Google Voice Opens to the Public

Google Voice, the telephony management application offered by Google, opened up to everyone in the United States on Tuesday, and with a gang of nifty management apps, 1 million people have already signed up for accounts.

One of the most exciting features is the ability to manage your voicemail online like e-mail. Users can change their SMS messages to e-mail, personalize their voicemails for particular callers, share voicemails and voicemail transcriptions via e-mail, and manage their international bills and payment all from a web-based page that looks like an e-mail server.

Users can also activate one number that will cause all of their phones—office, house, cell—to ring at once. 

Other features include free calls to the U.S. and Canada and low international calling rates, basic conferencing abilities, and the ability to screen callers, sending them to your voicemail, so you can listen to the message they are giving and determine whether you want to answer.

There is a mobile app that helps run the program on smartphones as well.

Users who want to use Google voice but do not wish to switch their phone numbers can get the service minus the one number that reaches all phones, SMS via e-mail, call screening and listen in, call recording, conference calling and call blocking. They will receive the online voicemail, free automated voicemail transcription, custom voicemail greetings for different callers, e-mail and SMS notifications, and international calling.

FCC Seeks Tighter Broadband Oversight

The Federal Communication Commission voted 3 to 2 on Thursday in favor of a move to give it authority on how the Internet will be controlled. The vote by the agency, which is in charge of regulating the nation’s communications services, begins a process in which the public can comment on the F.C.C.’s proposal to overturn a ruling made under the Bush-era F.C.C. that classified broadband as an “information service.” Julius Genachowski, the head of the F.C.C., put forth three different possibilities for future regulation of broadband: It can stay as it is, which is entirely unregulated; it can be regulated under the same rules as telecommunications (the strictest regulatory option); or it can be regulated under the “third way”—where it is branded as telecommunications but given its own set of lighter regulations.

All appears to be riding on the definitions.

Defining broadband as a telecommunications service will give the F.C.C. greater power to regulate it, much like it regulates telecommunication services. However, the agency has made clear that it will not regulate Internet content, and will not impose such strict regulations telephone services. Keeping broadband defined as an “information service” will give Internet Service Providers, such as Comcast, AOL, and NetZero, free reign—preserving an entirely unregulated industry.

The move is contentious, and pitched battle cries have been ringing out from net neutrality groups, public interest groups and industry giants like Google, who are in favor of the rebranding. Battle cries equally as fierce have been ringing out from the ISP’s and free market advocates, who are disinclined toward the regulation.

The battle, like most are, seems to be a case of my idea of freedom is more free than yours.

According to an article in the Times, the F.C.C. began reconsidering its approach to broadband regulation after a court ruled that the F.C.C. could not block ISP’s from discriminating against any content or application. “The F.C.C. claimed that Comcast had done so by blocking access by its users to BitTorrent, a file-sharing service.

Net neutrality advocates argue that ISP’s, in doing so obstruct the free-flow of services and information; therefore, marginalize the consumers by favoring only their own services. Conversely, the ISP’s argue that government oversight will stifle the outstanding growth that has characterized the Internet boom over the past four years.

According to Wired Magazine, ISP’s are hoping to generate new revenue streams by charging online services extra money “to get in the fast lane” and by offering video services that compete with sites like Hulu and Youtube.

Embassy Suites Hotels Travel Survey

Business travelers are taking to the skies again, but doing so with an emphasis on frugality.

According to a survey of 700 business travelers by Embassy Suites Hotels, only 43 percent of working Americans said they were traveling less for business travel this year because of the economy. In 2009 that number was 51 percent.

However, 71 percent of those surveyed said their business habits were changing. These travelers would now be flying coach, cutting back on meals and even sharing rooms with colleagues to save money.

Business professionals indicated that the distance from their hotel to business meetings is their priority in booking hotel rooms (29 percent) with the cost of accommodations coming in close second (27 percent).

The survey also indicated that younger travelers have been more likely to use social media to search for deals as a means to cut costs. Forty-eight percent of business professionals between the ages of 21- and 34 said they consult Facebook prior to making travel decisions. Also, 50 percent of those surveyed within the same age group bring smart phones on their trips.

Though the recession is not yet over, business travelers seem to be clawing out of the slippery pit, and airline revenues for the first time since 2007 are projected to leap.

US Airways reported that corporate revenues for the airline have rebounded; however, they are nowhere near pre-recession levels.

Delta Airlines also reported a 63 percent spike in corporate travel sales over the past year.

Privacy Riles Google, Facebook, Apple

Privacy appears to be at an inverse relation to the information superhighway, and as the public cries for swift and effortless communication, a simultaneous cry is welling for consumer technology giants to pump the brakes.

The companies at the forefront of the communication revolution: Google, Facebook and Apple.

Time Magazine called these three “technology’s standard bearers” and “the three most innovative companies in Silicon Valley.”

The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed them “Tech’s Big Three,” and extolled them for being, “arguably the three most influential companies in consumer technology today.”

And their influence, in sheer numbers, is staggering: Steve Jobs announced at the WWDC event on June 7 that 5 billion apps have been downloaded and that Apple has paid $1 billion to app developers; according to the Facebook statistics site, there are 400 million active Facebook users (more than people who live in the United States, the 3rd most populous country in the world); and inquisitive Web users flock to Google in droves, plugging 91 million queries into the Google search bar each day, according to Search Engine Watch.

These numbers attest to the voracious societal hunger for fluid communication; however, a palpable trepidation has flickered up, both in the media and in the minds of individuals across the globe.

What is this concern? Privacy.

Who are the companies receiving the blame? Google, Facebook and Apple.

Google began making headlines in May because roving street cars collecting information for Google’s Street View service in Europe collected 600 gigabytes of private information from people whose Wi-Fi’s weren’t encrypted.

According to the New York Times, the data may include “personal information like e-mail and bank account numbers,” and was collected in 33 European countries and Hong Kong.

Consumer watchdog groups have also drummed up criticism, asserting that the Internet giant breaches privacy boundaries in its pursuit of targeted advertising.

Most recently, Apple has been criticized because Goatse Security, a hacker group, breached the iPad through a flaw in the Safari Web browser, exposing the personal e-mails of Rahm Emanuel and Mike Bloomberg, along with 114,000 others.

And Facebook grappled with a firestorm of its own when riled patrons of the site pitched complaints that Facebook violated their rights to confidentiality with altered privacy settings.

The company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is known for his philosophy of openness and has always pushed ‘Facebookers’ to embrace a sharing mentality. In fact, when a user goes on the Web site to change their privacy settings, his signature of influence is noticeable as it nudges, “The more you share, the more social the experience.”

Though Zuckerberg recently buckled to the pressure from users and adjusted the privacy settings to suit, experts warn that data mining techniques can still reveal private information.

According to an article in the Times, researches from the University of Texas at Austin took a user’s friends and patterns of interaction and were able to extrapolate private information about the user, all the way down to their social security numbers.

Though the methods used by the researchers involved complex statistical algorithms, vigorous data analysis and the crossing of that information with other databases such as hospital birth records, the study is telling in how private information can be exploited on the Web.

Amidst all this, it appears that internet users are becoming more cautious with Internet privacy, especially the youth.

A 2009 study conducted by Pew revealed that 71 percent of social media users have changed their privacy settings. The study also found that youth aged 18- to 29 were more likely to limit their personal information online (45 percent) compared to those aged 30- to 49 (33 percent) and those aged 50- to 64 (25 percent).

The study alludes that individuals are adapting to Internet privacy issues by ensuring that their information is limited in scope and guarded behind privacy barriers.

Still, the Web has demonstrated a stalwart aversion to reticence, and as Marc Andreesen, a Silicon Valley mogul, pointed out in the Time Magazine article, “The Web is so vast it defies attempts to control it.”

Free Wi-Fi Stirs Starbucks Customers

Starbucks announced that they would offer their customers free access to Wi-Fi via AT&T on July 1, a change that could have several implications for coffee drinkers who frequent the franchise regularly.

The move comes at a time when Starbucks is trying to reel in job seekers and resume refiners who have been out of jobs due to the high unemployment rates. Starbucks wants to position itself as an interim office for these people.

Also, independent coffee shops and McDonald’s, which both already offer free WI-Fi, have been siphoning customers away from the coffee giant, according to a June 15 Times article.

The Starbucks Wi-Fi package, called Starbucks Digital Network, partnered with Yahoo to include free access to paid sites, such as the Wall Street Journal; tools for people searching for jobs; and other entertainment features, such as free iTunes downloads.

Previously, Starbucks internet surfers went through an arduous process of buying and registering a Starbucks card, which allowed them to use the Web for two hours after completing a log-in process, according to the Times article. The new method streamlines the process by making WI-Fi a mere click away.

Still, some consumers remain mindful that free Wi-Fi will encourage people to loiter in the coffee shops too long, crowding tables or turning Starbucks into a business-like atmosphere

The same Times article quoted Jodi Geren, a local coffee-shop worker, who said a laptop takeover could make Starbucks “feel more like a library.”

Small Community Social Media

If you’ve been following the news at all, then you know about the flooding in a little town by the name of Caddo Gap, Arkansas. Before this weekend, it was never a town that was on the news, and it wasn’t exactly listed on any of the local maps. Before Friday, this part of Arkansas has never gotten a bit of national news coverage, and suddenly, it’s a town inundated with CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News. While for many of you, it’s just a sad news story that you see, but for me, it smacks me right in the heart, because that’s home.

Through all the sadness I can’t help but find an interesting study in community here. We talk about social media and how it’s a community, how we are all connected and how we help out when we need to, no matter what the cost. Twitter campaigns have been successful in events like the Nashville flood and the earthquakes in Haiti, and through communication, we have created sub-communities that stretch across oceans. What I’ve come to realize this weekend, is we treat Twitter like a small town community, not a large social network.

I truly believe that each of us, even if we can’t send money, we can send thoughts – we watch a news program and a story can touch us in a way that we didn’t expect. What you heard all weekend were rescue/recovery attempts and survivor stories – but what you didn’t hear about was how a small community pulled together to help out total strangers. I know this because I know people that were involved in the rescue as well as some who were affected personally by the tragedy. In a small community, the ties run deep.

Think about someone you might talk to a lot on Twitter, even if just about mundane things. Recently, a woman in my friend’s list daughter went missing, and though I didn’t know her, I found myself retweeting her “Missing” posters and joining the Facebook page for her daughter. Could I help? Probably not, but may someone who reads my Twitter would see it, and forward it to someone who could. It’s the small community idea – one person picks something up and runs with it and soon, everyone is pitching in. That is how Twitter is like a small community – we help strangers like we would family.

How do you treat Twitter like a small community? Do you reach out when someone needs help?

Passengers Hold Tight as Airline Industry Looks to the Future

The future of aviation looks dire.

For many 2010 travelers a typical air-bound trip includes snaking security lines, sundry fees, steadily increasing ticket prices, and a burdensome skepticism that their planes will arrive on time, if at all.

Indeed, the concern is so great that the Federal government established the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee in May, a board tasked with scrutinizing the industry’s woes and making recommendations as to how to wrestle with them.

According to a press release from the committee, the main issues arise in providing for the safety of travelers, balancing the industry’s competitiveness, ensuring the industry’s monetary viability and addressing environmental challenges and solutions.

Following 9/11 and proceeding into the global recession that began in 2007, airlines around the world slumped precariously into the red. The drop off of passenger traffic and the spike in crude oil prices clipped the wings of global aviation and, until recently, profits seemed unattainable.

However, The International Air Transport Association reported recently that airlines around the world were forecasted to post $2.5 billion in profits in 2010, a prediction that contrasts starkly from its previous forecast for a loss of $2.8 billion.

This news seems like the silver lining, but the stark oscillation in forecasts underlies the fact that airline revenues are inextricably based on volatile circumstances—volcanic eruptions, terrorism, weather, labor strikes and, most salient of all, ever-shaky gas prices.

Additionally, Airlines struggled to the surface by using rampant ancillary fees and aggressive cost cutting, methods that are unpopular with the airlines’ customers.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration a dip in oil prices occurred because of consumers’ being wary of the deepening depression, but by the end of next year the price per barrel is supposed to climb to $84 as demand ramps back up.

The incline in prices is not predicted to level off. 

“In the transportation sector, despite rising prices, use of liquid fuels increases by an average of 1.3 percent per year, or 45 percent overall from 2007 to 2035,” according to the IATA report. Prices of oil are linked to the level of demand.

Most estimates maintain that alternative fuels will not be advanced enough to supplant liquid fuels for at least a decade, a forecast that ensures higher ticket prices for consumers.

In addition to rising ticket prices travelers will be continually beleaguered by congested airports. Airport lines provided enough angst amongst consumers that legislation is pending in congress to direct the Transportation Security Administration to uphold a program allowing passengers on a registered list to pass through lines more expediently. These passengers will have been previously screened and deemed to be low risk.

Despite such efforts, airport traffic is on the up and up and, for a lack of funds, airports cannot supply the infrastructure in manpower or airport property to expand and alleviate lines.

Mergers such as the one that nearly occurred between Continental and United will become more likely as airlines try to cope with the skyrocketing gas prices.

The USA Today reported that when airlines merge flights are usually atrophied and prices are usually raised.

Bill McGee, the author of the USA Today article, conducted a study in the St. Louis area following the merger of TWA and American airlines in which he analyzed the fares of six regional routes. 

Airlines that used to compete over the same routes were pulled under one umbrella, so the incentive for competition was undermined and prices were raised, according to the study.

Furthermore, pressure is continually mounting to stave off the environmental impact of the transportation sector, and the European Union even has a plan to charge carriers for their carbon emissions—a stipulation that would further strain the price of airfare.

The Future of Aviation Committee will meet four times before the end of the year, at which point they will report their findings and suggestions to U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood.

TSA Strengthens Security Measures Following Terror Attacks

The Transportation Security Administration adopted more strictly enforced security measures following the two terror attempts that have endangered Americans in the past few months.

In response to the first attempt, which occurred on Dec. 25 when a passenger lit a device intended to blow up on a Detroit-bound Delta aircraft, the Transportation Security Administration announced they would strengthen security procedures throughout passenger check-in and boarding processes.

The security measures increase “the use of explosive trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, and pat downs among other security measures,” according to an April 2 press release issued by the TSA.

According to a statement made by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in the press release, “These new measures utilize real-time, threat-based intelligence along with multiple, random layers of security, both seen and unseen, to more effectively mitigate evolving terrorist threats.”

The second attempt occurred on May 1 in Times Square when a bomber tried to detonate a car bomb.

Security officials apprehended bomb suspect, Faisal Shahzad, moments before he made his escape on an Emirates flight bound for Dubai. 

Shahzad had been allowed to board the flight because of a time-lapse in checking the ‘no-fly’ blacklist.

New regulations following the attempt force airlines to check no fly lists within two hours of when they receive notice of a special threat such as the NYC bomb attempt.

Previously, airlines were compelled to check the list only within 24 hours.

Rising Oil Prices Spike Travel Costs

With the rising trend in crude oil prices, travelers are likely to see an increase in airfares and gasoline prices this summer. 

According to the annual Bing Travel forecast for the 2010 summer travel season, domestic airfares are poised to jump by as much as 22 percent and flights to Europe could jump by 29 percent.

Domestic flights would average $303 per ticket and flights to Europe would average $1,271 per ticket, according to the report.

These prices are up from the 2009 and 2008 summer traveling seasons.

Domestic flights are gradually becoming more costly as the price of crude oil goes up. Increased airfares to Europe come from attempts to offset the losses incurred from the volcanic eruption as well as increasing oil prices.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the world oil consumption will grow by 1.6 million barrels a day in 2010. Burgeoning economies in countries such as India and China fuel the increase in consumption, according to the EIA.

Additionally, the global economic recovery will cause more oil consumption because greater numbers of people will be traveling and spending money.

Crude oil averaged $84 per barrel in April, about $3 per barrel above the prior month’s average, indicating the gradual incline.

EIA forecasts that regular-grade motor gasoline retail prices will average $2.94 per gallon during the summer, up from $2.44 per gallon last summer. 


Carbon Emissions from Business Air Travel Elicit Turn to Green Meetings

Businesses facing the dual pressures of remaining sensitive to environmental impacts and a need to communicate by using in-person meetings and conferences have turned to “green meetings” to bridge the divide.

According to the Department of Transportation, airlines in the United States carried 62.4 million scheduled domestic and international passengers in March 2010 alone, which represents a 2.4 percent increase from the same month in 2009.

As the economy rebounds, the numbers are projected to keep rising, and according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, business men and women going to meetings represent a hefty portion of those travelers: 16 percent.

While business travel is rebounding, several companies are attempting to offset their carbon footprints by implementing environmentally sound practices in planning their meetings, and organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and The National Business Association have released guidelines on how to do so. 

According to the EPA Web site, “Anyone who has ever organized a conference or meeting knows the monetary and environmental costs involved in such an undertaking.” So the goal is to, “show hosts, planners and suppliers how to incorporate green principles into every aspect of conference and meeting planning.”

With simple tips such as, using paperless technology, reducing distances traveled for meeting locations, and choosing hotels that offer recycling and linen reuse programs, the EPA hopes to reduce the environmental impact of in-person meetings.

In a response to the popularity of the green meeting, Starwood Hotels, which owns popular brands such as W Hotels, Westin and Sheraton, recently launched sustainable meeting practices that will be implemented in all of their properties worldwide.

"Rolling this program out across North America formalizes environmental practices our hotels have been implementing and we are excited to encourage," said Sandy Swider, Starwood's Vice President for Global Citizenship, in a press release issued by Starwood.