Information moves, or we move to it. Moving to it has rarely been popular and is growing unfashionable; nowadays we demand that the information come to us. This can be accomplished in three basic ways: moving physical media around, broadcasting radiation through space, and sending signals through wires. This article is about what will, for a short time anyway, be the biggest and best wire ever made. ... FLAG, a fiber-optic cable now being built from England to Japan, is a skinny little cuss (about an inch in diameter), but it is 28,000 kilometers long, which is long even compared to really big things like the planet Earth. When it is finished in September 1997, it arguably will be the longest engineering project in history. ... we all depend heavily on wires, but we hardly ever think about them. Before learning about FLAG, I knew that data packets could get from America to Asia or the Middle East, but I had no idea how. I knew that it had something to do with wires across the bottom of the ocean, but I didn't know how many of those wires existed, how they got there, who controlled them, or how many bits they could carry. ... it behooves wired people to know a few things about wires - how they work, where they lie, who owns them, and what sorts of business deals and political machinations bring them into being.
The device, which costs about $40,000, is called a spectrum analyzer. And for years Dooley, a consultant and self-appointed expert who left college after a year, has been measuring and recording wireless data traffic—the billions of transmissions that travel back and forth from smartphones and laptops to cell towers, routers, and other Internet connections. If you’re checking Facebook on your iPhone and Dooley is nearby, his machine will see it and light up. And if hordes of people are posting pictures to Instagram and streaming Netflix videos all around him, the display on Dooley’s machine will turn bright red. Dooley takes the readings to track which parts of the electromagnetic spectrum—the frequencies that carry everything from radio signals to X-rays—are degrading from overuse. He likes to think of himself as a “21st-century version of a land surveyor.” ... What Dooley’s machine is telling him now is this: Wi-Fi is headed for a collapse. The preferred Internet connection for most users is quickly becoming overcrowded, he argues, and could soon be overwhelmed. ... According to Cisco, the amount of data transmitted via Wi-Fi is projected to nearly triple in the next four years. The problem, says Dooley, is that the signals from all our wired devices are increasingly beginning to bump into one another, causing performance to suffer. ... a growing chorus of critics say that Globalstar’s warnings about a Wi-Fi apocalypse are completely unfounded—and that its plan, rather than fixing spectrum congestion, would actually make the situation much worse.
A new arms race in our skies threatens the satellites that control everything from security to communications ... the activities of the mystery “ghost” satellite have given many in the defence and intelligence community pause for thought. ... Space, military officials like to say, is the ultimate higher ground. Since the cold war ended, however, it has been a largely uncontested territory. In January 1967, the US, UK and USSR became the first signatories to the Outer Space Treaty. In it, they committed to keeping the moon free of military testing and not putting weapons of mass destruction into orbit. China joined the pact in 1984. Another 100 states are now signed up. ... Almost every country with strategically important satellite constellations and its own launch facilities is considering how to defend — and weaponise — their extraterrestrial assets. ... Satellites are fragile things: a nudge to their orbit, a tilt of their solar panels towards the sun, a laser blast directed at their sensors or a projectile casually fired into their path are all capable of wreaking permanent, irreversible damage. ... While developed societies are becoming more dependent on it than ever before for almost every aspect of their digital economies, their grip on the technologies that have given them global strategic dominance is slipping. And as more countries around the world look to maximise their military advantages, space is becoming the most obvious domain to contest. ... The 1967 Outer Space Treaty had one glaring omission: it has no limits on the use of conventional weapons. Even as militaries around the world work hard to build their space weaponry arsenals, many are now wondering whether the treaty needs to be broadened.
Meet Jasper, Jahangir Mohammed's fast-growing yet near-invisible company helping to power the internet of things. ... Jasper likes to call itself "the 'on switch' for the internet of things," the increasingly vast body of devices that now speak to one another over the internet. And that's a pretty apt description. With the cost of computing power and internet connectivity falling fast, networked intelligence is turning up just about everywhere these days: the moisture sensor on an apple tree, an assembly line full of industrial robots, the watch on your wrist, or the Ford you drive home every night. And Jasper, valued at $1.4 billion and widely expected to go public soon, is the reptilian brain for much of that network, ensuring that the nodes are on and aware and functioning as they should be. ... Since co-founding Jasper in 2004, he has been building out a global footprint that now comprises a partner network of more than 100 wireless carriers on the one hand, and more than 2,700 of their customers on the other: Amazon, GE, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and nearly every automaker--they all rely on Jasper's software platform ... The dashboard allows each company to monitor its entire universe of devices remotely ... Jasper gets paid by the carriers but works closely with their customers, managing not only the internet connections of their "things," wherever they may be, but also performing core services such as making sure the things are working properly, turning them on or off, updating software, and tracking data use. ... put the company at the center of the next big technological phase change: In the same way Dell and Microsoft profited from the move from mainframes to desktops and laptops, and Apple from the rise of cell phones, Jasper stands to ride the next wave of miniaturization--the penetration of computing power and connectivity into the tiniest artifacts of daily life.
To many of us, QVC is a 1980s relic of grandmas and shut-ins. When QVC (which stands for "Quality, Value, Convenience") first went live in 1986, televised sales pitches were a disruptive idea in retail—bringing products that lived in malls to a growing cable audience in search of things to watch. The network wasn’t first-to-market in its genre—HSN (the Home Shopping Network) had launched a year earlier—but QVC’s impact was immediate. QVC would set the fiscal sales record for a new public company in its first year ($112 million) by avoiding malls, while teenage rock star Tiffany would become a pop icon by performing in them. From day one, QVC’s niche was the unhip. ... But if QVC’s 24/7/364 approach—they go off-air for Christmas—is a fossil, it’s a living one. While U.S. mall popularity peaked in 1990, QVC’s revenue continues to grow. The network now does $8.8 billion in worldwide sales a year, and like every other big company, it is eyeing expansion in China. While the grandma stereotypes are indeed a bit true—QVC’s audience is 90% women, ages 35 to 65—QVC quadrupled its young recruit customers between 2009 and 2013 from 3% to 12%. Maybe more importantly, over the last decade, QVC has been gracefully making the transition from landline caller to smartphone user. Forty-three percent of its U.S. sales now come through e-commerce channels, and 30% of these are through mobile. The television channel has become the fifth largest mobile retailer in the world. Even a hot startup like Kickstarter has learned from QVC: each product must be accompanied by a video interview with its creator. ... Ninety percent of QVC’s customers are repeat customers—the most sought after, profitable type, the same carefully cultivated by companies like Starbucks with Starbucks Rewards and Amazon with Amazon Prime. ... But while Starbucks offers the promise of free caffeine, and Amazon gives us faster shipping and streamable movies, QVC has personalities—27 hosts who are each responsible for selling hundreds of millions of dollars in products a year. They’re middle-aged. Often overweight. Family types—the average American, with better makeup and whiter teeth, each a character in a retail soap opera that viewers at home can follow forever.
Ah, there you are. That didn't take too long, surely? Just a click or a tap and, if you’ve some 21st century connectivity, you landed on this page in a trice. ... But how does it work? Have you ever thought about how that cat picture actually gets from a server in Oregon to your PC in London? We’re not simply talking about the wonders of TCP/IP or pervasive Wi-Fi hotspots, though those are vitally important as well. No, we’re talking about the big infrastructure: the huge submarine cables, the vast landing sites and data centres with their massively redundant power systems, and the elephantine, labyrinthine last-mile networks that actually hook billions of us to the Internet. ... And perhaps even more importantly, as our reliance on omnipresent connectivity continues to blossom, our connected device numbers swell, and our thirst for bandwidth knows no bounds, how do we keep the Internet running? How do Verizon or Virgin reliably get 100 million bytes of data to your house every second, all day every day?
Xiaomi’s tale may sound like merely another iteration of that now familiar headline, tech unicorn gallops into wall. But Xiaomi (pronounced “SHAO-me,” with the first syllable sounding like the “show” in “shower”) isn’t just any privately held, multibillion-dollar startup. It’s a rising power in a nation eager to prove that its consumer-oriented companies can compete globally. ... The company didn’t attain that valuation on the strength of its phones, though those get raves in the tech press (and have even made Xiaomi modestly profitable) while selling for half the price of an iPhone. No, private investors judged Xiaomi to be more valuable than FedEx or Caterpillar or Delta Air Lines because of the promise that it could build a network of products, services, and recurring revenues—an ecosystem like Apple’s—not just in China but around the world. ... If anything, Xiaomi’s idea of an ecosystem is more ambitious than Apple’s. Apple focuses on services like iTunes and a tightly focused suite of tablets, computers, and smartphones. Xiaomi envisions a sprawling Internet of things. The company hopes you will someday control your Xiaomi water purifier, Xiaomi air filter, and Xiaomi mood lighting—an entire Xiaomi smart home, essentially—with a few taps on your phone. ... as Xiaomi’s progress slows, there’s growing skepticism that a startup without innovative technology of its own or much success outside of smartphone sales can produce an ecosystem anywhere nearly as big or “sticky” as Apple’s and Google’s. ... Xiaomi’s team works primarily with outside companies. The company partners with hardware startups (and often creates new ones), providing seed money for ecosystem products. Xiaomi avoids taking full control, encouraging the founders to act like risk-taking entrepreneurs. The company gets an exclusive deal to sell most of the startups’ products, and in turn the startups, now numbering 55, get access to Xiaomi’s supply chain, marketing, and even its industrial engineers.
Twilio, as a company, reflects its chief executive’s personality. “Be humble and be frugal,” says Lawson, a 39-year-old father of two. That aw-shucks credo has translated into 30,000 customers—from small developers to large enterprises—who use Twilio to power some 75 billion annual connections that reach 1 billion devices. ... building communications functions into apps is both vital and easier than ever, which in turn prom-ises to make every smartphone in the world even smarter. ... Twilio is exceedingly simple to use and charges no upfront fees, so programmers often use it to test an idea or product. Pretty soon that product scales and turns into a six- or seven-figure account that required no traditional sales process. “We onboard developers like consumers and let them spend like enterprises,” Lawson says. Like others that have embraced developer-driven marketing—Amazon for computing services, Stripe for payments, New Relic for analytics—Twilio benefits as companies increasingly turn to software for differentiation. ... His 15 months at Amazon proved to be formative. Selling the building blocks of computing as a service was a brand-new idea, and Lawson was at its epicenter. The model gained traction with the advent of mobile apps, which over time prompted scores of businesses to turn to software as a way to interact with customers. As he began to think about where he could apply the Amazon Web Services model, Lawson homed in on communications, which had proved essential to every business he had started.
Next year it will be 60 years since people first witnessed the majesty of a satellite being launched into orbit: Sputnik 1, hurled into the night sky in Kazakhstan early on October 5th 1957. ... Just 15 years separated the launch of the first satellite and the return of the last man from the moon, years in which anything seemed possible. But having won the space race, America saw no benefit in carrying on. Instead it developed a space shuttle meant to make getting to orbit cheap, reliable and routine. More than 100 shuttle flights between 1981 to 2011 went some way to realising the last of those goals, despite two terrible accidents. The first two were never met. Getting into space remained a risky and hideously expensive proposition, taken up only by governments and communications companies, each for their own reasons. ... New rockets, though, are not the only exciting development. The expense of getting into space during the 1980s and 1990s led some manufacturers to start shrinking the satellites used for some sorts of mission, creating “smallsats”. Since then the amount a given size of satellite can do has been boosted by developments in computing and electronics. This has opened up both new ways of doing old jobs and completely novel opportunities. ... No single technology ties together this splendid gaggle of ambitions. But there is a common technological approach that goes a long way to explaining it; that of Silicon Valley. Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.
Instead the question is whether something basic has changed in the direction of China’s evolution, and whether the United States needs to reconsider its China policy. For the more than 40 years since the historic Nixon-Mao meetings of the early 1970s, that policy has been surprisingly stable. From one administration to the next, it has been built on these same elements: ever greater engagement with China; steady encouragement of its modernization and growth; forthright disagreement where the two countries’ economic interests or political values clash; and a calculation that Cold War–style hostility would be far more damaging than the difficult, imperfect partnership the two countries have maintained. ... The China of 2016 is much more controlled and repressive than the China of five years ago, or even 10. ... Dealing with China is inescapable. It is becoming more difficult, and might get harder still. ... the assumption was that year by year, the distance between practices in China and those in other developed countries would shrink, and China would become easier rather than harder to deal with.
For years now, social media has been where people go to find out what’s happening during a crisis; even aid agencies and emergency managers have come to rely on hashtags and live video to form a picture of how an event is playing out on the ground. But the hail of updates can be rapid and incoherent. ... sometimes there’s no information coming out of a disaster zone—because the internet has gone down, as happened in large parts of New York and New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy landed in 2012. This is another fundamental problem that Facebook is, almost by coincidence, working to solve. For the past two and a half years, the company has been developing a program to deliver the internet via drone to parts of the world that don’t have it. The business reason for this fanciful-sounding project is pretty straightforward: It will speed up Facebook’s efforts to expand globally and serve ads to even more people in what is already the world’s largest audience. But the team has always had the idea that the same technology could be vitally important in, say, an earthquake zone. ... This new incarnation of Safety Check begins with an algorithm that monitors an emergency newswire—a third-party program that aggregates information directly from police departments, weather services, and the like. Then another Safety Check algorithm begins looking for people in the area who are discussing the event on Facebook. If enough people are talking about the event, the system automatically sends those people messages inviting them to check in as safe—and asks them if they want to check the safety of other people as well.
Williams’ discovery of the mysterious block was followed by dozens of reports of similar findings on beaches across western Europe. The blocks, materializing from the Atlantic surf, would cast the spotlight on gutta percha, a Victorian commodity whose obscurity belied its crucial place in modern communications. The humble latex would accelerate global telecommunications to a previously unimagined pace; cement the British empire’s grip over the world’s critical messaging systems; and spur industry and academia to devise some of the foundational theories of modern physics. ... The Victorian system of submarine cables literally laid the foundation, in many cases, for today’s fiber-optic networks. The globe-spanning networks of the day spawned business titans, and technological innovators, that bear close parallels to today’s internet-enabled tycoons. Gutta percha was largely replaced by polyethylene by the 1950s, ending a century of industrial telecommunications use. ... in 1832, a Scottish surgeon stationed in Singapore with the East India Company named William Montgomerie wrote a paper about gutta percha’s unique properties: it could be moulded in hot water but it hardened as it cooled. ... It was as if the Elon Musks or Steve Jobs of the day were all focused on the same, potentially world-altering technology. ... Pender’s businesses left a legacy. Vestiges of his cable empire live on in today’s telecom conglomerates. His firms formed the core of Cable & Wireless
Although robotic ships of this sort are some ways off in the future, it’s not a question of if they will happen but when. My colleagues and I at Rolls-Royce anticipate that the first commercial vessel to navigate entirely by itself could be a harbor tug or a ferry designed to carry cars the short distance across the mouth of a river or a fjord and that it or similar ships will be in commercial operation within the next few years. And we expect fully autonomous oceangoing cargo ships to be routinely plying the world’s seas in 10 or 15 years’ time. ... Remotely controlled ships, piloted by people on shore, and autonomous ships, which can take actions for themselves, are the latest beneficiaries of increasing digital connectivity and intelligence. These developments in electronic sensors, telecommunications, and computing have sparked interest in a range of autonomous vehicles including cars, planes, helicopters, trains, and now ships. ... That people should be seriously interested in robotic ships is easy enough to explain: Such ships are expected to be safer, more efficient, and cheaper to run. According to a report published by the Munich-based insurance company Allianz in 2012, between 75 and 96 percent of marine accidents are a result of human error, often a result of fatigue.