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Virus keeps Black Friday crowds thin, shoppers shift online

Inside Telecom Staff

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Black Friday

The raging coronavirus pandemic kept crowds thin at malls and stores across the country on Black Friday, but a surge in online shopping offered a beacon of hope for struggling retailers after months of slumping sales and businesses toppling into bankruptcy.

In normal times, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, drawing millions of people eager to get started on their holiday spending.

But these are not normal times: A spike in coronavirus cases is threatening the economy’s fitful recovery from the sudden plunge in the spring. Crowds at stores were dramatically diminished as shoppers shifted online.

Game consoles, cookware, robotic vacuum cleaners, slippers and pajamas were popular among shoppers preparing to spend a lot of time indoors this winter. Many were still eager to get into the holiday spirit and delight their loved ones after a tough year.

Eric Kelly, a boxing gym owner, camped outside a store on Black Friday for the first time in his life, trying to score a PlayStation 5 for his 13-year-old twin sons as a reward for persevering through remote learning during the pandemic.

“They’ve been away from their friends,” said Kelly, who failed to get the console at a GameStop in New York City’s Union Square but said he would keep trying online. “They’ve done everything they had to do in school and outside of school, so I have to award them for being exceptional kids.”

Before Black Friday, GameStop teased that it would have a limited supply of the new $500 PlayStation 5 game console for sale only at its stores, in contrast to other retailers that sold it only online.

Kelly said “people were on top of each other” in the line. At a Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, New Jersey, police monitored a crowd outside a GameStop, but few people kept their distance.

GameStop said it was taking several safety precautions, including contactless pickup.

Many retailers beefed up their safety protocols to reassure wary customers about coming in on Black Friday. But stores also catered to those shopping digitally by moving their doorbuster deals online and ramping up curbside pickup options.

“We have been intentional to try to not create the frenzy, the doorbusters, the long lines and the crowds you typically see on a Black Friday, ” said Stephen Lebovitz, CEO of CBL, which operates about 100 malls and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November.

Several hundred shoppers lined up ahead of opening at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, which normally attracts several thousand on Black Friday. The mall spread out the Black Friday deals over eight days, and many retail tenants pivoted more to online and curbside pickup, said Jill Renslow, Mall of America’s senior vice president of business development.

“It feels good, and it’s the right thing to do to keep everybody safe,” Renslow said “Everyone is shopping a little differently but that’s OK.”

Only a trickle of shoppers showed up at Macy’s Herald Square in New York an hour after it opened, offering 50% off handbags and 60% off women’s and men’s coats. Workers sanitized door knobs and windows.

A Christmas tree towered over the largely empty streets around The Domain, the most popular outdoor mall in Austin, Texas. Store employees counted masked shoppers trickling in to stay within the state’s 75% capacity limit.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled shopping in crowded stores during the holidays a “higher risk” activity and says people should limit any in-person shopping.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, predicted that shoppers will be looking for reasons to celebrate. The trade group expects sales for the November and December period to increase between 3.6% and 5.2% over 2019, compared with a 4% increase the year before. Holiday sales have averaged gains of 3.5% over the past five years.

“We think there’s going to be a psychological factor that they owe it to themselves and their families to have a better-than-normal holiday,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.

Thanksgiving Day hit a new record online as spending reached $5.1 billion, up 21.5% compared to a year ago, according to Adobe Analytics, which measures sales at 80 of the top 100 U.S. online retailers. Among the most popular items were Lego sets, Barbie toys, and kid scooters, HP laptops, and Apple Watches, according to Adobe. The popularity of Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit” has boosted sales for chess-related items.

Walmart, which spread out its Black Friday deals over several weekends, said its most popular deals included this year’s new gaming consoles, wireless headphones, home appliances like the Edufy Robotic Vacuum.

Black Friday is projected to generate $10 billion in online sales, a 39% bump from the year ago period, according to Adobe. And Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, will remain the biggest online shopping day of the year with $12.7 billion in sales, a 35% jump.

Big box stores like Walmart and Target, which were allowed to stay open during the spring lockdowns, have enjoyed further gains from ramping up their online services, analysts say.

But stores deemed non-essential that were forced to close have struggled to recover. More than 40 chains, including J.C. Penney and J.Crew, filed for bankruptcy.

“Is there going to be a surge in apparel gifting, footwear gifting to help out any of the specialty retailers and do they have the digital presence to actually capture the attention of the consumers?” said Sonia Lapinsky, managing director in AlixPartners’ retail practice. “That remains to be seen, and I think it will be more on the grim side.”

There are also fewer deals to be had this year. Non-essential retailers were forced to halt production at the onset of the pandemic, leading to lower inventory. As a result, holiday promotions are tracking below last year’s levels for clothing, consumer electronics, power and hand tools and home goods, according to Numerator, a market research firm.

Erika Mendez usually heads to the mall every Black Friday to shop at clothing brands Zara, H&M or Forever 21. But this year, the New Jersey journalist student ended up shopping on Amazon, scoring a Nike track suit for 25% off, as well as Nike sneakers that were 20% off.

“It’s just easier ordering online than going out,” says Mendez.

And Black Friday was the last thing on the minds of some hurt the most by the pandemic. At a popular shopping area in St. Petersburg, Florida, several storefronts were empty, and the only line was at a plasma donation center.

Leonard Chester, 58, said he hoped to get at least $55 for the donation, saying that he needed to eat. When reminded that it was Black Friday, he let out a laugh and pointed to the line around him.

“This says that people are hurting. The economy’s bad,” said Chester, who was laid off from his job as a bouncer at a strip club two months ago.


NEW YORK (AP) — By ALEXANDRA OLSON, ANNE D’INNOCENZIO and JOSEPH PISANI AP Retail Writers
AP Staff Writers Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida, Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas, and Desiree Mathurin in New York contributed to this report.

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Iran, pressured by blackouts and pollution, targets Bitcoin

Inside Telecom Staff

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Iran, pressured by blackouts and pollution, targets Bitcoin

Iran’s capital and major cities plunged into darkness in recent weeks as rolling outages left millions without electricity for hours. Traffic lights died. Offices went dark. Online classes stopped.

With toxic smog blanketing Tehran skies and the country buckling under the pandemic and other mounting crises, social media has been rife with speculation. Soon, fingers pointed at an unlikely culprit: Bitcoin.

Within days, as frustration spread among residents, the government launched a wide-ranging crackdown on Bitcoin processing centers, which require immense amounts of electricity to power their specialized computers and to keep them cool — a burden on Iran’s power grid.

Authorities shuttered 1,600 centers across the country, including, for the first time, those legally authorized to operate. As the latest in a series of conflicting government moves, the clampdown stirred confusion in the crypto industry — and suspicion that Bitcoin had become a useful scapegoat for the nation’s deeper-rooted problems.

Since former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, cryptocurrency has surged in popularity in the Islamic Republic.

For Iran, anonymous online transactions made in cryptocurrencies allow individuals and companies to bypass banking sanctions that have crippled the economy. Bitcoin offers an alternative to cash printed by sovereign governments and central banks — and in the case of Iran and other countries under sanctions like Venezuela, a more stable place to park money than the local currency.

“Iranians understand the value of such a borderless network much more than others because we can’t access any kind of global payment networks,” said Ziya Sadr, a Tehran-based Bitcoin expert. “Bitcoin shines here.”

Iran’s generously subsidized electricity has put the country on the crypto-mining map, given the operation’s enormous electricity consumption. Electricity goes for around 4 cents per kilowatt-hour in Iran, compared to an average of 13 cents in the United States.

Iran is among the top 10 countries with the most Bitcoin mining capacity in the world — 450 megawatts a day. The U.S. network has a daily capacity of more than 1,100 megawatts.

On Tehran’s outskirts and across Iran’s south and northwest, windowless warehouses hum with heavy industrial machinery and rows of computers that crunch highly complex algorithms to verify transactions. The transactions, called blocks, are then added to a public record, known as the blockchain.

“Miners” adding a new block to the blockchain collect fees in bitcoins, a key advantage amid the country’s currency collapse. Iran’s rial, which had been trading at 32,000 to the dollar at the time of the 2015 nuclear deal, has tumbled to around 240,000 to the dollar these days.

Iran’s government has sent mixed messages about Bitcoin. On one hand, it wants to capitalize on the soaring popularity of digital currency and sees value in legitimizing transactions that fly under Washington’s radar. It authorized 24 Bitcoin processing centers that consume an estimated 300 megawatts of energy a day, attracted tech-savvy Chinese entrepreneurs to tax-free zones in the country’s south and permitted imports of computers for mining.

Amir Nazemi, deputy minister of telecommunications and information, declared last week that cryptocurrency “can be helpful” as Iran struggles to cope with sanctions on its oil sector.

On the other hand, the government worries about limiting how much money is sent abroad and controlling money laundering, drug sales and internet criminal groups.

Iranian cryptocurrency miners have been known to use ransomware in sophisticated cyber attacks, such as in 2018 when two Iranian men were indicted in connection with a vast cyber assault on the city of Atlanta. On Thursday, British cybersecurity firm Sophos reported it found evidence tying crypto-miners in Iran’s southern city of Shiraz to malware that was secretly seizing control of thousands of Microsoft servers.

Iran is now going after unauthorized Bitcoin farms with frequent police raids. Those who gain authorization to process cryptocurrency are subject to electricity tariffs, which miners complain discourage investment.

“Activities in the field are not feasible because of electricity tariffs,” said Mohammad Reza Sharafi, head of the country’s Cryptocurrency Farms Association. Despite the government giving permits to 1,000 investors, only a couple dozen server farms are active, he added, because tariffs mean Bitcoin farms pay five times as much for electricity as steel mills and other industries that consume far more power.

Now, miners say, the government’s decision to close down major Bitcoin farms operating legally seems designed to deflect concerns about the country’s repeated blackouts.

As Tehran went dark last week, a video showing industrial computers whirring away at a massive Chinese cryptocurrency farm spread online like wildfire, prompting outrage about Bitcoin’s outsized thirst for electricity. Within days, the government closed that plant despite its authorization to operate.

“The priority is with households, commercial, hospitals and sensitive places,” said Mostfa Rajabi Mashhadi, spokesman of Iran’s electricity supply department, noting that illegal farms sucked up daily some 260 megawatts of electricity.

Although Bitcoin mining strains the power grid, experts say it’s not the real reason behind Iran’s electricity outages and dangerous air pollution. The telecommunications ministry estimates that Bitcoin consumes less than 2% of Iran’s total energy production.

“Bitcoin was an easy victim here,” said Kaveh Madani, a former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, adding that “decades of mismanagement” have left a growing gap between Iran’s energy supply and demand.

Bitcoin “mining’s energy footprint is not insignificant but these problems are not created overnight,” he said. “They simply need one trigger to spiral out of control.”

A sharp drop in supply or spike in demand, like this winter when more people are staying home because of the coronavirus pandemic, can upset the balance of a grid that draws mostly from natural gas. Authorities reported that households have increased their heating gas usage by 8% this year, which Tehran’s electric supply company said led to “limitations in feeding the country’s power plants and a lack of electricity.”

Sanctions targeting Iran’s aging oil and gas industry have compounded the challenges, leaving Iran unable to sell its products abroad, including its low-quality, high-sulfur fuel oil known as mazut. If the hazardous oil isn’t sold or shipped it must be swiftly burned — and it is, in 20% of the country’s power plants, according to environmental official Mohammad Mehdi Mirzai. The smoldering fuel blackens the skies, particularly when the weather cools and wind carries emissions from nearby refineries and industrial sites into Tehran.

During the power blackouts, thick layers of pollution coated mountain peaks and hovered over cities, with readings of dangerous fine particulate pollution spiking to over 200 micrograms per cubic meter, a level considered “dangerously” unhealthy.

As the government publicized its clampdown on Bitcoin farms, miners balked at all the blame over their energy guzzling. Many warned that despite its potential to become a cryptocurrency utopia, Iran would continue to fall behind.

“These moves harm the country,” said Omid Alavi, a cryptocurrency consultant. “Many neighboring nations are attracting foreign investors.”


TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — By NASSER KARIMI and ISABEL DEBRE

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Biden names Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FCC chief

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Biden names Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FCC chief

Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden named on Friday longtime Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworel to head the agency.

Rosenworcel brings with her over two decades of communications policy work, including a term at the FCC that began in 2012 running to 2021, during which public policy had gone back and forth on such key issues as Section 230, the digital divide, and net neutrality.

She replaces outgoing Republican FCC chair Ajit Pai, whose latest decision defined broadband within a narrow range. Rosenworcel has previously expressed her favor of a much broader range of upload and download speeds.

Prior to joining the FCC, Rosenworcel practiced communications law, and in 1999. She joined the Wireline Competition Bureau of the FCC, and by 2003, she began working for former Commissioner Michael Copps.

Switching to Capitol Hill, in 2007, Rosenworcel served as Senior Communications Counsel to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

She has well forged relationships with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and brings with her a strong set of position on the issues, which with the new Democratic Party majority at the agency will help set the tone of the debate.

During her tenure at the FCC, Rosenworcel has been a forceful advocate for increasing broadband access and restoring net neutrality, which was repealed during the last administration.

At question is not only consumer access, but the issue of regulating internet providers such as utilities with implied rate setting; though if providers are placed under their former Title II category, it is expected some latitude on rates would continue, while providing a level playing field for users.

On the larger scope of the above and range of other top issues, Rosenworcel noted to ICT publication Protocol:

“We know technology has reshaped everything in modern life. There’s no part of our civic or commercial lives that has been untouched by it. Some of those innovations obviously improve our lives and they lift our standard of living, but we’ve got other problems that we have not fully grappled with associated with those new technologies, like competition, like privacy, like security” she said.

With former Chair Pai’s departure, and the resignation of Republican Mike O’Reilly, there remains room for a new commissioner at the FCC for the Biden administration to fill.

The FCC will now have a 3-2 voting balance in favor of the Democrats, paving the way for marked policy changes.

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Amazon offers assist with US COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Inside Telecom Staff

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Amazon is offering its colossal operations network and advanced technologies to assist President Joe Biden in his vow to get 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations to Americans in his first 100 days in office.

“We are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration’s vaccination efforts,” wrote the CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer division, Dave Clark, in a letter to Biden. “Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”

Amazon said that it has already arranged a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to give vaccines on-site at its facilities for its employees when they become available.

Amazon has more than 800,000 employees in the United States, Clark wrote, most of whom essential workers who cannot work from home and should be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Biden will sign 10 pandemic-related executive orders on Thursday, his second day in office, but the administration says efforts to supercharge the rollout of vaccines have been hampered by lack of cooperation from the Trump administration during the transition. They say they don’t have a complete understanding of the previous administration’s actions on vaccine distribution.

Biden is also depending on Congress to provide $1.9 trillion for economic relief and COVID-19 response. There are a litany of complaints from states that say they are not getting enough vaccine even as they are being asked to vaccinate a broader swath of Americans.

According to data through January 20 from Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average for daily new deaths in the U.S. rose over the past two weeks from 2,677.3 on January 6 to 3,054.1 on Wednesday. More than 400,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19.

SEATTLE (AP) — By The Associated Press

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