Edge Roundup: June 7 — June 13, 2021

Leigha Schjelderup

Leigha Schjelderup

Senate passes bill to boost domestic tech industry—Volkswagen subscription proposal raises questions about how much people are willing to pay for AVs—Facebook acquires Big Box VR game studioSenate passes bill to boost domestic tech industry—Volkswagen subscription proposal raises questions about how much people are willing to pay for AVs—Facebook acquires Big Box VR game studio

What better way to kick off Monday than with a healthy dose of tech industry news? In this Roundup we’re covering record breakthroughs, lawsuits, expansions, acquisitions, new ideas and inventions—so yeah, pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from a “normal” week. 

Let’s start with Capitol Hill developments, shall we? 

If the semiconductor crisis seems bad now, the fallout is going to be much, much worse. The United States is keen to lessen its dependence on foreign-manufactured chips to prevent a catastrophe from potential future industry disruptions. Last Tuesday, the Senate approved the US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) to bolster domestic tech industries including semiconductors, AI, and quantum computing in a bid to increase competitiveness with China. The bipartisan bill would allot $52 billion towards semiconductor manufacturing alone. Though still waiting on both House approval and the president’s sign off to be official, the initiative signals across-the-aisle resolve to defend the country’s position as a leader in technological innovation. 

“The premise is simple, if we want American workers and American companies to keep leading the world, the federal government must invest in science, basic research and innovation, just as we did decades after the Second World War. Whoever wins the race to the technologies of the future is going to be the global economic leader with profound consequences for foreign policy and national security as well.” —Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Speaking of industry leaders, there’s arguably no other social media app that’s captured the hearts and minds (and personal data?) of Gen Z better than TikTok. While the Trump administration attempted to ban the app, Biden’s team dropped the order in favor of establishing an “evidence-based” review process of applications made or controlled by China.

“What the Biden administration wants to do is maintain an open, secure internet that doesn’t take a page from Beijing’s playbook, while addressing legitimate risk.” —Samm Sacks, Fellow at  Paul Tsai China Center, Yale Law School

We’ve yet to see what this “evidence-based” approach will look like, but until then, the US’ 80 million TikTok users can rest easy knowing that their freedom to—well, do whatever it is they do on the app—won’t be going away anytime soon. 

5G 

It’s been six months since Verizon shelled out $52.9 billion for 161 MHz of C-band, and we’re just getting details of the telco’s plan on putting it to work. It looks like the rollout will be delayed until 2023, given that the satellites currently holding on to the spectrum have a ways to go before they can phase it out of existing operations. Still, CEO Hans Vestberg asserts that the company is “on track with all the deployments that we committed for the year.” Looks like the 10 million who purchased the carrier's C-band capable smartphones will have to hold out for a while longer before they can actually put it to the test. 

UScellular, Nokia, and Qualcomm recently made a breakthrough in increasing the range of mmWave 5G—now reaching distances of up to 10 km. The trial took place in Grand Island, Nebraska, using Nokia’s AirScale mmWave Radio and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon modem. 

“These results demonstrate what 5G mmWave will bring to consumers, enterprises and industries. By extending the distance for 5G mmWave technology without sacrificing speed or latency, we will deliver an incredible 5G experience to even more areas.” —Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks, Nokia

Trials like these have promising implications for enabling fast and reliable internet connections for rural communities. So far, fixed Wireless Access is looking like their best bet. 

Tyler Hayes put T-Mobile’s new home internet offering to the test for Newsweek, coming to the conclusion that its performance—speedy, but with patchy connectivity—was “ultimately just fine.”

Unfortunately for internet subscribers in the US, “just fine” is often a significant step up from incumbent offerings. Though the review determined that T-Mobile’s speedy download speeds were semi-inconsistent, the $60 a month price tag justifies making the jump for households willing to be flexible with their connectivity...or those who don’t have any other choice. 

Battle Over Broadband

The mission to lower broadband prices for low-income households in New York just got shut down by a district court judge, who ruled that the law forcing ISPs to offer $15 per month plans undermined federal policy:

"In reclassifying broadband Internet as a Title I information service, the FCC made the affirmative decision not to treat it as a common carrier. The FCC's affirmative decision is different from an abdication of jurisdiction writ large, even though Title I may not confer as expansive of powers as, say, Title II and its grant to impose common-carrier obligations." 

Meanwhile, 2.31 million have signed up for the federal broadband subsidy program just three weeks after it came into effect. But it’s up in the air what will happen once the money runs out. There’s only so much money that can be thrown at the problem before a more sustainable long-term fix becomes imperative. 

That wasn’t the only legal drama this week, however. Universal, Sony, and Warner together sued Frontier Communications in a New York district court on the grounds that the ISP failed to address thousands of copyright infringement notices. The action was right off the heels of an appeal was filed against a billion-dollar judgement against Cox Communications in 2019.

"In going after Internet service providers for the actions of just a few of their users, Sony Music, other major record labels, and music publishing companies have found a way to cut people off of the Internet based on mere accusations of copyright infringement. When these music companies sued Cox Communications, an ISP, the court got the law wrong. It effectively decided that the only way for an ISP to avoid being liable for infringement by its users is to terminate a household or business's account after a small number of accusations—perhaps only two. The court also allowed a damages formula that can lead to nearly unlimited damages, with no relationship to any actual harm suffered. If not overturned, this decision will lead to an untold number of people losing vital Internet access as ISPs start to cut off more and more customers to avoid massive damages."— Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) blog post

Google is massively extending its fiber footprint, announcing that it is building its longest line yet—an undersea cable connecting the US with Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina dubbed “Firmina.” 

"Firmina will improve access to Google services for users in South America. With 12 fiber pairs, the cable will carry traffic quickly and securely between North and South America, giving users fast, low-latency access to Google products such as Search, Gmail and YouTube, as well as Google Cloud services.” —Google statement

With only one existing data center in the region in Santiago, Chile, Firmina will be the first connecting the continent with the East Coast.

Gaming & VR

Microsoft is also planning a global expansion, but for its cloud gaming service. By the end of this year, Japan and Australia will have access to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, a subscription service that enables users to either download or stream over one hundred games on the cloud. The rollout in Japan will line up with the launch of new Microsoft data centers in the country, with full-scale service ready to roll by the end of this year. 

This development places Microsoft in competition with Sony, who’s PlayStation Now offering has been available since 2014. 

Improving the gaming experience for internet subscribers is a huge interest for ISP’s, and  partnerships can take a variety of forms. RCN, Grande Communications, Wave Broadband and enTouch have launched a WiFi 6 router from Netgear specifically targeted at online gamers. The premium offering will tack an additional $12.95 to subscriber’s internet bill per month, but promises gamers a low-latency experience. 

Another example is Blacknut’s partnership with POST Luxembourg, who just became the world’s first mobile operator to enable cloud gaming services on Apple iPhones and iPads through Blacknut’s prgoressive web app. This development builds off the two’s existing 5G cloud gaming offering—delivering over 500 games to subscribers on a variety of supported devices. 

“Apple’s stance on native cloud gaming apps has been well publicised, preventing gamers from accessing streaming services through the normal app channels. No mobile operator wants to launch a service that doesn’t include as many subscribers as possible, so it was important we find a solution. Now, iPhone users can join in the fun and experience cloud gaming the way it should be.“ —Olivier Avaro, CEO, Blacknut.

Facebook continues to sweep the VR space with acquisitions, and the latest to join the Oculus fray is Seattle-based BigBox VR: maker of the Fortnite-esque battle royal VR game Population: One. Big Box claims the deal will enable them to keep on doing what they’re already doing, “just bigger and better.” A top performer on the Oculus Platform since it entered the scene nine months ago, Pop: One nods to the social potential of VR, with players scheduling to play synchronously. In a blog post explaining the acquisition, Facebook Reality Labs VP of Content underlines this direction as a strategic imperative: 

“For many of us, our “ah-ha” VR moment was in a multiplayer experience. There’s something magical about interacting with geographically distant people in the same virtual space, whether you’re handing off objects, engaging in friendly competition, or simply catching up. We believe that these powerful social connections are paramount to accelerating the growth of VR, and we continue to invest in content and teams that share this perspective.” —Mike Verdu, VP of Content, Facebook Reality Labs

Drones & Autonomous vehicles

Chatter from the Volkswagen boardroom suggests that the German automater is considering a subscription model for its autonomous driving features—to the tune of $8.50 an hour, potentially. While I’m certain there’s instances where many of us would happily shell out that kind of cash for a break behind the wheel, that rate isn’t feasible for many when the hours start to stack up. To put things in perspective, $8.50 is over federal minimum wage. Even if the initial cost of the vehicles could be more affordable because of this pricing scheme (compared to the premium charged Tesla, for instance), the general consumer is wary enough of autonomous offerings that the concept of paying to have full use of a car you actually own is too tough to swallow. 

For others, however, the idea of accessing L4/L5 autonomy for a built in DD, valet, etc. is worth it. 

After experiencing a surge in cases, Malaysia is doubling down on its Covid prevention measures with drones, using the tech to detect high temperatures in public spaces and monitor compliance with travel restrictions. Italy’s done it, and China too—which actually went as far as equipping drones with megaphones to chastise passersby for not following safety guidelines. 

AI & IoT

“Narrow AI” is the term applied to autonomizing mammalian functions, be it vision or voice recognition or what have you. But what if developers took a different approach—instead of replicating the “mechanics” of intelligence, why not equipt AI with the same incentives systems that power problem-solving in natural beings? That’s the approach of researchers at UK-based AI lab DeepMind:

“The natural world faced by animals and humans, and presumably also the environments faced in the future by artificial agents, are inherently so complex that they require sophisticated abilities in order to succeed (for example, to survive) within those environments. Thus, success, as measured by maximising reward, demands a variety of abilities associated with intelligence. In such environments, any behaviour that maximises reward must necessarily exhibit those abilities. In this sense, the generic objective of reward maximization contains within it many or possibly even all the goals of intelligence.” —Silver et al., ”Reward is Enough”, Artificial Intelligence

Check out the article in full via VentureBeat for a more comprehensive dive into the theory which—seemingly endemic to AI in general—is simultaneously tantalizing and terrifying.

Sometimes the most promising innovations are the remarkably obvious ones. Such is the case for the “Fingerbot Plus,” a simple machine debuted on Kickstarter that essentially acts as a pseudo-finger to make regular household devices “smart.” Simply affix the device onto a light switch, coffee maker, washing machine, etc. et voila—you can automate anything. With each device costing $25, Fingerbot is marketed as cheaper and more simple than replacing home products with their “smarter” counterparts. 

Even if that just means making sure your Slack is always active...

There you have it—another Roundup, wrapped. Hope you all have a great week (better than Fastly’s, at the very least)!