in other Europe and Africa markets. Bolt Drive adds to the micro-mobility options – scooters and e-bikes – that the company introduced in line with its goal of availing to the masses, more budget environmentally friendly transport solutions. The e-mobility service is available in over 100 cities across Europe.
“We continue to scale up our operations for the benefit of our customers. Our core business is to provide reliable, safe and affordable transportation services to everyone and we are excited to make travel easier and quicker in many cities across the continent,” said Partridge.
Google announces Android 12L, a feature drop for large-screen devices – TechCrunch
Google today announced a preview of Android 12L, which sounds like a new version of Android, but Google calls it “a special feature drop that makes Android 12 even better on large screens.”
The idea here is to provide users on tablets, foldables and Chrome OS laptops — anything with a screen above 600 dp — with an improved user interface.
The developer preview of Android 12L is now available for developers who want to give it a try, as well as a new Android 12L emulator and support for it in Android Studio.
But 12L is also for phones, Google says, confusing no one. Since you won’t really see most of the new features there, though, the focus right now is on other devices, with beta enrollments for Pixel devices launching later in the preview.
Since Google calls it a ‘feature drop’ and ‘feature update’ in its announcement today, we’re not looking at a full fork of Android for these devices the way Apple split up iOS and iPadOS. Instead, it’s an update for large-screen devices that introduces additional multitasking tools and an optimized user interface. By default, Android 12L should also make apps look better on these devices, too.
Specifically, this means Google refined how notifications, quick settings, lock screen, overview and the home screen look on large screens. System apps on Android 12L have also been optimized, too.
What’s probably most interesting here is the new multitasking features, with a new taskbar that is a bit reminiscent of iPadOS. Android already supported split-screen mode on tablets, but Google notes that it’s now more discoverable. You simply drag and drop an icon from the taskbar onto the screen to invoke it. This also means every app on Android is now enabled to support split-screen mode (something that developer previously had to opt-in to).
Google plans to release 12L early next year, “in time for the next wave of Android 12 tablets and foldable.” We should probably expect to hear a lot about Android tablets and foldable at MWC then.
In addition to Android 12L, Google also today announced new features in OS and Play for developers to better support these devices. These include updates to its Material Design guidance for large-screen devices, but also updates to Jetpack Compose to make it easier to build for these machines and to ensure that apps can more easily adapt to various screen orientations and sizes. Android Studio is also getting a resizable emulator to help developers test their apps on a wider variety of screen sizes and a new visual linting tool to surface UI warnings and suggestions when the layout has issues.
As for Google Play, the company will now check apps against its large screen app quality guidelines and its search rankings will take the results of this into account. “For apps that are not optimized for large screens, we’ll start warning large screen users with a notice on the app’s Play Store listing page,” Google says.
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