Oct 15, 2019

Axios Login

Ina Fried

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Today's Login is 1,404 words, by the way, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Satellite broadband's boom

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

While satellite pay-TV services are in an apparent death spiral, modern satellite-powered broadband services are raising big investments and a lot of high expectations, Axios' Kim Hart, Sara Fischer and Miriam Kramer report.

Why it matters: Access to broadband is essential in today's economy, but roughly half of the globe's population still lacks reliable access to it. Companies well-positioned to build and deploy satellites see an opening to provide that service to a world hungry for fast connections.

What's happening: Historically, satellite communications services have been seen as a last-resort option for people in remote areas or, in pay-TV's case, for consumers who wanted a lot of channels.

  • But as more and more cord cutters are relying on all-purpose broadband connections and get the bulk of their small-screen entertainment via streaming options, satellite TV companies Dish and DirecTV are languishing.

What's new: As the pay-TV market dwindles, a new crop of satellites are being launched to beam down broadband services to wider swaths of populations on Earth.

  • The nascent services by SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and ViaSat are all planning to launch fleets of satellites aiming for the same goal — getting enough low-Earth orbit satellites into space fast enough to provide a broadband alternative to terrestrial services from the likes of Verizon or Comcast.

The catch: Launching satellites is an expensive proposition, and the market is getting crowded — as is space itself. It's unlikely all the companies will succeed in signing up enough subscribers to cover those expenses, let alone make a profit. Consolidation is all but inevitable, analysts say.

Between the lines: The satellite industry is undergoing a sea change.

  • Satellite TV was popular in the '80s and '90s as subscription channel bundles became more sophisticated — and before the advent of the consumer internet.
  • Now as streaming over super-fast broadband is supplanting pay-TV, the next generation of satellite fleets is banking on building a business by providing the same service that is ultimately killing its satellite predecessors.

How it works: There are different technologies involved. While satellite TV companies rely on expensive satellites in high orbits, the satellites designed by Amazon, SpaceX and others are expected to be small and in relatively low orbits.

  • But the closer the satellites are to Earth, the narrower the signal beam. So providers need more satellites to cover a broad area.
  • Even with more advanced launch strategies, deploying thousands of satellites is still a pricey and logistically complicated proposition.

In theory, the designs of these constellations should allow the companies to provide high-speed broadband globally and give them flexibility in design and coverage.

The FCC is already issuing licenses for these new constellations.

Go deeper:

2. What we're using: Facebook Portal

Author Todd Parr reading one of his interactive books using Portal's Story Time feature. Photo: Todd Parr

We've had a chance to spend the last week or so playing around with the new Facebook Portal, the photo frame-shaped version of the company's video chat device.

The good: Video chat is the heart and soul of Portal, and Facebook has expanded last year's version with the addition of WhatsApp, as well as new AR effects and more content in Story Time — which is sort of like karaoke for kids stories. Over the weekend, we convinced one of the Story Time book authors, Todd Parr, to read "Otto Goes to the Beach."

  • What’s great about Story Time is how every reader — including grandma or a traveling parent — can become part of the story, with AR filters casting them as characters. The author has an edge, of course, but Story Time is great even without him.
  • So are the Portal's AR effects, which liven up a video chat by showing callers breathing fire or turning into a bunny.

Other features:

  • Portal draws on an extra wide population of potential call recipients, since owners can call anyone with Messenger or WhatsApp and a smartphone (a second Portal isn't required).
  • A built-in web browser also separates Portal from other smart displays, including Google's new Nest Hub Max.
  • Portal includes Amazon Alexa support, Spotify and Pandora and a handful of video apps.
  • Netflix isn't directly supported — nor, oddly, is the Facebook news feed — but both are reachable via the browser, as are other video services.
  • Portal also has a smart camera and microphones that can track people across a room, which is useful for a more natural conversation.

The bad: At the end of the day, buying a Portal still means trusting Facebook with a camera and microphone in your home.

The fine print: The Portal comes in 2 versions, a $179 10-inch one (what we tested) and a $129 8-inch Portal Mini. A TV set-top version has also been announced and ships next month for $149.

The bottom line: I'm still mixed on allowing the big tech firms deeper access into my home, but Portal's combination of photos and video chat is a powerful argument.

3. Machine learning struggles to flag false news

Two new papers by MIT researchers found that current machine learning models aren't yet up to the task of distinguishing false news reports, Axios' Joe Uchill reports.

The big picture: After different researchers showed that computers can convincingly generate made-up news stories without much human oversight, some experts hoped that the same machine-learning-based systems could be trained to detect such stories.

But MIT doctoral student Tal Schuster's studies show that, while machines are great at detecting machine-generated text, they can't identify whether stories are true or false.

Details: Many automated fact-checking systems are trained using a database of true statements called Fact Extraction and Verification (FEVER).

  • In one study, Schuster and team showed that machine learning-taught fact-checking systems struggled to handle negative statements ("Greg never said his car wasn't blue") even when they would know the positive statement was true ("Greg says his car is blue").
  • The problem, say the researchers, is that the database is filled with human bias. The people who created FEVER tended to write their false entries as negative statements and their true statements as positive statements — so the computers learned to rate sentences with negative statements as false.
  • That means the systems were solving a much easier problem than detecting fake news.

The bottom line: The second study showed that machine-learning systems do a good job detecting stories that were machine-written, but not at separating the true ones from the false ones.

Yes, but: While you can generate bogus news stories more efficiently using automated text, not all stories created by automated processes are untrue.

Go deeper: Joe has more here.

4. Hackers who hack themselves

Illustration: Vox Media

There are all kinds of rules when it comes to hacking into various computer systems, but not so much when people hack their own bodies.

So what rules should apply?

That's the question raised in the first episode of Reset, a new Vox podcast hosted by former Vice News Tonight correspondent Arielle Duhaime-Ross. Duhaime-Ross talks to bio-researcher Josiah Zayner, who has edited his own DNA and did a full body microbiome transplant in an effort to treat his intestinal illness.

"He was frustrated with the medical care he had received and he was taking matters into his own hands," Duhaime-Ross said. The episode also looks at efforts to create a code of conduct and legislation for biohacking.

The bigger picture: The debut of Reset is part of a broader expansion of Vox's podcast efforts, as Sara Fischer outlines in a separate piece.

Duhaime-Ross plans to tackle a range of issues in the thrice-weekly podcast, including climate change, artificial intelligence and facial recognition, all while bringing a critical eye.

  • "Don't get me wrong, I'm really into tech," Duhaime-Ross said. "I can have fan-girl moments, too. I just don't have them publicly or at least I try not to."

As important as the topics, Duhaime-Ross said, is making sure more voices are being added to the conversation.

  • "I'm also a queer woman of color hosting a tech podcast, and that does mean something," Duhaime-Ross said. "I'm hoping that who I am will also help people who don't always feel invited into this world to feel a bit more comfortable."
5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Opendoor has hired 13-year Amazon veteran Julie Todaro as president of homes and services and former Venrock partner Tom Willerer as chief product officer and also promoted Gautam Gupta to the roles of chief financial officer and chief business officer.


6. After you Login

It turns out that painting zebra stripes on cows makes them less susceptible to biting flies.

Ina Fried