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OneWeb emerges from bankruptcy, aims to begin launching satellites again on December 17

By Darrell Etherington

Broadband communication satellite company OneWeb has emerged from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection status, the company announced today. It’s now also officially owned by a consortium consisting of the UK government and India’s Bharti Global, and Neil Masterson is now installed as CEO, replacing outgoing chief executive Adrian Steckel, who will remain as a Board advisor.

OneWeb seems eager to get back to actively launching the satellites that will make up its 650-strong constellation – it has set December 17 as the target date for its next launch. The company has 74 satellite already on orbit across three prior launches, which occurred prior to its bankruptcy filing in March.

OneWeb’s acquisition by the combined UK government/Bharti Global tie-up was revealed in July, providing a path for the financially beleaguered company to get back to active status with $1 billion in equity funding. The UK-based company will continue to operate primarily from the UK via this new deal, and it’s being positioned as a key cornerstone in positioning the UK as a space sector leader and innovator.

The company also announced that its joint-venture manufacturing facility with Airbus has resumed operation in Florida, and will continue to produce new spacecraft for future launches. The plan is to launch additional satellites throughout next year and 2022, and then begin offering commercial service in select areas late in 2021, with a global service expansion intended for 2022.

Verizon partners with Apple to launch 5G Fleet Swap

By Frederic Lardinois

Apple and Verizon today announced a new partnership that will make it easier for their business partners to go all-in on 5G. Fleet Swap, as the program is called, allows businesses to trade in their entire fleet of smartphones — no matter whether they are currently a Verizon customer or not — and move to the iPhone 12 with no upfront cost and either zero cost (for the iPhone 12 mini) or a low monthly cost.

(Disclaimer: Verizon is TechCrunch’s corporate parent. The company has zero input into our editorial decisions.)

In addition, Verizon also today announced its first two major indoor 5G ultra wideband services for its enterprise customers. General Motors and Honeywell are the first customers here, with General Motors enabling the technology at its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, the company’s all-electric vehicle plant. To some degree, this goes to show how carriers are positioning 5G ultra wideband as more of an enterprise feature than the lower-bandwidth versions of 5G.

“I think about how 5G [ultra wide band] is really filling a need for capacity and for capability. It’s built for industrial commercial use cases. It’s built on millimeter wave spectrum and it’s really built for enterprise,” Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin told me.

It’s important to note that these two projects are not private 5G networks. Verizon is also in that business and plans to launch those more broadly in the future.

“No matter where you are on your digital transformation journey, the ability to put the power of 5G Ultra Wideband in all of your employees’ hands right now with a powerful iPhone 12 model, the best smartphone for business, is not just an investment for growth, it’s what will set a business’s future trajectory as technology continues to advance,” Erwin said in today’s announcement.

As for 5G Fleet Swap, the idea here is obviously to get more businesses on Verizon’s 5G network and, for Apple, to quickly get more iPhone 12s into the enterprise. Apple clearly believes that 5G can provide some benefits to enterprises — and maybe more so than to consumers — thanks to its low latency for AR applications, for example.

“The iPhone 12 lineup is the best for business, with an all-new design, advanced 5G experience, industry-leading security and A14 Bionic, the fastest chip ever in a smartphone,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice president of Markets, Apps and Services. “Paired with Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband going indoors and 5G Fleet Swap, an all-new device offer for enterprise, it’s now easier than ever for businesses to build transformational mobile apps that take advantage of the powerful iPhone 12 lineup and 5G.”

In addition, the company is highlighting the iPhone’s secure enclave as a major security benefit for enterprises. And while other handset manufacturers launch devices that are specifically meant to be rugged, Apple argues that its devices are already rugged enough by design and that there’s a big third-party ecosystem to ruggedize its devices.

Biden’s infrastructure plans could boost startups

By Jonathan Shieber

As President-elect Joe Biden readies his transition team and sets the agenda for his first 100 days in office, startups can expect to see some movement on long-stalled infrastructure initiatives that could mean big boosts to their business.

Infrastructure is high on the list of priorities of the incoming Biden Administration as the former vice president hopes to make good on his campaign promise to “build back better.”

American infrastructure has been crumbling for decades without significant investment from the federal government, and much of what will be replaced will also be upgraded with new technology, according to people familiar with the Biden plan.

That means tech companies focused on next-generation telecommunications and utility infrastructure, transportation, housing and construction tech around energy efficiency could see new dollars pour in over the next four years.

“Infrastructure and build out of the clean energy economy … doesn’t necessarily mean large wind or large solar projects. It could mean advanced metering … it can be new engine technologies,” said Dan Goldman, a managing partner at Clean Energy Ventures. “We think that that can be a huge opportunity for job creation … not only putting people back to work but putting people back to work in high quality jobs.”

And there’s a willingness to encourage these infrastructure projects in less partisan ways in states like Massachusetts, Virginia and Florida, which are actively building out electric vehicle infrastructure and renewable energy projects, Goldman said.

While the federal government will ultimately be distributing the cash, startups can expect to see the spending actually come from municipalities and state governments, which often have a better understanding of local needs and where the money should go.

Next-generation energy infrastructure

The electrification of everything — a component of any zero-carbon movement — requires significant upgrades to existing power infrastructure. That means everything from systems management technologies to distribution facilities to ways to store power that can be moved on to the grid.

“Without that infrastructure investment it gets quite challenging,” said Abe Yokell, a co-founder and managing partner of Congruent Ventures. 

He pointed to large-scale energy storage technologies as one solution, but management systems for utilities will be another area of interest.

Those infrastructure initiatives will likely mean good things for battery companies like Form Energy, which signed its first major contract with Great River Energy earlier this year; or Antora and Malta, which store energy as heat; or Quidnet, which has a pumped hydroelectric play for large-scale energy storage by pumping water into the gaps between rocks underground that creates pressure and can force water back up through a generator.

Other large-scale energy storage companies working on developing and installing batteries could benefit as well. That means good things for Tesla, which has a few major battery installs under its belt, and Fluence, which manages and operates big install projects.

Natel Energy, another startup working on energy storage (and generation) using hydropower, could also find its technology in the mix, according to company founder, Gia Schneider.

Schneider sees three potential pitches for her company’s technologies. “Climate change is water change,” she said. “We have a bucket in energy, a bucket of stuff in environmental and a bucket of stuff in working lands.”

Why are telehealth companies treating healthcare like the gig economy?

By Walter Thompson
Oliver Kharraz, MD Contributor
Oliver Kharraz, MD is the CEO and founder of Zocdoc, a digital healthcare marketplace for in-person or virtual care.

Telehealth has taken off.

Spurred by the pandemic, many doctors in the U.S. now offer online appointments, and many patients are familiar with getting live medical advice over the internet. Given the obvious benefits, many experts have concluded that telehealth is here to stay. “It’s taken this crisis to push us to a new frontier,” said Seema Verma, administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “But there’s absolutely no going back.”

Now the question is, where are we going? Telehealth has played an essential role during the pandemic, and it could do even more good in the years to come. But we are still in the very early days of its development. And if we are to realize telehealth’s full potential, then we must first reckon with the fact that there are serious flaws in the predominant way it is delivered today — flaws that endanger patients themselves.

Legacy telehealth services like Teladoc and others were built for a time when telehealth was a fringe phenomenon, mostly used to support acute needs like a bad cold or a troubling rash. They largely offer, in effect, randomized triage care. Patients go online, wait in a queue and see the first doctor who happens to be available. These companies market this as a virtual house call, but for patients, the experience may feel more like being stuck on a conveyor belt. Too often, they get funneled through the system with little to no choice along the way.

Insurance companies love this model because it is cheap to operate. But patients bear the cost. Doctors, in this arrangement, get paid to work the assembly line. Every minute they spend listening to patients — learning about their lives, building a personal relationship — is a minute they’re not moving them down the line, seeing the next patient and earning their next fee. The system doesn’t reward doctors for providing care; it rewards them for churning through patients.

As we build telehealth’s future, doubling down on this model would be a worrisome mistake since it is antithetical to how our healthcare system should operate. Healthcare has long been premised on the idea that you should have an ongoing relationship with a local care provider — someone with a holistic, longitudinal view of your health, who you trust to help navigate difficult or sensitive medical issues.

The randomized triage model breaks this bond and replaces it with a series of impersonal interactions that feel more like ones you have with an Uber driver — polite but transactional, brief and ephemeral. Healthcare, however, should not be treated in the same way as the gig economy.

As a physician, I am troubled by the prospect of what happens when you scale this model up. Every time a patient gets passed from one doctor to the next, there is a chance that critical information is lost. They won’t understand your baseline mood, your family context or living situation — all critical “intangibles” for informed treatment. That lack of longitudinal data leads to worse outcomes. This is why the healthcare system has long been designed to minimize patient handoffs — and why it would be a mistake for us to choose a telehealth infrastructure that increases them.

What, then, does a better approach look like?

We are at the very dawn of telehealth’s integration into our country’s healthcare system, and I won’t claim to know the full answer. But I do know that patients are far better stewards of their own health than a random doctor generator. A more effective approach to telehealth puts the power in patients’ hands. Because when we give them choices and then listen to them, patients tell us what they prefer.

Data gathered by my company makes clear that by a substantial margin, people want to make this decision themselves: Nine out of 10 telehealth patients prefer to schedule an appointment with a provider of their choosing rather than see a randomly assigned doctor after waiting in a digital queue.

Not only that: When given this choice, most patients — about seven in 10 — make an appointment with a nearby doctor when booking a virtual visit. Patients instinctively know that at some point, they’ll want or need to physically be in the same room with their doctor. And they know that choosing a local provider makes it possible to pick up the conversation in-person right where it left off online. They don’t want to be forced to choose between telehealth and an ongoing relationship with a trusted provider. And they’re right — they shouldn’t have to.

None of the legacy telehealth companies focus on this imperative. Instead, while the pandemic rages on, they are rushing to scale while their randomized triage model is still viable. And the markets may reward them in the near term for being in the right place at the right time. But long-term value will be derived from listening to, responding to and iterating on what patients want.

Experience suggests patients will reward whoever can give them the most control over their healthcare. That’s where I’m placing my bet, too.

Qualcomm Ventures invests in four 5G startups

By Frederic Lardinois

Qualcomm Ventures, Qualcomm’s investment arm, today announced four new strategic investments in 5G-related startups. These companies are private mobile network specialist Celona, mobile network automation platform Cellwize, the edge computing platform Azion and Pensando, another edge computing platform that combines its software stack with custom hardware.

The overall goal here is obviously to help jumpstart 5G use cases in the enterprise and — by extension — for consumers by investing in a wide range of companies that can build the necessary infrastructure to enable these.

“We invest globally in the wireless mobile ecosystem, with a goal of expanding our base of customers and partners — and one of the areas we’re particularly excited about is the area of 5G,” Quinn Li, a Senior VP at Qualcomm and the global head of Qualcomm Ventures, told me. “Within 5G, there are three buckets of areas we look to invest in: one is in use cases, second is in network transformation, third is applying 5G technology in enterprises.”

So far, Qualcomm Ventures has invested over $170 million in the 5G ecosystem, including this new batch. The firm did not disclose how much it invested in these four new startups, though.

Overall, this new set of companies touches upon the core areas Qualcomm Ventures is looking at, Li explained. Celona, for example, aims to make it as easy for enterprises to deploy private cellular infrastructure as it is to deploy Wi-Fi today.

“They built this platform with a cloud-based controller that leverages the available spectrum — CBRS — to be able to take the cellular technology, whether it’s LTE or 5G, into enterprises,” Li explained. “And then these enterprise use cases could be in manufacturing settings could be in schools, could be to be in hospitals, or it could be on campus for universities.”

Cellwize, meanwhile, helps automate wireless networks to make them more flexible and manageable, in part by using machine learning to tune the network based on the data it collects. One of the main investment theses for this fund, Li told me, is that wireless technology will become increasingly software-defined and Cellwize fits right into this trend. The potential customer here isn’t necessarily an individual enterprise, though, but wireless and mobile operators.

Edge computing, where Azion and Pensando play, is obviously also a hot category right now and when where 5G has some obvious advantages, so it’s maybe no surprise that Qualcomm Ventures is putting a bit of a focus on these today with its investments in Azion and Pensando.

“As we move forward, [you will] see a lot of the compute moving from the cloud into the edge of the network, which allows for processing happening at the edge of the network, which allows for low latency applications to run much faster and much more efficiently,” Li said.

In total, Qualcomm Ventures has deployed $1.5 billion and made 360 investments since its launch in 2000. Some of the more successful companies the firm has invested in include unicorns like Zoom, Cloudflare, Xiaomi, Cruise Automation and Fitbit.

Alphabet’s X partners with Econet Group to roll out Project Taara wireless light-beam broadband in Africa

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s X ‘Moonshot Factory’ subsidiary has a lot of cutting edge projects in development, so it’s always exciting when one of them gets ready for real-world deployment. On Tuesday, X announced that its ‘Project Taara’ high-speed optical wireless broadband endeavor is working with internet provider Econet and its subsidiaries to begin rolling out its tech across Sub-Saharan Africa.

This deployment follows a series of small pilots in Kenya specifically, but now Taara and Econet are ready to start adding high-speed wireless optical links to supplement and enhance Econet service reach more broadly, starting with Liquid Telecom customers in Kenya. Taara is yet another approach to extending the reach of broadband networks to parts of the Earth that have typically not had access or high-speed connections, due primarily to infrastructure challenges.

X’s Taara is essentially a fiber optic network cable without the cable – it uses a narrow, invisible beam of light to transmit data between two terminals that can span up to nearly 12.5 miles, while providing transfer speeds up to 20 Gbps, which means they can be used to connect thousands of customers or households while providing speeds high enough for streaming high quality video.

Image Credits: X, the moonshot factory

Taara’s technology can essentially be used to patch gaps in traditional fiber optic networks, spanning rivers or crossing terrain that would be hard or impossible to span using either under or aboveground cable. They do require unbroken line of sight, so X sets them atop tall structures to help ensure that’s achieved, and it also means they’re best suited to plugging holes in traditional networks, not necessarily building out entirely new ones. But contrasted to efforts like Alphabet’s Loon stratospheric balloons or SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-based network, it’s relatively easy and cheap to get this up and running and working with existing network infrastructure.

X has been piloting Taara in a number of deployments around the world, but this is a sign that it’s maturing towards a commercialization stage that could see it in service as a supplement to existing networks in a lot more places relatively soon.

Zoom settles with FTC after making ‘deceptive’ security claims

By Zack Whittaker

The Federal Trade Commission has announced a settlement with Zoom, after it accused the video calling giant of engaging in “a series of deceptive and unfair practices that undermined the security of its users,” in part by claiming the encryption was stronger than it actually was.

Cast your mind back earlier this year at the height of the pandemic lockdown, which forced millions to work from home and rely on Zoom for work meetings and remote learning. At the time, Zoom claimed video calls were protected by “end-to-end” encryption, a way of scrambling calls that makes it near-impossible for anyone — even Zoom — to listen in.

But those claims were false.

“In reality, the FTC alleges, Zoom maintained the cryptographic keys that could allow Zoom to access the content of its customers’ meetings, and secured its Zoom Meetings, in part, with a lower level of encryption than promised,” said the FTC in a statement Monday. “Zoom’s misleading claims gave users a false sense of security, according to the FTC’s complaint, especially for those who used the company’s platform to discuss sensitive topics such as health and financial information.”

Zoom quickly admitted it was wrong, prompting the company to launch a 90-day turnaround effort, which included the rollout of end-to-end encryption to its users. That eventually months later in late October — but not without another backtrack after Zoom initially said free users could not use end-to-end encryption.

The FTC also alleged in its complaint that Zoom stored some meeting recordings unencrypted on its servers for up to two months, and compromised the security of its users by covertly installing a web server on its users’ computers in order for users to jump into meetings faster. This, the FTC said, “was unfair and violated the FTC Act.” Zoom pushed out an update which removed the web server, but Apple also intervened to remove the vulnerable component from its customers’ computers.

In its statement, the FTC said it has prohibited Zoom from misrepresenting its security and privacy practices going forward, and has agreed to start a vulnerability management program and implement stronger security across its internal network.

Zoom did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Apple MagSafe Duo Charger Review: Useful, but expensive and underwhelming 

By Matthew Panzarino

In addition to the new iPhone 12 mini and the iPhone 12 Pro Max, I was able to try out Apple’s new MagSafe Duo Charger. It’s a folding dual travel charger that will hold both an iPhone using MagSafe and an Apple Watch using its more traditional magnetic charger.

Does it work? Yep, works exactly as advertised. Your iPhone will rest comfortably on the MagSafe side of the charger, aligning using the internal magnets. The Apple Watch side pops up and out to allow easy access for closed-loop bands. The whole unit folds over to make it easier to travel with and will even fold over backwards if you don’t need one side or the other. It works, for sure.

But that folding is where we start to get to the iffy stuff. For context, you have to understand that this thing is $129 but feels like it should be $70. When you realize that it is a charger that doesn’t come with a power adapter, I would not be shocked if you mentally downgraded it to $40. The charger does come with a Lighting to USB-C cable in the box. That cable assumes, which I don’t think is at all universally true yet, that you have a USB-C power brick. But the Lightning port on the charger itself does ensure that you can use this with any existing Lightning charging cables. 

The hinge and casing are coated in soft-touch rubber that is sort of press-molded on. While the hinge works fine, it is wobbly and immediately creases. The rubber is thick enough that it doesn’t give the impression that it will rip immediately or anything — but it’s not exactly confidence-inducing. This is an inexpensive hinge solution that you would expect to see from a price-conscious third-party accessory, not from Apple. 

Because the whole thing is press-molded, there is also this ridge that runs around the exterior of the unit. It has a basic seal on it but you can see the layers of lamination if you look closely. It looks ripe to nick, fray, bend and get dirty. Not great for something that’s meant to throw in a bag. 

White is also a bad choice here; mine’s already getting dingy and I can’t even travel anywhere right now.  

The thing charges adequately fast and the devices lock on well. The Watch charging part of it feels the most premium with its smooth little chrome hinge. The MagSafe Pad and Watch charger are Apple’s typically nicely peened aluminum, and the whole thing has a decent amount of heft to it. For what it’s worth, I was unable to test one thing which is whether it will charge an Apple Watch and an iPhone in fast charge at the same time with the 20W power adapter. I’ll try to update this review with that info.

Of course, because the iPhone side is magnetic, you do get the MagSafe benefit of being able to pick up the phone if it’s attached, but that’s more awkward when it’s a big bundle of charger versus when it’s a slim MagSafe puck on the back of your phone. Fine for a quick alarm check in your hotel maybe.

But I’m sorry to say that I find the whole thing a bit underwhelming after the hype of AirPower and its eventual demise. Apple may very well have had this thing planned the whole time that it was trying to make AirPower happen, but the arc of that story landing on this device is sad trombone indeed.

The MagSafe Duo does work, and there are a couple of engineering bright spots. But you will not feel that it’s worth the money by the time you purchase the $129 charger and the $19 20W power brick to go with it, and there are many third-party accessories on the market that do this job just fine.

Microsoft debuts Azure Space to cater to the space industry, partners with SpaceX for Starlink datacenter broadband

By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft is taking its Azure cloud computing platform to the final frontier – space. It now has a dedicated business unit called Azure Space for that purpose, made up of industry heavyweights and engineers who are focused on space-sector services including simulation of space missions, gathering and interpreting satellite data to provide insights, and providing global satellite networking capabilities through new and expanded partnerships.

One of Microsoft’s new partners for Azure Space is SpaceX, the progenitor and major current player in the so-called ‘New Space’ industry. SpaceX will be providing Microsoft with access to its Starlink low-latency satellite based broadband network for Microsoft’s new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) – essentially an on-demand container-based datacenter unit that can be deployed in remote locations, either to operate on their own or boost local cababilities.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The MDC is a contained unit, and can operate off-grid using its own satellite network connectivity add-on. It’s similar in concept to the company’s work on underwater data centres, but keeping it on the ground obviously opens up more opportunities in terms of locating it where people need it, rather than having to be proximate to an ocean or sea.

The other big part of this announcement focuses on space preparedness via simulation. Microsoft revealed the Azure Orbital Emulator today, which provides in a computer emulated environment the ability to test satellites constellation operations in simulation, using both software and hardware. It’s basically aiming to provide as close to in-space conditions as are possible on the ground in order to get everything ready for coordinating large, interconnected constellations of automated satellites in low Earth orbit, an increasing need as more defense agencies and private companies pursue this approach vs. the legacy method of relying on one, two or just a few large geosynchronous spacecraft.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft says the goal with the Orbital Emulator is to train AI for use on orbital spacecraft before those spacecraft are actually launched – from the early development phase, right up to working with production hardware on the ground before it takes its trip to space. That’s definitely a big potential competitive advantage, because it should help companies spot even more potential problems early on while they’re still relatively easy to fix (not the case on orbit).

This emulated environment for on-orbit mission prep is already in use by Azure Government customers, the company notes. It’s also looking for more partners across government and industry for space-related services, including communication, national security., satellite services including observation and telemetry and more.

Juniper Networks acquires Boston-area AI SD-WAN startup 128 Technology for $450M

By Ron Miller

Today Juniper Networks announced it was acquiring smart wide area networking startup 128 Technology for $450 million.

This marks the second AI-fueled networking company Juniper has acquired in the last year and a half after purchasing Mist Systems in March 2019 for $405 million. With 128 Technology, the company gets more AI SD-WAN technology. SD-WAN is short for software-defined wide area networks, which means networks that cover a wide geographical area such as satellite offices, rather than a network in a defined space.

Today, instead of having simply software-defined networking, the newer systems use artificial intelligence to help automate session and policy details as needed, rather than dealing with static policies, which might not fit every situation perfectly.

Writing in a company blog post announcing the deal, executive vice president and chief product officer Manoj Leelanivas sees 128 Technology adding great flexibility to the portfolio as it tries to transition from legacy networking approaches to modern ones driven by AI, especially in conjunction with the Mist purchase.

“Combining 128 Technology’s groundbreaking software with Juniper SD-WAN, WAN Assurance and Marvis Virtual Network Assistant (driven by Mist AI) gives customers the clearest and quickest path to full AI-driven WAN operations — from initial configuration to ongoing AIOps, including customizable service levels (down to the individual user), simple policy enforcement, proactive anomaly detection, fault isolation with recommended corrective actions, self-driving network operations and AI-driven support,” Leelanivas wrote in the blog post.

128 Technologies was founded in 2014 and raised over $96 million, according to Crunchbase data. Its most recent round was a $30 million Series D investment in September 2019 led by G20 Ventures and The Perkins Fund.

In addition to the $450 million, Juniper has asked 128 Technology to issue retention stock bonuses to encourage the startup’s employees to stay on during the transition to the new owners. Juniper has promised to honor this stock under the terms of the deal. The deal is expected to close in Juniper’s fiscal fourth quarter, subject to normal regulatory review.

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