Ubiquitilink advance means every phone is now a satellite phone – TechCrunch
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 TV+ announces new series ‘The Savant’ based on true story of a woman who infiltrates online hate groups
Apple TV+ is getting a new limited series, the company announced yesterday, that is based on a deep-cover investigator who infiltrates online hate groups to prevent violent attacks and mass shootings.
“The Savant” will have eight episodes and stars Jessica Chastain. The show is inspired by the true story published in 2019 by Cosmopolitan writer Andrea Stanley, who will consult on the Apple TV+ series.
A release date has yet to be announced.
Stanley’s article, “Is It Possible to Stop a Mass Shooting Before It Happens?” is one that will send chills down your spine. But that’s probably a familiar feeling by now. Many of us are already aware of the mass influx of hate speech on the internet.
“The chase of getting the bad guy? Oh, man, that feels good,” K, the anonymous investigator with the alias “The Savant,” told Stanley.
The nickname stems from K’s keen ability to track hateful men online and determine if/when they’ll go from trolling misogynists, white supremacists or other extremists hiding behind computer screens to violent, frightening murderers.
According to the article, K has reported tons of violent men to the FBI, such as Michael Finton, a 29-year-old who posted disturbing videos of Islamic extremists on Myspace and would later attempt to bomb the Paul Findley Federal Building in Springfield, Illinois.
Besides her profession, not much else is known about K, except that she joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school, has a degree in justice and public safety and studied rapists and murderers when she worked for a state-run agency that reinvestigates capital-murder cases. K eventually applied for a job with the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) to monitor online hate groups.
Apple didn’t share in its press release how similar the series will be to the Cosmopolitan story.
“The storyline and character details are being kept under wraps,” the company wrote in the announcement.
Online hate, misinformation and harassment have circulated the internet for quite some time. In 2018, the ADL found that 37% of Americans were subjected to extreme hate online.
And while the January 6 United States Capitol attack in 2021 urged tech companies like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to incite policies to identify and remove harmful content, reports continue to come out about major social media platforms failing to curb online hate.
Lately, Twitter CEO Elon Musk has been under fire after restoring problematic accounts, including Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin (@WorldWarWang), and his overall leniency toward toxic internet culture.
Earlier this month, YouTube updated its profanity rules, which are more relaxed about the use of strong language. The platform also unsuspended Trump’s YouTube channel.
Google gets antitrust attention in Spain over news licensing
Google can add another antitrust investigation to its stack. This one has been opened by Spain’s competition authority, the CNMC, which said today it’s concerned about possible anti-competitive practices related to the licensing of news content by local publishers.
In a press release it said it is investigating “a series of practices that could involve an abuse of Google’s dominant position vis-à-vis the publishers of press publications and news agencies established in Spain” [NB: We’ve translated the text from Spanish with machine translation].
“In particular, these practices would consist the possible imposition of unfair commercial conditions on the publishers of press publications and news agencies established in Spain for the exploitation of their content protected by intellectual property rights,” it also wrote. “On the other hand, the investigated behaviors would also include practices that would constitute acts of unfair competition that could distort free competition and affect the public interest.”
The competition authority said it is acting following a complaint by the Spanish Center for Reprographic Rights (aka, Centro Español de Derechos Reprográficos or CEDRO).
We’ve reached out to all concerned.
News licensing is an area where Google has faced severe sanction in Europe already. Back in July 2021, France’s antitrust authority fined the tech giant over half a billion dollars for breaching an order to negotiate copyright fees with news publishers for reuse of their content. That followed the EU a copyright reform, agreed back in 2019, that extended IP to snippets of news content — requiring platforms like Google to negotiate with publishers.
Spain transposed the EU reform into its national law in November 2021, paving the way for a return of Google News to the country.
Google’s news aggregation service had closed in Spain in 2014 after the country passed a law that aimed to force Google to pay a collective licensing fee for the news snippets. The EU copyright reform replaced the prior fee regime with a requirement to negotiate with individual publishers — and Google News duly reopened in Spain in June 2022.
At the same time, the company also announced it would launch its News Showcase product in the country. Google’s News Showcase product was spun up by the tech giant in fall 2020 as lawmakers in Europe and elsewhere were zeroing in on making it pay for news content reuse — creating a licensing vehicle it could use in the looming, inexorable negotiations with publishers.
It’s not immediately clear whether the Spanish probe will focus on Google’s News Showcase licensing arrangements or on copyright fees talks — or both.
While it remains to be seen what Spain’s investigation of Google’s news licensing practices will finally determine — the authority has up to 18 months to conduct the probe — it said its preliminary information-gathering phase found “indications of possible infringement”.
Germany’s antitrust authority, meanwhile, has already pushed back over Mountain View’s practices in this area after starting to scrutinize its news-related fine print in summer 2021. The regulatory attention on Google from the German FCO — which is currently armed with beefier powers to tackle Big Tech than other European countries (thanks to a 2021 update to competition law squarely targeted at digital giants) — has led to Google offering a series of concessions over how it operates News Showcase locally, including an offer not to include the showcasing of licensed content in general search results (which is one trigger for antitrust concerns).
The News Showcase product provides the prospect of raised visibility for participating publishers, since the offer is for Google to feature participants’ content to users across a number of touchpoints. However that could create a disadvantage for publishers who don’t pay Google (i.e. if it leads to their content being less visible in Google’s general Internet search, given its continued dominance of the Internet search and content discovery market).
Google has also sought to co-mingle negotiations with publishers over News Showcase with what are, under the pan-EU reform, legally required talks over copyright fees — something France’s watchdog slapped down in its hefty enforcement in mid 2021.
Disney cuts metaverse division as part of broader restructuring
Walt Disney Co. has eliminated its metaverse division as part of staff cuts that promise to reduce head count by around 7,000 across the company over the next two months, reports The Wall Street Journal.
CEO Bob Iger said Monday that those layoffs would begin this week. Disney’s next-generation storytelling and consumer experiences unit, the small division that was developing metaverse strategies, looks like it’s one of the first to go.
The metaverse division is headed by Mike White, who was promoted to the role from SVP of consumer experiences and platforms in February 2022 and charged with getting Disney deeper into the web3 space. The unit aimed to find ways to tell more interactive stories in immersive formats using Disney’s extensive library of intellectual property, according to WSJ. Aside from the Disney we all know and love, that extensive library includes Pixar, Marvel and all of the Star Wars movies and shows.
All 50 or so members of the team have lost their jobs, sources told WSJ. White will remain at the company, but it’s not clear in what capacity.
The company could not be reached for comment.
Disney’s former CEO, Bob Chapek, brought White on last year with the goal of creating “an entirely new paradigm for how audiences experience and engage with our stories,” according to an internal memo. Chapek also described the metaverse as “the next great storytelling frontier” and a “perfect place to pursue our strategic pillars of storytelling excellence, innovation and audience focus.”
The hiring of White and the creation of the new metaverse unit came a few months after Facebook rebranded to Meta in an attempt to identify with the futuristic technology into which CEO Mark Zuckerberg had been pouring billions of dollars.
Iger took over for Chapek in November and, despite recent developments, seems to be bullish on the metaverse. He invested in and joined the board of Genies Inc. last year, a startup that lets users create online avatars for use in metaverse applications.
The metaverse is still many years from going mainstream, which has frustrated many big tech companies that invested large sums on new entertainment formats. Despite Meta’s billions spent on the Oculus headset and building out the metaverse, there has been low user demand and general confusion among users about how to use the new technology for anything but gaming.
Last month, Disney said it would make $5.5 billion in cuts and cut 7,000 jobs as part of a broader restructuring. Like many other large conglomerates, Disney is feeling the pressure to bring costs down, and that often means cutting out expensive moonshot projects that aren’t bringing in any near-term revenue.
It’s not yet clear if Disney will continue to work on metaverse applications via other teams, since it’s a long-term bet. Zuckerberg has repeatedly asked investors to trust him, be patient and play the long game.
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