Travelers Burdened With City Taxes

Travelers are seeing a new array of taxes levied on them, this time, from cities, which are facing budgets that are increasingly strict and porous.

According to a recent report by the National Business Travel Association, cities are shaking travelers for revenues through bed taxes, airport concession taxes and car rental taxes.

These taxes are being appropriated to fund tourism campaigns, bolster failing budgets and fund airport improvements.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that cities are trying to get lean in general, with some selling off their zoos, parking garages and airports.

When added to sales taxes, travelers can expect to pay an average of $28 in taxes a day on their cost of lodging, car rentals and meals in the nation’s top 50 destination cities, according to the NBTA.

The cities with the highest taxes on travelers were Chicago ($38.75), New York ($36.53), and Boston ($36.47).

The cities with the lowest tax burden on travelers were Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Portland and Detroit.

Does Technology Endanger Outdoor Recreationists?

Technology and the frontiers have a strange relationship.

Within the tenor of the city, cell phones, computers and other shiny devices abound. Within the hush of nature, the mind typically conjures a world infused with birds and beasts and a landscape experienced in fractal, one devoid of the devices employed to speed up our lives.

However, technology often helps people to forge deeper and more boldly into the wilderness. Lewis and Clark used the sextant to measure the angles of the stars and navigate Westward through The New World; the diver Jacques Ernest-Jean Piccard used a pressured bathyscaphe to dive over seven miles into the sea; and now SUV’s, cell phones and GPS devices are emboldening tourists to delve deeper into national parks, often into precarious situations.

The New York Times ran an article Friday detailing several accounts—many of which were pretty humorous—of people finding themselves in sticky situations, due, in some part to their reliance on or misuse of their technological devices.

One example recounts how hikers used an emergency button on their SPOT GPS device to summon an emergency helicopter because their water “tasted salty.”To add to the absurdity, the inept hikers summoned the emergency rescuers three separate times, the last one resulting in their leader being ticketed and the entire group being dismissed from the park.

On the surface, the NYT article seems to cast the blame on technology. Take the Headline: Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble. This title personifies the word ‘”technology,” rendering it an embodied figure leading park visitors by the hand off a precipice or into a bear den.

The article talks about people backing off cliffs while taking pictures, risking summits or rafting trips that they wouldn’t have considered had they been without a cell phone, and it even includes Youtube footage of people attacked by animals because they were too busy peering through camcorder lenses.

What the article doesn’t make clear is that the gap in the continuum between these people and Lewis and Clark or Jacques Ernest-Jean Piccard may be greater than the Grand Canyon itself.

Technology such as SPOT, which is a GPS device, is constructed with adventurer-safety in mind. The very intention is to help the situation of the endangered traveler, not to confound the problem through misuse.

Going into the wilderness carries with it a level of inherent risk, and the SPOT Web site is replete with S.O.S. situations in which death was averted because of the device. The majority of the accounts listed were of expert outdoorsmen who, despite taking several precautions, found themselves in trouble. It is hard to say these instances constitute a misuse; especially, as many of the adventures would have been undertaken without the device.

Write on North Korea’s Wall

Through the wonders of modern technology and a little social media network known as Facebook, it was possible for to “friend” North Korea for about a day.  Since it’s creation on Thursday, the profile for the country gained 65 friends.  But as of right now, the profile has been blocked.

It is not yet known if the website Facebook itself blocked the profile after it was discovered by the Associated Press.  More likely it was South Korea who also blocked the Facebook profile once before in 2007, as well as more recently blocking North Korea’s Twitter account.  The North Korean YouTube profile still appears to be up.  

The South Korea's Communications Standards Commission deems North Korea’s social media forays as illegal under the National Security Law.

"We are aware of the Facebook account and the police and the National Intelligence Service are currently investigating the site to verify whether it is indeed run by the North Korean government," Commission official Han Myung-ho said Friday.  "If we find that this Facebook account also carries content violating the National Security Law, we will do our duty of shutting it down as well."

Content on these government-run accounts are propaganda based, praising North Korea, degrading South Korea, etc.  The YouTube videos in particular are filled with North Korea denying any role in the destruction of a South Korean ship and the deaths of the sailors.  

Of course the information is for the rest of the world to see as most North Koreans are not allowed computers, let alone to access to such websites.


LG Readies Tablet and Smartphone Incursion

The afore-quiet LG is plunging into the smartphone world, announcing today that they would launch 10 smartphones and sell five million devices by the end of 2010.

If that doesn’t impress, they are also releasing a new tablet that Chang Ma, the marketing man for LG, says is going to top the iPad.

The company is scuttling to catch up with industry competitors who have been riding the premium-phone wave for some time now. The Optimus smartphone line is their prospective engine.

LG’s tablet computer will be marketed globally by the end of the year too. The software base for the tablet, also called the Optimus, will be Google Android, and it varies from the iPad in that users can create content rather than just view it.

The LG tablet will gravitate around tools that allow document writing, editing and video creation.

The move likely comes from the company’s recognition that the feature phone market is becoming saturated. In America, for example, about 77 percent of people are already mobile subscribers. Profits no longer amount from increasing subscriber penetration like they used to. In a user-end driven market, companies increasingly need to compete with premium phones like Androids and iPhones. And though LG is the third-largest handset maker, the company is clearly playing catch up.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the company’s share of the smartphone market was 1.2 percent in the second quarter of this year, and in July, LG’s handset unit reported a 31 percent decline amid the smartphone frenzy.

LG will be making a dramatic push though. Starting with the Optimus One, which will launch through 120 operators, the execs at LG have a carefully tailored marketing plan.

Quoted in the WSJ, Chang Ma, the marketing man for LG, said the Optimus One will be a gateway smartphone for people who have not yet owned one—an indication that the company is going for simplicity off the bat.

As of yet there is no official word that they will be pitching their tablet with a wireless provider, yet some analysts predict that it will likely have one.


Virtually Dining Out

Zagat, Foursquare, and Foodspotting have several things in common.  They are all about restaurants and food, they are fueled by consumer interaction, they each have a smartphone app, and now they are combined together in the newly released iPhone app, ‘Zagat to Go’.

Zagat is known for its reviews and ratings of restaurants, and the new app is a mobile, up to date version for iPhone users.  With the integration for Foursquare, users can now “check in” to Zagat to Go when they eat somewhere.  The app keeps track of the checkins, as well as any user submitted opinions.

Along with professional reviews and user comments, Zagat to Go is integrated with Foodspotting, an app that includes pictures of thousands of restaurant’s menus.  Foodspotting--and now Zagat to Go--allows users to take pictures of the food they order to share on the app.

The Zagat app follows a trend of integrating smartphones and mobile apps with user locations and GPS coordinates, with the hopes of providing as much information about a place as possible without having actually been there yet. 

Chinese Telecom Market in Perspective

News hit this week that China’s economy surpassed Japan’s and took the number two spot. Newspapers were ablaze describing the different implications and quoting experts for insight and projections. At AccuConference, all the uproar got us thinking about the implications for the Telecommunications sector.

Telecom infrastructure is necessary for economic growth as it facilitates the communication between other industries; therefore, coming off the economic downturn, the implications for telecom couldn’t be greater. This need is reflected in the global telecom spending as a share of GDP.

According to an industry review by The Insight Research Corporation (IRC) global telecom spending as a share of GDP went from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 4.8 percent in 2006. By 2013 it is supposed to jump to 5.9 percent. This growth has resulted in worldwide revenues of $1.9 trillion and is projected to leap to $3.7 trillion by 2015.

Amid this impressive compound growth, different regions of the world account for different growth rates. The lowest is the Europe/Mid East/Africa region, which is slowed because of poor conditions in much of the Middle East and wireless saturation in Europe. By contrast, the Asia-Pacific region has the fastest overall compound annual growth rate, with 17.9 percent.

This region is buoyed most vigorously by China. With a burgeoning middle class and surging GDP rates overall, Chinese telecommunications companies are aggressively broadening their broadband penetration.

The industry review by the IRC expects the growth of telecommunications in the Asia Pacific Region, which has strong contributions from India, to surpass that of North America this year, making it the region producing the most revenues in the world.

Factors driving this include the massive underserved population and the turning of China into a consumer-driven economy, a feat that the Government is adamantly advocating and directly pursuing through policy choices.

For example, the Chinese government is investing heavily in infrastructure and has devoted $586 million in government pump spending to development. A good portion of this stimulus is devoted to telecommunication projects.

Just for a frame of reference: China Mobile, the largest mobile company in the country, had a total subscriber base of 554.04 million subscribers by the end of June 2010. The entire population of the United States is less than 400 million. Despite this massive base, China Mobile signed up 31.8 million people in the first six months of this year. These numbers are from this WSJ report.

When all of the mobile subscribers are tallied across all providers, the number reaches nearly 800 million.

Despite this, the big three providers—China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom—have their problems, namely in that their growth is starting to wane.

To maintain growth, the companies have strategized to attract users to third generation mobile, which is meant to generate profits and curb the $21 billion spent rolling out the 3G service.

China Mobile posted $4.7 billion in net profit for the quarter from April through June.

Nonetheless, The New York Times reports that China Mobile faces a struggle forward, as competition for and saturation of subscribers increases.


American Airlines Charges Extra For Front-Row Seats

American Airlines announced a new plan today that will charge passengers who want to sit in the first two or three rows, including bulkhead, extra.

The product, called the “Express Seats Option,” will beguile customers into paying from $19 to $39 to sit in the first rows, which typically represent prime aircraft real estate.

According to the AA site, the extra charges include Group 1 of general boarding priority.

To use AA’s word, the “option” of purchasing the tickets is extended to all AA passengers and can be purchased via airport Self-Service Check-In machines 24 hours to 50 minutes prior to flight departure time.

This is the third program AA has launched under the “Your Choice” initiative, following Group 1 stand-alone service, which allows passengers to be among the first to board, and the boarding and flexibility package that works like insurance against flight-change charges, and early flight standby options.

"Express Seats” is another tactic for generating extra revenue.

Some critics of the plan point out that the said “option” is merely charging for seats that used to be free before, which means passengers are paying for perks that used to be included in base rates.

AA spokesman Tim Smith told the Star-Telegram that AA may begin charging for other perks in the future, depending on the outcome of this move.

Also, American’s move may be a forebear that other airlines will be watching, meaning passengers may see the stratagem being practiced across other carriers in the future.

Airlines Surge on Surcharges, Fees

Airlines are trying to make the most out of the surge in travel demand, and in many cases, the travelers are the ones paying.

First, travelers can expect to pay as much as $60 in surcharges when booking certain flights in the U.S. in the course of summer and holiday travel.

According to Bloomberg, industry experts say that there are 49 days with surcharges in the five months from August to Dec.31.

Surcharges will be seen Aug.1 to Aug. 22; Sept. 2 and 3; the two days before Labor Day weekend; Nov. 19 to Nov. 29, which are Thanksgiving travel days, and Dec. 17 to Dec. 31, except for Christmas Day, according to the Bloomberg article.

Surcharges began in 2009 when carriers like Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines figured out they could boost fares on peak travel days to skim greater profits. Airlines have traditionally boosted rates on peak demand days, but carriers switched to surcharges because they could levy separate charges to make more money rather than change the actual base rates. So, with surcharges, the price to fly goes up, but the base rate stays the same. It’s basically a simplification process for the airlines, saving them the burden of raising millions of base prices on certain days only to change them back to the original rate on other days.

Also, pricing rules did not allow the extra amount to be added onto certain days until 2009, according to the Bloomberg article.

The problem is, it results in less transparency for the passengers, and the fares are often hidden in the transaction.

For example, to find surcharges, passengers must look up their total ticket price, realize a disconnect between the base fare and the surcharge, then scroll through the fine print on the “fare rules.”

Carriers Southwest, JetBlue Airways Corp., and AirTran Holdings Inc. and Virgin America Inc. don’t use surcharges.

In addition passengers will incur more traveling costs through ancillary fees.

Airlines found these fees—checked baggage, Internet, in-flight Wi-Fi—to be great mechanisms for boosting profit during the economic slump beginning in 2007. In 2009 these fees amounted to $7.8 billion in revenues.

They aren’t going anywhere. The International Air Transport Association says the global airline industry is poised to make $58 million through 2010.

These fees, too, pose transparency difficulties, as many passengers are realizing that air travel cost is going up, but not only because of surcharges.

So, when the Bureau of Transportation Statistics released its 1st-quarter 2010 air fare data, saying that fares increased 4.7 percent from the previous year, they were correct; base fares did go up. But, this number did not account for baggage check fees or in-flight meals or, in some cases, charges for extra leg room—services that airlines used to include in their airfares.

So, it appears that caveat emptor couldn’t be more relevant when it comes to traveling via the skies through the rest of 2010.


Offshore Drill Sites Embrace Telemedicine

Telemedicine via Web conferencing is playing an increasingly important role for workers on remote oil rigs by staving off unwarranted evacuations and providing timely assistance to injuries and illnesses.

Though disasters of magnitude close to the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico don’t happen frequently, off-shore rig workers often work 12 hour days lifting heavy and dangerous equipment. Workers typically work in four-week cycles, where two weeks are devoted to toiling and two weeks are spent recouping on terra firma. The reason for that break is because of the nature of the work: exhausting and remote.

Until recently, workers who became injured or sick would be reviewed by on-site nurses or paramedics who would telephone diagnostics to physicians on shore. Without the ability to examine the rig worker visually, they would often require that the worker be evacuated, a measure that was safe, yet costly.

Now, broadband has become cheaper, rigs are connected to the Internet, and companies have realized that video conferencing can, in many cases, provide sufficient visual evidence to diagnose injured or sick patients. In several instances this can save timely and costly evacuations of workers who didn’t actually need emergency evacuation. Also, in dire cases, emergency technicians on shore can see electrocardiograms or laboratory tests quickly, allowing them to more accurately assess the patient and determine the emergency care.

According to a recent report in Telemedicine and e-health programs at universities such as George Washington (GW) and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB) saw more than 80,000 patients over videoconference last year. Though the report doesn’t make clear exactly how many of these were rig workers, it suggests that a good portion call in from the platforms.

In addition, drilling contractors using video conferencing for medical ends exist virtually all over the world, from the South China Sea to the Atlantic off of Brazil and the Caribbean.

According to the report, the potential oil-industry market includes 322 active drilling rigs and about 1,000 occupied platforms.

Alexander Vo, the executive director of the Center for Telehealth Research and Policy at UTMDB, said in the report that the merging of medicine and telecom has not only been beneficial for employee health but has been a cost cutter for corporations too.

“Oil rigs do not have medical specialists on board,” he said. “So telemedicine is a means to bringing specialists on board and treating the patients.”

The GW maritime program reports treating everything from bumps and bruises to asthma and cardiac arrest via two-way videoconferencing. Offshore platforms call in to a call-handling center, which forwards the call to a team of physicians, who then diagnose the problem.

According to the report, one company, called InPlace Medical resolves 80- to 85 percent of the situations without evacuating the patient.

Windows Phone 7 Boasts Xbox Live Gaming

The Microsoft Phone 7 demonstrated a host of Xbox Live titles on August 16, confirming that gaming will be at the forefront of the WP7 platform.

In fact, Microsoft’s Game Studios will house a group specifically devoted to developing games and recruiting Indie game developers for the WP7.

Among the 50 games slated to come out at the launch date are popular titles such as Halo Waypoint, Star Wars, Guitar Hero 5 and Crackdown 2. There are also new games like ilomio, and new offerings are supposed to crop up every week in the Xbox Live Marketplace.

People who have demoed the phone’s gaming, such as these from Engadget, have said the graphics and response time are comparable to the iPhone4 and iPad, though sometimes the load time is said to be slow—which may be attributable to the phone’s still being a work in progress.

Another interesting aspect is the fully rendered Avatar that will appear on users’ WP7 Live accounts. Each person’s Avatar is fully customizable from clothing to props, and is used to designate a player’s stats in the realm of live. This is a really cool feature in games where users compete because players can track their friends (or enemies!) and compare scores and records.

As of yet, there is no head-to-head multiplayer action; each game requires that users take turns.

The Avatar also interacts with basic phone utilities like flashlight, apps, levels and the gyroscope, meaning that it holds your flashlight, falls if you shake the phone, or hops from side to side as you turn it.

Microsoft also plans to integrate some of the phone’s capabilities into the gaming environment. For example, according to Engadget, games like Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst will use Bing maps to create levels.

Also of note, players will be allowed to demo games in the Xbox Live Marketplace before spending their money on them.