The Digital World Pivots Around Me

Maybe Galileo had it wrong when he said the earth gravitates around the sun.

Today, I arrived at work ready to consume my news. I didn’t flip open a newspaper. I didn’t look for a remote to watch Good Morning America. I didn’t grab my iPhone to first turn to the New York Times or The Washington Post to sift through 100 stories that I didn’t want to read in order to find three that I did. I opened up my Google alerts, then checked my Twitter, then checked my News Feed on Facebook. Here I found stories that I had seeded the internet for, that my friends were taking part in, or that my friends had, because their preferences parallel mine, recommended to me. Hmm, my news seems to revolve around me.

On Twitter today, I stumbled across a link to a NYT article by Nick Bilton. Bilton writes, “If you pull out your smartphone and click the button that says locate me on your mapping application, you will see a small dot appear in the middle of your screen. That’s you.” After this, Bilton pointed out that as you move, your proxy, that little dot on the map, stays still; it’s the map that moves to keep up with you. Hmm, my mapping application likes to keep me in the center of the world.

As I jumped from link to link to link on Facebook today, I noticed an advertisement for Dallas- Cowboys-colored M&M’s that kept appearing on each page: my profile, my Facebook home page, my cousin’s photo album of her trip to Amsterdam. The ad was following me around! And it wasn’t the only advertisement stalking me. I seem to be the virtual host for a “Groupon” ad that pops up in the strangest places: “Deal of the Day: sushi half-off,” the ad tells me when I read The NYT, CNet, and the Wall Street Journal. Hmm, my advertisements seem to orbit me like officious peddlers in a Chinese market.

Bilton explains that this new online universe, the one that is geared toward the individual, is the way of the future. It’s a world where people don’t buy maps of the zoo, of Paris, or of the state of Missouri, they buy maps of themselves; maps that go where they go and change with their changing locations.

The same goes with the consumption of information. Consumers are now their own gatekeepers. They decide which news comes to them through their acquaintances, through their preferences, and, in advertising, through the trail of cookies they leave on Web sites as they surf.

“Now you are the starting point,” he writes. “Now the digital world follows you, not the other way around.”

The Internet has spawned a new generation that forces media to bend to each individual’s preference. My friends don’t watch Modern Family when it comes out Wednesday night. They watch it on their smartphones during class.

This generation wants the media consumption experience hyper-personalized. Therefore, content creators need to be diverse. Content should be consumable on televisions, computers, smartphones and tablets. The new generation wants the digital experience. They want to comment, to like, to get involved. They want to be in the center.

Galileo may have been right when he said the physical world orbits the sun. As for the digital world, it gravitates around me.

FCC to Open Wireless Across TV Spectrum

The F.C.C. will vote on Sept. 23 to make wireless Internet service available over airwaves, unlocking the potential of “Wi-Fi on steroids.”

If approved, the move will allow the white space portion of television broadcast spectrum to be used for wireless networks, which will do away with the need to find a wireless hot spot and will open the door to super powerful Wi-Fi networks.

The move will likely pave the way for a new suite of enhanced Wi-Fi devices capable of passing through walls and transmitting data over much greater distances than current technology. The stronger signals will bring wireless to rural areas, minimize dead zones, and help connect vast corporate campuses, hospitals and the like.

Furthermore, the FCC is doing away with the traditional practice of auctioning off the spectrum for revenues. The whitespace spectrum will be available without a license and for anyone to grab. The unused bands of television spectrum have been languishing all this time, but now, given the approval by the F.C.C. this month, start-up companies that have traditionally been unable to afford spectrum will be able to compete.

The idea is not without issue: broadcasters fear the new use of signals will interfere with their transmissions, and industries using microphones, such as theaters, stadiums and churches have objected to similar decisions in the past for fear of microphone interference.

 The F.C.C. tried to skirt these problems in the past by requiring new devices to include a feature that electronically searches for airwaves that are unoccupied. This failed to reconcile the problem, however, because the feature and the increased engineering intensity would have made devices more expensive.

As of the time of this writing, there is uncertainty regarding exactly how the F.C.C. plans to cope with the problem of interference, but analysts speculate that wireless microphones and broadcasts will be given certain transmission priorities.

According to CNET, the F.C.C. has mapped TV channels and major wireless microphone usage areas such as Broadway, and will require the devices using the white space to be configured around the frequencies of the mapped areas. Still, this posits the same problem as the previous ruling: developers may be unwilling to foot the hefty bill.

Nonetheless, Wi-Fi on steroids appears to be just around the corner as the F.C.C. seems poised on an affirmative vote. Early next year, certain Wi-Fi hotspots will be able to range for miles rather than half a football field.

Telecom Industry Outlook: Proliferation and Innovation

While the world economy lurches through an economic recovery that economists are now saying will take longer than predicted, the telecom industry is forecasted to be a flotation device, one of the major industries driving economic resurgence.

According to an analysis by TMC Net, overall dynamics seem to be shifting in favor of telecom, primarily due to it being needed both in developed and underdeveloped nations.

Another reason the telecom industry is predicted to be a boon is because of its sheer size.

“The telecommunications industry encompasses a lot of technology-related businesses. Besides the legacy local and long-distance wireline phone services, telecommunications also include wireless communications, Internet services, fiber optics networks, cable TV networks and commercial satellite communications,” reads the TMC Analysis.

The telecom industry remains buoyant for two reasons: a generally improving overall global economy, and the speed with which technological inventions are churned out, making even saturated markets profitable.

A clear example of the machinery allowing the telecom industry such flexibility amid hard times can be viewed in China. Since increased connectivity is an investment toward prosperity in the future, China devoted $586 million in government pump spending to telecommunications infrastructure. In doing so, China has grown its mobile supplier base to nearly 800 million—the majority of these subscribers coming during the recession.  On the other end, the US, which is nearly 90 percent saturated, remains a profitable market because of the continuous network product upgrades and invention by the industry players.

And the developing world isn’t far behind. China began to deploy its own 3G network this year, opening up a market opportunity of more than $10 billion for several telecom companies, from wireless providers to equipment suppliers.

As the world becomes more connected, the market becomes more saturated; therefore, the revenue stream of garnering new subscribers begins to dry up. However, the perpetual cycle of progress, spurred on my competition and inventiveness foretells a continuously robust future for telecom.

Soon, companies will be putting forth 4G networks, data downloading will completely supplant voice calls for revenue generation, and smartphones will become more ubiquitous than the already old-fashioned feature phone.

What’s next? Who Knows? The only thing that appears certain is telecoms continued prevalence.

Hidden Airline Fees Spark Online Petition

The angst for hidden airline fees became more vociferous on Tuesday when three advocacy groups for travelers and travel agencies grabbed headlines by making an online petition called madashellabouthiddenfees.com.

The American Society of Travel Agents, the Business Travel Coalition and the Consumer Travel Alliance made the site in hopes of forcing airlines to be more transparent on fees. They also want to allow travel booking companies access to free schedules.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation is examining this growing problem,” the site read. “They want your views on whether airlines should make their fees clear on their own websites and make them available to all travel agents so that travelers can compare the total cost of travel.”

The petition will be taken to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood on Sept. 23, hoping the government will force airlines to present fees through global distribution systems and online travel agencies.

According to “Mad as Hell About Hidden Fees,” ancillary fees can add up to 30 percent more on to travelers’ airfare tickets.

In 2009 fees such as checked bag, Wi-FI, and seat upgrades accounted for $7.8 billion in revenues for U.S. airlines, and many of these fees are hard to track because the airlines have unbundled them and don’t charge them until after the initial booking.

The airline industry disagrees, saying fees are readily viewable on all sites and flyers have the option of sticking to base fares so long as they don’t want to add extras such as Wi-Fi, upgraded seats, or check bags.

David Castelveter, the Air Transport Association spokesman, told the Dallas Morning News yesterday that fees are only incurred when passengers go for more options.

“I went to the websites of all our members, and there isn’t one of our carriers that didn’t have bag fees prominently displayed when you book,” he told the Dallas Morning News.

Federal Court Allows Warrantless Cell Tracking

A federal court ruled on Tuesday that the FBI and other police agencies don’t need a search warrant to track the locations of Americans’ cell phones, a decision that sets a new precedent in the privacy versus security conundrum.

A Philadelphia appeals court ruled that officers needn’t get a judge’s signature to obtain logs tracking a user’s phone location, arguing that these types of records are not protected by the fourth amendment, which shields citizens from “unreasonable” searches.

The court still said judges may require investigators to obtain a search warrant, though it’s an option they recommended to be “used sparingly.”

The argument is in accordance with the Obama’s administrations assertion that Americans have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their whereabouts; meaning we shouldn’t expect where we have been to be a secret.

The decision is not an outright victory for the Obama administration, however, because lower courts can still require the government to show probable cause, which is the same standard as warrants.

According to Wired.com, historical cell-site information is retained for about 18 months by cell companies, and this identifies the cell tower that customers were connected to at the beginning and end of each call. The decision by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia allows the release of this information to law enforcement to be determined by district court judges—meaning the statute puts the issue in a sort-of limbo.

Also, the court admitted that it left the statute open for interpretation, so it remains that there is no clear nationwide standard for government access to this information.

US Airways Pilots Picket Against Low Wages

The pilots of US Airways picketed today at the Philadelphia International Airport to bring attention to the airline’s refusal to renegotiate contracts since 2005.

The stalemate has festered over time, and US Airways pilots now receive the lowest wages among all the major airlines.

According to a press release issued by The US Airlines Pilots Association (USAPA) the pilots have tried to reason with the airline and have recognized the burdens of the recession and the terror attacks of Sept. 11. Now, however, the pilots have had enough.

“The pilots of US Airways have made significant concessions to help the airline successfully navigate multiple bankruptcies and the economic challenges that resulted from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,” USAPA President Mike Cleary said in the release. “Now that those difficult times are behind us, US Airways is not stepping up at the bargaining table.”

The release goes on to explain that US Airways pilots as a whole have found the ongoing merger between US Airways and America West Airlines, which began in 2005 and has not closed, to be untenable.

The pilots complain that they are held under obsolete contracts that were brokered even before the merger took place. Pilots under the former America West contracts abide by different rules than those who signed contracts under US Airways prior to the merger.

In 2009, the pilots requested a hearing before the National Mediation Board, but US Airways turned them down. In November of the same year, the pilots circumvented permission by US Airways and applied for a mediator directly. They were granted that request in January 2010, but US Airways management has been putting off negotiations, according to the release.

“After five years of management’s stalling tactics—while we work for substantially less than our industry peers—we have to consider what’s best for our membership,” Cleary said in the release.

If the situation continues unanswered by US Airways, the USAPA may reach the self-help stage of mediation, in which the Union could strike or take other measures to obtain their desires in full and temporarily cease the airline’s operations.

The picketing event was held today between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm at Philadelphia International Airport.

New Rulings May Alleviate Airline Travelers’ Burdens

Airline travelers may finally catch some breaks as a few regulators are making moves to curb airline actions that have stoked passengers’ frustration.

One of these newly passed rules, called Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections, is meant to alleviate some of the burdens on passengers who have been increasingly stuck on tarmacs—often without air conditioning and beverages.

The DOT implemented the rule in April and capped tarmac wait times at three hours. The legislation included several other rules which are still pending: passengers may soon be permitted to exit the aircraft if delays exceed three hours, airlines may have to provide food and water within two hours of delayed flights, and airlines may have to disclose and take effort to reduce chronically delayed flights.

In the first two months of implementation, tarmac wait times exceeding three hours dropped to eight instances from 302 instances during the same two months in 2009, according the USA Today. However, the results may be skewed because flight schedule reductions have been more numerous this year, meaning fewer flights to clog up tarmacs.

Beyond the tarmac wait-time portions of the rule, the DOT also aims to increase the compensation paid to passengers who are involuntarily bumped off overbooked airlines.

Another piece of legislation that will help consumers if passed is a new bill by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia called the Airline Baggage and Accountability Act.

This bill is a response to the unpopular baggage fees that airlines have implemented en masse since the recession. An uprising of complaints from travelers, corporate travel managers and consumer advocacy groups have pointed out that muggy wording has served to hide fees and has abridged travelers from making informed airline choices.

The bill obligates airlines to disclose all fees at the point of sale, so fees can no longer be buried to surprise travelers afterward.       

Controversially, the bill also aims to tax airlines on charges for baggage fees. Some say this additional tax will adversely affect travelers as they will ultimately subsidize it because the airlines will simply charge more in baggage fees to cover it. Others say the revenues from the tax will go to building airline industry infrastructure, which ultimately benefits travelers by making smoother-running airport experiences.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has likewise recognized travelers’ needs for better treatment on the tarmac and transparency for unbundled fees, and they include language in their massive Reauthorization plan to extend these rights to passengers. The FAA version requires airlines to give passengers water and let them go to the bathroom at any time on the tarmac, not only at some point within the first two hours.

Google-ITA Deal Reinvestigated by Justice Dept.

The U.S. Justice department is investigating the Google takeover of airline ticketing software firm ITA Software Inc, to see whether the deal would give Google too much influence over the online travel industry.

The DOJ investigation is at an early stage, but antitrust authorities are looking at whether travel industry rivals would still be able to access ITA’s data and whether Google would unfairly route searchers to its own travel services, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Google bought ITA, a flight information software company, in July for $700 million. ITA is a price aggregation service that has served sites like Kayak, Orbitz and Hotwire for 17 years, but in Google’s hands the software could cut those online travel booking sites out of the deal. Google plans to use the software to display fares, times, dates and flight plans on the actual Google page, so searchers using Google will no longer have to navigate to sites that traditionally provide this information.

DOJ attorneys are in the process of asking travel industry executives if Google could cut off rivals from accessing ITA’s software, the WSJ said, citing sources familiar with the questioning.

In a Google blog post concerning the matter Andrew Silverman, Google’s Senior Product Manager, said the second eyeballing by the DOJ would likely delay the merger, but added that the company was confident that the investigation would close in Google’s favor.

“We’re confident the DOJ will conclude that online travel will remain competitive after this acquisition closes,” he wrote. “In fact, over the past few weeks online travel companies have noted that they have alternatives to ITA’s product.”

Nonetheless, Google controls 63 percent of the American search market, and online booking companies have rolled up their sleeves for a fight. They want to avoid having to pay for their listings to posted alongside Google’s, and since so many people turn to Google for search, preference given by Google to its own travel listings could sound the travel listing companies’ death knell.

In an unrelated but revealing antitrust investigation, Texas attorney general Gregg Abbott, has raised questions about how Google ranks Web sites on the search page. The issue is called search neutrality, and several companies allege that Google unfairly puts their competitors ahead of them.

In response, Google announced that its responsibility is to its users, not to Web sites, and that the company prioritized giving searchers the most relevant and helpful information.

In this light, it is possible that consumers will benefit from Google entering the travel search business. Arthur Frommer, the well known travel expert, points out the massive discrepancies in the current state of travel search. For example, sites like Expedia, Kayak and Orbitz all claim to give unbiased, and holistic travel aggregating services, yet the same inquiry typed into each site yields drastically different fares.

“The current situation is untenable. It needs Google to straighten things out,” Frommer writes.

Still, the main fear is that Google will monopolize the search industry and shake up the travel industry too much in general—by charging airlines to post flights on the main Google page. And although there are alternatives to ITA’s MIT-developed software, it is regarded as the most powerful, and, should Google disallow its competitors to use it, the scale could tilt in Google’s favor to the disadvantage of all.

However, Google has stated that it does not plan to sell airline tickets, whereas the other Web sites do; the search engine is only concerned with optimizing search. Google said they would still drive traffic to other sites for the actual purchasing of tickets.

Chinese Smartphones Go Global

Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, released a Google Android equipped smartphone called the Idoes, a move that signals China’s first foray into the global smartphone market.

The Ideos goes on sale in China next week, but Huawei, which is already one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world, plans to market the phone in Europe, Latin America, and—yes—North America too.

Though this is not the countries first smartphone, it is the first smartphone that will be marketed globally.

And if any of the Chinese companies are currently suited to do it, it’s Huawei. The company has made its fortune as one of the world’s largest telecom equipment suppliers, and it is known as the most technologically advanced companies in China.

Huawei teamed up with Google to create the Ideos, which has a body and shiny screen similar to the iPhone, but boasts a Google logo on the back.

According to the New York Times, the company has spoken with several network providers worldwide, and several companies are interested.

The phone will be marketed as an entry-level smartphone and will cost somewhere between $100 and $200.

Huawei is the same company that riled congress members when it tried to broker equipment supplier contracts with American telecom companies earlier this month. The company is privately owned but has reportedly received funding and support from the Chinese government.

Despite this and the controversy between Google and Chinese-government censorship, the two companies remained undeterred.

Americans should expect to see the Lenovo, which will be offered in several color choices, sometime before the year’s end.

Bedbugs in Hotels

In an analysis conducted by USA Today on TripAdvisor, traveler reviews including complaints of bedbugs in hotels have jumped 11 percent nationwide.

The study was prompted because of repeated headlines in New York City regarding an influx of bedbugs in hotels there. In fact, the study found a 12 percent jump in bedbug complaints in Big Apple hotels.

The nationwide analysis took a snapshot of TripAdvisor hotel reviews for the first eight months of 2009 and 2010 and compared them to find the 11 percent jump in bedbug mentions.

Bedbugs are tiny parasitic insects that feed preferentially on human blood, and though they were thought to have been largely eradicated by DDT in the developed world, they have lately been resurging. And, in the New York area at least, they seem to have expensive taste.

In July, the creepy crawlers invaded the Manhattan offices of CNN, and they infested a Hollister clothing shop in SoHo, causing the shop to close down.

In another incident, Pop Singer Lauren Hildebrandt complained of painful, itchy bumps after staying in a posh, $500-a-night NYC hotel. Upon examination they were discovered to have been bedbugs, which had plagued her during her sleep.

Hildebrandt was so put-off by the incident that she instructed her public relations team to issue a statement warning travelers about the bugs. She would not, however, release the name of the hotel.

In July, the USA Today ran a poll via their Hotel Check-In service that surveyed 4,200 people. Of those surveyed, 47 percent said they don’t fully unpack their bags, many citing fear of bringing bedbugs home.