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EXPLAINER: Could balloons power uncensored internet in Cuba?

Associated Press

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Balloon Internet-Cuba-Explainer

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, called this week on the administration of President Joe Biden to greenlight a plan to transmit the internet to people in Cuba via high-altitude balloons when their government has blocked access.

CAN INTERNET BE DELIVERED BY BALLOON?

Yes. For years, Alphabet — the parent company of Google — worked to perfect an internet-balloon division service called Loon. It shut down that project in January, saying it wasn’t commercially viable.

Prior to the shutdown, Loon balloons had been providing service in mountainous areas in Kenya through a partnership with a local telecom, Telkom Kenya. The service also helped provide wireless communications in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed the island’s mobile network. Loon partnered with AT&T to make service available.

HOW DOES THAT WORK?

The Loon balloons were effectively cell towers the size of a tennis court. They floated 60,000 to 75,000 feet, or 11 to 14 miles (18,000- 23,000 meters, or 18-22 kilometers), above the Earth, well above commercial jetliner routes. Made of the commonplace plastic polyethylene, the balloons used solar panels for electricity and could deliver service to smartphones in partnership with a local telecom.

Each balloon could serve thousands of people, the company said. But they had to be replaced every five months or so because of the harsh conditions in the stratosphere. And the balloons could be difficult to control. “Navigating balloons through the stratosphere has always been hard,” wrote Salvatore Candido, who had been chief technology officer for Loon, in a December 2020 blog post. The company created algorithms that tracked wind patterns.

WHAT EQUIPMENT WAS REQUIRED?

Loon had said that beyond the balloons themselves, it needed network integration with a telecom to provide service and some equipment on the ground in the region. It also needed permission from local regulators — something that the Cuban government isn’t likely to grant.

COULD A NETWORK BE SET UP FROM AFAR?

Yes. Loon used multiple balloons to extend connections beyond the necessary ground link. In one 2018 test, Loon said the connection jumped 1,000 kilometers, or about 620 miles, over 7 balloons. Another time, it bridged a wireless connection over 600 kilometers, or about 370 miles, between two balloons. Cuba and Florida are only about 100 miles (160 kilometers) apart at their closest.

IS THAT FEASIBLE?

But experts aren’t sure it would be that easy to set up a guerrilla internet service for Cuba this way. It would need an unused band of spectrum, or radio frequencies, to transmit a connection to Cuba, and spectrum use is typically controlled by national governments. Anyone trying this would have to find a free block of spectrum that wouldn’t be interfered with, said Jacob Sharony, of Mobius Consulting, a mobile and wireless consulting firm.

Balloon- or drone-powered networks aren’t likely to be economical over the long term, said Tim Farrar of TMF Associates, a satellite communications consultant. While they’re suitable for bridging communications amid disasters or in war zones, the transmission capabilities of such networks isn’t large — “certainly not enough to serve the entire population of Cuba or anything like that,” Farrar said.

Another challenge: The Cuban government could also try to jam the signal.

WHO IS INVOLVED IN THE CUBA EFFORT?

DeSantis promoted the balloon idea Thursday alongside two Cuban-American members of Congress from the Miami area, Reps. Maria Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr and Cuban-American lawyer, businessman and museum director Marcell Felipe.

Felipe said he has been talking for about two years with a defense contractor who could deploy such balloons in a cost-effective way in airspace near Cuba, but declined to name the company. Felipe said his idea would involve transmitting internet connectivity directly to mobile phones on the island without the participation of any ground provider. In comments to The Associated Press, Felipe claimed it wouldn’t be feasible for the Cuban government to block these balloon-delivered signals “in any significant manner,” though he didn’t cite any evidence.

None of the supporters provided a cost estimate. Salazar said that if the federal government endorsed the plan, she believes it could be funded entirely with contributions from members of the Cuban diaspora if necessary.

WHAT IS INTERNET ACCESS LIKE IN CUBA?

Internet access in Cuba has been expensive and relatively rare until recently. Starting in December 2018, Cubans could get internet access on their phones through the state telecom monopoly. More than half of Cubans today have internet access.

But the Cuban government restricts independent media and censors what’s available to Cubans online, according to Human Rights Watch. It disrupts internet access in an attempt to head off protests.

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What to expect from Facebook’s smart glasses

Rim Zrein

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Facebook

During Facebook’s recent earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg confirmed the company’s next hardware release will debut the tech giant’s collaboration with Ray-Ban eyewear on a pair of augmented reality glasses. 

The long-awaited Ray-Ban “smart glasses” were supposed to launch in 2021. However, as a steep plunge in COVID-19 cases forced most of the world into a lockdown, a lot of tech firm’s plans changed. 

“Looking ahead here, the next product release will be the launch of our first smart glasses from Ray-Ban in partnership with EssilorLuxottica,” Facebook head and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. “The glasses have their iconic form factor, and they let you do some pretty neat things.”  

The “neat things” Zuckerberg is talking about remains a mystery. However, the smart glasses concept came up while Zuckerberg was describing his outlook on Facebook’s future, which includes a virtual reality unlike no other

“I’m excited to get these into people’s hands and to continue to make progress on the journey towards full augmented reality glasses in the future,” Zuckerberg expressed. 

Considering Zuckerberg’s comments on the release didn’t satisfy tech fan’s curiosity, CNET spoke with Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s head of AR/VR hardware, who explained that they’re indeed smart glasses, but not AR glasses as Facebook has said so far. 

“We’re being careful not to call them augmented reality glasses. When you’re overlaying digital artifacts onto the world, that’s really augmented reality. These aren’t augmented reality glasses. However, they do a lot of the concepts we think will eventually be critical for augmented reality glasses,” Bosworth said. 

The features of the smart glasses aren’t all unique. However, as much as it’s ironic to state, Bosworth made it clear that one of the things Facebook is looking at for all their AR, starting with the smart glasses, is how can they help users be more present. 

This isn’t the first attempt a major tech company produces smart glasses, as Google did quite a stir back in 2014 following the release of “Google Glass,” which was a bold move, but failed nonetheless.  

The idea seemed exciting, but eventually transformed into an online meme. Besides, many weren’t keen with the idea of having a tech tool constantly emitting radiations at face level. 

The road to actual AR glasses could take more time than anticipated, while other tech giants hunt after similar goals.  

The Ray-Ban glasses coming this year will be a steppingstone into Zuckerberg’s “metaverse” vision for Facebook, but they likely won’t do as much as we’d like to believe. 

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Facebook profits top $10B as its CEO exalts the ‘metaverse’

Associated Press

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Facebook profits top $10B as its CEO exalts the 'metaverse'

Concerns about a revenue growth slowdown pushed Facebook’s shares lower in after-hours trading Wednesday, not long after the company reported that its second-quarter profits doubled thanks to a massive increase in advertising revenue.

But CEO Mark Zuckerberg set his sights far beyond the second half of 2021, exalting what he sees as the next phase of how people experience the internet. What the rest of the world might know as augmented and virtual reality with a dash of science fiction, Zuckerberg and others are calling “the metaverse,” a futuristic and somewhat vague notion that encompasses AR, VR and new, yet-to-be-imagined ways of connecting to one another via technology.

Zuckerberg expects the metaverse to be the next big thing after the mobile internet, although he’s had a spotty track record when it comes to predicting major trends of the near future. At Facebook’s f8 conference four years ago, for instance, Zuckerberg predicted a future where you will sit in your bedroom wearing a headset and take a virtual vacation with faraway friends and family, or use your smartphone’s camera to virtually spruce up your dinky apartment.

So far, this has not materialized. Then there’s Libra — now known as Diem — a cryptocurrency project Facebook launched in 2019 amid great fanfare. At the time, Facebook envisioned Libra as an emerging global digital currency; its ambitions have since been scaled back considerably amid regulatory and commercial backlash.

In a conference call with analysts, Zuckerberg called the metaverse the “next generation of the internet and next chapter for us as a company,” one that he said will create “entirely new experiences and economic opportunities.”

For now, though, Facebook still has to contend with more mundane matters such as antitrust crackdowns in the U.S. and elsewhere as well as concerns about how it handles vaccine-related and political misinformation on its platform. The company said, as it has before, that it expects challenges in its ability to target ads this year — including regulatory pressure and Apple’s privacy changes that make it harder for companies like Facebook to track people who can opt out of that form of surveillance.

Although the social network doubled its profit in the second quarter, in part because of higher average prices it charged for the ads it delivers to its nearly 3 billion users. But the company said it doesn’t expect revenue to continue to grow at such a breakneck pace in the second half of the year.

“This quarter’s results are extremely strong and show little sign of impact from Apple’s iOS update as of yet,” said eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson, noting that in the year-ago quarter Facebook saw its slowest revenue growth since going public, so it was an easy comparison. “But it’s also due to the fact that there is enormous demand for Facebook and Instagram advertising, and more competition leads to higher ad prices.”

Separately, Facebook said on Wednesday that it will make vaccines mandatory for employees in the U.S. who work in offices. Exceptions will be made for medical and other reasons. Google announced a similar policy earlier in the day.

The Menlo Park, California-based company earned $10.39 billion, or $3.61 per share, in the April-June period. That’s up from $5.18 billion, or $1.80 per share, a year earlier. Revenue jumped 56% to $28.58 billion from $18.32 billion. Analysts, on average, were expecting earnings of $3.04 per share and revenue of $24.85 billion, according to a poll by FactSet.

Advertising revenue growth was driven by a 47% year-over-year increase in the average price per ad and a 6% increase in the number of ads shown to people. Facebook said it expects ad prices, not the amount of ads it delivers, to continue to drive growth.

The company predicted uncertainty for 2021 back in January, saying its revenue in the latter half of the year could face significant pressure. Because revenue grew so quickly in the second half of 2020, Facebook said at the time that it could have trouble keeping up that pace.

Williamson said the third quarter will be an important one for the company, “as the full effects of the Apple update take hold.”

“We will have a much better sense of how well Facebook has been able to adjust its core ad targeting products to manage the reduced amount of information it can tap into,” she said.

Facebook had 2.9 billion monthly users as of June, up 7% from a year earlier.

Shares fell $11.77, or 3.2%, to $373.28 in after-hours trading. Earlier in the day, the stock hit an all-time high of $377. 55 in anticipation of the results, so the decline wasn’t unexpected.

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Google requests privacy policy for Play store apps

Hala Turk

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Google announced on Wednesday that Android developers will be required to include a privacy policy with their apps starting April 2022.

This request is not new, as the Big Tech revealed earlier in May that developers must declare their safety information within a deadline between October and April.

However, Google decided this week to provide more details on the kind of data developers need to provide for the new mandatory policy.

The app policies will allow users to view safety and privacy guidelines before downloading the app, which will let them understand how their data is collected, protected, and used in advance.

The mandatory privacy policy covers all apps, including those that don’t collect personal or sensitive user data. Which is a new feature since previously only apps that collected personal information had to disclose their policies on the Play store.

The safety section on the Play Store will require app developers to disclose their security practices, including information on data encryption, whether an app follows Google’s families policy, and whether users will have a choice to share data.

The safety section is currently due to start appearing in app descriptions in the first quarter of 2022.

Google in a blog post disclosed screenshots of what the safety section might look like. Yet, the company said that the design is subject to change.

There’s also a “see details” option to get more specifics on what collected data is used for, and whether the collection is essential for using the app.

The company highlighted that all apps including Google’s own will be required to provide a privacy policy.

It’s worth mentioning that Apple has required a privacy policy for apps in the App Store since 2018.

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