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Google finds dropping cable off a boat is easier and faster than digging up streets

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Google might be defaulting, excuse me, pivoting to wireless broadband technology in last mile broadband markets, but it appears to be moving full speed ahead with laying underseas fiber to connect continents. And Facebook is sailing right alongside.

Google, Facebook, TE Connectivity – the former Tyco Electronics – and Pacific Light Data Communication, a Hong Kong-based start up, are partnering to build a submarine cable between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, with a completion target of summer 2018. According to a Google blog post

The Pacific Light Cable Network will have 12,800 km of fiber and an estimated cable capacity of 120 Tbps, making it the highest-capacity trans-Pacific route, a record currently held by another Google-backed cable system, FASTER. In other words, PLCN will provide enough capacity for Hong Kong to have 80 million concurrent HD video conference calls with Los Angeles.

FASTER – a collaboration between Google and a consortium of Asian telecoms companies – went online this summer, linking Oregon to Japan. Google is getting 10 terabits per second of capacity – one-sixth of the total – on that cable. And it has ownership stakes in four other submarine cable projects.

Facebook has also wet its feet in the trans-oceanic fiber game, joining Microsoft and Telefonica as investors in a planned route between Virginia and Spain. That’s scheduled to come online next year.

It’s not a business venture as such for either Google or Facebook. Instead, it’s the kind of classic make versus buy choice that’s leading both companies down the path toward greater vertical integration.

Google, Facebook, Microsoft follow Ford’s vertical integration path

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Another big, transpacific fiber cable is now lit. Less than two years after it was announced, the FASTER consortium has completed construction of a link between Bandon, Oregon and two landing sites in Japan, with a further extension to Taiwan. The group’s membership includes Google as well as several Asian telecoms companies, including China Mobile International, China Telecom Global, Global Transit, KDDI and Singtel. NEC built it.

Google is taking one-sixth of the capacity, 10 terabits per second out of a total of 60 Tbps.

Ten terabits per second is a lot of bandwidth, but it’s consistent with Google’s current consumption. Companies with major web platforms are investing in transoceanic cables, as well as domestic middle fiber capacity, because their internal data transport needs are on the same scale as the big, common carrier telecoms players. Facebook, Microsoft and Telefonica are investors in the planned Marea cable between Spain and Virginia, which will have nearly three times the capacity of the FASTER link. Construction on that project is expected to begin in August.

The distinction between a web platform and a traditional telecoms company is becoming increasingly irrelevant – when you send a message via Gmail or respond to a Facebook post from the other side of the world, it’s transported primarily on internal networks.

It’s simple vertical integration. When a company’s needs scale up to a certain point, it makes economic sense to own a resource rather than buy it. It’s no different than car companies, like Ford, that jumped into the steel business a hundred years ago.

Expect the unexpected from giants’ battle for air supremacy

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A year ago, if anyone had said that Google and Facebook would be fighting each other to acquire drone manufacturers and technology, you might have rightly called that person crazy. Loony, even. But that’s what’s going on now.

Google announced this week that it bought Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico-based maker of drones. That follows stories more than a month ago that Facebook was in the process of buying it.

Titan’s drone technology will be used by Google both for imaging purposes and to bolster Project Loon, which is aimed at bringing Internet connectivity to parts of the world that can’t be economically reached by conventional means. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, via Internet.org and the new Facebook Connectivity Lab, wants to use drones for the same purpose.

Project Loon is also making progress. The idea is to deliver Internet service by using a globe-spanning web of balloons steered along stratospheric wind streams solely by changing their altitude. One test balloon recently logged one lap of the Earth in 22 days.

These initiatives are research and development projects right now, and are a long way from actually providing service to consumers on the ground. But the out-of-the-box knowledge Google and Facebook gain from these experiments could have – will have – unpredictable consequences for telecoms technology. It doesn’t matter how weird or unusual the original problem was, novel solutions can be put to very conventional uses. Which can be very disruptive for incumbent telecoms companies. Which might be the whole point.

Zuckerberg wants fill planet’s toughest broadband gaps with drones

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There’s a huge difference between some Internet access, no matter how poor, and none at all. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is looking at drones as economically sustainable broadband infrastructure where conventional technology doesn’t cut it. In a white paper published on Internet.org, Zuckerberg frames the question…

Our research has shown that approximately 80–90% of the world’s population lives today in areas already covered by 2G or 3G networks. These environments are mostly urban or semi-urban, and the basic cell and fiber infrastructure has already been constructed here by mobile operators. For most people, the obstacles to getting online are primarily economic.

For the remaining 10–20%, the economic challenges also apply, but in this case they also explain why the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built out. The parts of the world without access to 2G or 3G signals are often some of the most remote places on Earth, where physical access to communities is difficult. Deploying the same infrastructure here that is already found in urban environments is uneconomical as well as impractical.

Satellites are one option, but the high cost of orbital bandwidth led Zuckerberg and the Facebook Connectivity Lab consider other options, balancing the constraints of atmospheric flight, solar power and the need to deliver sufficiently strong signals to people on the ground…

Drones operating at 65,000 feet are ideal. At this altitude, a drone can broadcast a powerful signal that covers a city-sized area of territory with a medium pop- ulation density. This is also close to the lowest altitude for unregulated airspace, and a layer in the atmosphere that has very stable weather conditions and low wind speeds. This means an aircraft can easily cruise and conserve power, while generating power through its solar panels during the day to store in its batteries for overnight use.

For what it’s worth, he’s right. I worked on a similar project more than 10 years ago with Aerovironment, still a leading unmanned aerial vehicle developer and manufacturer. We worked within the same constraints and reached essentially the same conclusions, but the technology – particularly solar cells and batteries – wasn’t ready yet. That was then, this is now. And that might be enough.

Diversify and conquer

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Amazonian elephant coming up from behind.

There were three global technology elephants left standing at the close of the Consumer Electronics Show in January – Samsung, Google and Apple. Microsoft was last seen rumbling toward the elephant’s graveyard and the two likeliest candidates to replace it, Amazon and Facebook, were still shy of the necessary bulk.

Recent days have shown why Samsung and Google will rule the herd for a long time to come.

Google has so many market-default services that it’s accounting for 25% of daily Internet traffic, with 60% of the world’s devices touching it every day. Samsung has the same kind of diversification across sectors it either dominates or ranks within the top tier of competitors.

Although Samsung has nearly a third of the global smart phone market and just reported a quarterly operating profit of $8.5 billion, there was something of a panic last week because it’s looking like it is close to exhausting the immediate growth potential of this planet’s 7 billion or so potential customers.

Samsung’s response was to talk about chip and screen making as new growth areas, allowing it to continue its march to higher profits while it tries to figure out a reason to get everybody in the world to trade in their current Samsung Galaxy for a new one. It’s a company that uses dominating heft in one technology sector to gain market share across all business lines. In contrast, Microsoft’s warring fiefdoms keep it from building strength upon strength. The post-Jobs Apple looked like it might be going in that direction, too, but Tim Cook seems to have headed it off for now.

Facebook staged a stock price come back last week as it demonstrated a new command of the mobile advertising market. But it’s still a one platform pony. With global leadership in online retailing and a front-of-the-pack position in core Internet services, Amazon is best positioned to occupy the empty fourth elephant’s slot. It has enough weight, it just has to learn how to throw it around.

Facebook is first brand into the mobile skin game

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Sometimes innovation only needs to be skin deep.

Facebook Home is a new kind of threat to Android and a new kind of opportunity for mobile entrepreneurs. It’s middleware that’s downloaded onto select – for now – smartphones and acts as the top skin of the user interface. Instead, for example, of seeing the standard lock screen, users see their Facebook feed, constantly updated.

Android apps are still there, if you dig down. But if you just go with the flow all you see is what Facebook pushes to you. Which doesn’t necessarily have to be your feed. It could be any digital service or app that Facebook – or you, presumably – wants to inject.

Facebook Home might push Google’s suite of apps and services to the back of the smartphone bus. Long term, though, it could make Android itself unnecessary.

A raft of alternative mobile phone operating systems has floated onto the market this year. Tizen, Firefox and Ubuntu are the chase group. There’s no high level technical reason Facebook Home couldn’t overlay those operating systems too, making the underlying OS irrelevant to end users.

To be fair, web browsers offer a contrary example. Twenty years ago the hope was Java applications would run inside browsers, rendering Microsoft and others irrelevant. Didn’t happen, but it did add a subtle seasoning of fear to the competitive stew.

Facebook is walking point on smartphone middleware, but there’s no particular reason it has a lock on the market. The Facebook brand is a friendly, mass market way to introduce the idea. Once consumers are over that conceptual hurdle – I don’t think it’ll take long – there’s no barrier to carriers, other social networks or, indeed, pretty much any other brand doing the same thing. (I’m assuming Facebook can’t patent the fundamental idea of skinning a mobile OS, but that might be a tall assumption in our litigious world.)

HTML5 was supposed to be the grand unifier of the smartphone OS universe, and it still could be. Branded middleware can do it today.

Three elephants still standing

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Samsung had their attention at CES 2013.

Samsung left Las Vegas with a firm grip on the industry’s leadership crown. Its CES presence overshadowed other traditional consumer electronics companies, cementing its position as a dominant global technology player.

Paying Bill Clinton to guest star at its keynote address was just icing on the cake. Arguably, the flexible touch screen that Stephen Woo, Samsung’s president of electronic device solutions, also demonstrated on stage drew more attention than the ex-president.

With cutting edge products in pretty much every category present on the CES exhibit floor and the growing strength of its Galaxy tablets and smart phones in the critical mobile sector, Samsung had no peers. Sony and Panasonic tried to measure up, but fell far short. LG also combines success in mobile technology and devices with a full range of consumer electronics products, but lacks the strategic and market presence to lead.

Samsung was on the minds of most of the experts and executives who spoke at CES, and particularly at mobile and telecommunications oriented events and programs. Apple and Google were often mentioned too, but neither was at the show. And both depend on their mobile operating systems – iOS and Android – to maintain market control. Samsung has the luxury of choice. It can build products on top of the current technology leaders or nurture new ones.

Of the four mobile and technology “elephants” going into the show, the loser at CES was Microsoft. With mobile market share scraping along in the sub–5% range and maybe even falling, Windows 8 was an afterthought. Also absent from CES, Microsoft relied on technology partners and manufacturers like, well, Samsung to carry its message. It got little more than lip service.

Facebook and Amazon were most frequently mentioned as Microsoft’s likely replacement at the head of the pack. They didn’t exhibit at CES, either. This year’s show belonged to Samsung.