TIME Telecom

Sprint Is Offering Super-Cheap Data Plans for Only Accessing Social Media

Sprint New Facebook Only Wireless Plan
A man shows the smartphone photo sharing application Instagram on an iPhone. Thomas Coex—AFP/Getty Images

In the latest example of a wireless carrier offering unique but controversial data plans

As wireless carriers launch services to make mobile Internet more affordable, Sprint is taking a more drastic approach with its new wireless plan—unlimited access to a few popular social media apps, and nothing else.

Offered under Sprint’s Virgin Mobile brand, the $12 monthly plan allows customers uncapped access to either Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, according to the Wall Street Journal. For $10 more, they’ll receive access to all four, and another $5 will grant unlimited streaming from a music app of their choice. The offers are part of a new set of customizable mobile data plans Sprint debuted Wednesday.

Sprint’s announcement arrives on the heels of other wireless carriers’ policies and services that waived certain apps’ data usage from monthly data limits. T-Mobile announced in June that it would stop counting data consumed by music streaming towards monthly caps, one of the perks of its “Un-Carrier” initiative to get away from some of the wireless industry’s long-held policies. Earlier this year, AT&T unveiled a “sponsored data” service where sponsors can entice subscribers to try out their apps while the related data use is billed to the sponsors. (Sprint isn’t being paid by the apps included in its plans, but Dow Draper, president of prepaid at Sprint, has said such a deal is “definitely possible.”)

While Sprint’s new plan seems favorable to users who go online only to tweet, post, upload or pin, it’s already incited criticism from net neutrality proponents who believe all traffic should be created equally. In other words, they argue that no Internet Service Provider should be allowed to enforce preferential treatment—faster speeds—for its users, while other users remain in congested, slower areas of the network. Sprint’s opt-in plan isn’t paid prioritization, but its nature as an exclusive, divided Internet access (like T-Mobile’s unlimited streaming, and also Comcast’s on-demand video games) have some advocates worrying it sets a potentially dangerous precedent during an ongoing debate over net neutrality. (The FCC’s Open Internet rules, however, have never applied to wireless carriers.)

Sprint’s new plan is available at only Walmart with a base offering of 20 minutes of talk time and 20 texts.

TIME broadband

Report: You Could Be Overpaying For Your Data Plan

GAO Report Data Usage
An iPhone 5 streaming video from Netflix during a demonstration of the new Google ChromeCast at an event in July 2013. Bloomberg via Getty Images

Internet providers are swapping their unlimited data plans for usage-based plans on both mobile and at-home Internet, but consumers aren't aware of how much data they're burning up

Lost amidst usage-based pricing and ISPs, MBs and GBs, many U.S. customers are unaware of just how much data they consume, and they are in turn purchasing plans with unnecessarily robust allowances, according to a new report.

The findings come by way of a preliminary report released Tuesday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO conducted a survey about usage-based plans (UBPs), in which consumers pay for a capped amount of data. Such plans are offered by various Internet service providers (ISPs) of wireless and wireline (e.g. at-home broadband) services, including AT&T and Comcast, among others. Consumer focus groups and interviews with top ISPs and industry experts revealed that customers may tend to overestimate data usage of common activities, or on the other hand, underestimate usage and unknowingly exceed data caps.

One wireless provider interviewed by the GAO indicated that only a small percentage of users are on 500 megabytes-per-month or smaller data plans, while half of North American wireless customers use fewer than 102 megabytes per month, according to a report by ISP research firm Sandvine.

Additionally, all wireless ISPs interviewed and over half of wireline ISPs surveyed by the GAO offer usage-based plans to various extents. Users who exceed their data caps on such plans can be fined up to $15 per 1GB of additional data or experience throttled-down connection speeds. An AT&T spokeswoman told TIME 97 percent of the company’s DSL customers don’t exceed their monthly data plan, but Sandvine’s report suggests that more customers will do so in the future, as cord-cutting users depending on the Internet as a TV replacement are already consuming roughly 212 GB of data per month, close to many existing data allowances.

But even users with unlimited wireline plans are subject to restrictions, especially if they’re consuming massive amounts of data.

“Last year we discovered a small number of residential customers [of Verizon's un-capped Internet plan] consuming many terabytes of data each month with their home connections – far exceeding usage levels ever intended for Verizon’s home broadband service,” a Verizon spokesman told TIME in an e-mail. “To put this in context and just for example, these are customers who would have to watch over 4,000 hours, or 166 days-worth of non-stop HD movie viewing over a month’s time to equal their usage levels.”

Verizon—which does not have wireline broadband caps—subsequently requested those customers to move to a business grade service, a move that could be seen as generous, considering some ISPs are slashing unlimited at-home Internet altogether. Verizon came under fire in March when a spokesman inadvertently suggested it would cap its FiOS fiber broadband service, before later posting that it was a miscommunication. In 2011, AT&T implemented monthly limits for its home broadband subscribers. Recently, Comcast announced that it may roll out a wireline data plan with monthly allotments, a suggestion that’s facing harsh criticism as ISPs claim non-unlimited wireline plans may be more fair.

“Explosive Internet use has driven the need for broadband allotments to continue to invest in a sustainable network,” an AT&T spokeswoman told TIME. A Comcast spokesman confirmed to TIME that the company believes the capped approach is more flexible, allowing those who use more broadband can pay more, and those who use less can pay less.

The GAO report indicated that customers had “strong negative reactions” to usage-based pricing on wireline Internet plans. Though the preliminary findings didn’t elaborate on specific reasons for consumers’ harsh reactions, the congresswoman who requested the report—California Democrat Anna Eshoo—warns that capped Internet plans could discourage users from watching Netflix and Amazon Prime, thus encouraging customers to subscribe to more expensive cable TV packages offered by the very same companies potentially switching to capped Internet plans.

“Data caps, particularly when they’re applied discriminatorily, could have the same damaging effect on the free and open Internet as we know it,” Eshoo told the National Journal.

The consumers surveyed by the GAO, however, expressed fewer negative sentiments to wireless mobile plans with usage-based pricing, a trend that’s grown increasingly popular as wireless providers drop unlimited mobile data plans. Major players like AT&T have taken that leap, cutting its unlimited mobile data plan offerings to new customers in 2010 while marketing the change as one that would save customers money. Reports have estimated that 44% of AT&T’s customers are still grandfathered into the unlimited data plans—potentially a lot of overpaying customers, if not all are big data users.

Still, the unlimited wireless data plans that remain on the market are laced with fine print. Sprint and Verizon, two wireless providers that haven’t eliminated their unlimited mobile data plans, announced in May and July respectively they would throttle speeds for some unlimited data plan holders, a sort of data “prioritization,” as Sprint called it. These are among the “loopholes” customers fear their providers will use to overcharge them, according to the GAO report. Still, most customers’ understanding of their basic data use remains clouded, the GAO report suggests.

So just how much data does certain activities use? Online shopping and general surfing is one of the least data-heavy activities, contrary to popular belief, according to the GAO’s report. Meanwhile, video streaming like Netflix is known to be a data hog.

Here are a few wireless data consumption estimates for common smartphone activities to keep in mind:

Smartphone Data Consumption
AT&T
TIME Transportation

Here Are the Craziest Ideas to Speed Up TSA’s Security

Not everyone is taking the "simulation modeling concept" approach

While the TSA ramps up its security checkpoints, it’s also boosting lines and wait times. That’s why the agency is crowdsourcing the most creative ideas for the “next generation checkpoint queue,” dangling a $15,000 prize for the best suggestions. But just because entrants are asked to “apply a scientific and simulation modeling approach” hasn’t discouraged more casual ideas from floating on around on social media.

In fact, some believe the solution may be much simpler:

Others took the dismissive route, too:

Some flyers took the opportunity to express their frustrations with TSA:

Another user appeared frustrated, but a different kind of frustration:

Meanwhile, ideas targeted burdensome passengers:

Some ideas were more realistic:

And others less so:

But if security is all about checking belongings, there’s one method that’s foolproof:

Then maybe, after all, this is the future of airport security:

 

TIME China

Unexpected Microsoft Probe Highlights China’s Distrust of U.S. Tech

Microsoft China Antitrust Probe
A vendor sells game consoles including Microsoft's Xbox One in a major electronics market in Shanghai on January 8, 2014. Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

Following recent accusations of U.S. tech companies' alleged monopolies and security threats in China

Unannounced visits Monday by Chinese officials to Microsoft offices across China have sparked controversy over the latest Sino-U.S. relation: technology.

Officials from China’s State Administration for Industry & Commerce (SAIC) visited offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu, according to Sina, a Chinese online media company. Microsoft China, which has three major locations in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, has since confirmed the visits, providing no further details, adding that the company would “actively cooperate” with the government’s requests.

The visits reportedly lasted from morning until 6 p.m., and resulted in computers and hard drives being taken away, according to several Chinese news outlets. A source familiar with the matter told Reuters the visits were likely preliminary stages of an antitrust investigation, while Microsoft China has reportedly confirmed to the Beijing News that it is, in fact, what the SAIC calls “unfair business.”

Chinese IT analysts believe that suspicions of a Microsoft monopoly are relegated to the operating system market alone. One well-known Chinese IT lawyer told media outlets that it’s likely Microsoft is being accused of using its broad market share to unfairly bundle in other products, like Skype, which Microsoft acquired in 2011.

China set a precedent in preventing U.S. tech giants from monopolizing the Chinese market in November, when the Chinese government launched an antimonopoly investigation of Qualcomm, a U.S. company that’s the largest maker of processors and communication chips for mobile phones. China’s antitrust regulator said Thursday that Qualcomm does have a monopoly.

Fears of a U.S. monopoly appear closely linked to anxiety, fueled by revelations made by Edward Snowden of NSA surveillance abroad, that U.S. technology may compromise Chinese citizens’ personal information. Earlier this year, the Chinese government banned Microsoft offices from installing the company’s latest operating system, Windows 8, due to skepticism over possible security threats. Several broadcasts on the state-run CCTV accused Microsoft cloud technology of compromising user data.

Apple also came under scrutiny in July, when CCTV broadcasted that Apple’s iPhone was a “national security threat” due to its GPS system, which could expose “state secrets.” Apple has denied these claims.

China also appears to be involved in the very hacking that it’s discouraging, as reports surfaced of Chinese hackers attempting to gain access to confidential U.S. data.

TIME

Dollar Tree Extends Limb to Low-Income Shoppers by Buying Family Dollar

Dollar Tree to Buy Family Dollar
The exterior of a Dollar Tree store in Westminster, Colorado on February 26, 2014. Rick Wilking—Reuters

A cash-and-stock bid worth $8.5 billion

Dollar Tree will buy Family Dollar for $8.5 billion in a deal that will create North America’s largest discount retailer.

Dollar Tree announced the acquisition Monday, a month after activist investor Carl Icahn pressured Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine to consider a sale of the company, arguing that buyers would see strategic and financial benefits. Though Icahn had said Family Dollar resisted his suggestions, Levine said in a statement Monday its plans to sell had begun last winter.

Under the transaction’s terms, Dollar Tree will pay to Family Dollar shareholders $74.50 for each share. The bid consists of $59.60 per share in cash and Dollar Tree stock worth about $14.90. The transaction is expected to close in early 2015, and Dollar Tree expects to save about $300 million annually through synergies over the next three years.

“This acquisition will extend our reach to lower-income customers and strengthen and diversify our store footprint,” Dollar Tree CEO Bob Sasser said. “We plan to leverage best practices across both organizations to deliver significant synergies, while we accelerate and augment Family Dollar’s recently introduced strategic initiatives.”

Both Dollar Tree, which sells items $1 and less, and Family Dollar, which sells $1 items but also higher priced goods, have struggled amidst a weak economy. While years ago recession boosted deep-discount stores’ sales, Family Dollar reported in April declining second-quarter profits while announcing that it could cut jobs and close nearly 400 underperforming stores. Earlier this month, its third-quarter report noted a 33% drop in profit.

Family Dollar Quarterly Profit Margins
YCharts

Difficult economic conditions have become financial headwinds for discount store shoppers, who are forced to choose between discretionary and necessary items. The average American household in 2013 was poorer than it was 10 years ago, according to a study, as wealthier families rode the surging stock market after the 2008 crash, and the middle-class struggled with decreasing values of their homes. The “bifurcation,” as Levine called it in January, is even harsher for the low-income families that make up the bulk of Family Dollar’s consumers: on average shoppers have an annual income under $40,000, and 50% receive government assistance.

“Our core lower-income customers have faced high unemployment levels, higher payroll taxes, and more recently reductions in government-assistance programs,” Levine said. “All of these factors have resulted in incremental financial pressure and reduction in overall spend in the market.”

But the deal provides a valuable opportunity for Dollar Tree to stake a bigger space in the deep-discount market. Aside from Dollar General, one of Dollar Tree’s largest competitors is Wal-Mart, whose stores have increasingly offered items at steep discounts, at times even $1 and less. In stores and on-line, prices of commonly-purchased Walmart items are already on average 20% less than those on Amazon, according to a study by Kantar Retail. Several items sold in Dollar Tree stores are sold at equal prices in Wal-Mart. The 2-piece Dial Gold soap bar, for example, sells for $1 at both Walmart and Dollar Tree—except at Dollar Tree, the deal is available in only 36-order bulk package.

There are over 13,000 Dollar Tree stores across the U.S. and Canada.

 

 

TIME Earnings

Amazon’s Q2 Earnings Lower Than Expected

Amazon Q2 2014 Earnings Report
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos presents the company's first smartphone, the Fire Phone, on June 18, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. David Ryder—Getty Images

Pressure is rising for Amazon's new services and products to help the company show profit

Amazon said Thursday that its second quarter financial performance was worse than expected, causing shares to tumble over six percent in after-hours trading.

Amazon reported losing 27 cents per share on revenue of $19.34 billion, while Wall Street had been expecting, on average, a loss of 15 cents per share. Additionally, Amazon’s net loss was $126 million, far greater than the $7 million posted during the same period in 2013.

(More on Money.com: Wall Street Takes Amazon and Pandora Out to the Woodshed)

The company’s net sales, however, rose 23% to $19.34 billion, compared with $15.70 billion in second quarter 2013. Amazon said it expects net sales in the third quarter to reach between $19.7 billion and $21.5 billion. It also expects an operating loss of $410 million to $810 million for next quarter, up significantly from $25 million in 2013, which Amazon attributes to stock-based compensation and amortization of intangible assets.

Investors have long been forgiving of Amazon posting losses or thin profit margins despite its rising revenue, which some insist will be channeled into developing new products that will eventually win back those losses. But Amazon’s shares have fallen by nearly 10 percent this year as some investors grow skeptical of Amazon’s potential long-term growth. Questions remain about how well Amazon’s new services, such as its same-day grocery delivery service, will perform in the future, as Amazon will likely have to work harder to convince stakeholders of its profitability.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement Thursday that the company continues “working hard on making the Amazon customer experience better and better,” noting recent improvements such as those to its cloud computing service, and its new Fire Phone, which goes on sale in the U.S. Friday.

 

TIME food and drink

This Company Is Making Millions By Giving You 5 Fewer Chips Per Bag

Lay's-New Flavor
Using images provided by Frito-Lay, this composite image shows the four finalists for its 2014 "Do Us a Flavor" contest in the U.S. Associated Press

Lay's flavored bags contain slightly fewer chips than regular bags, and the savings add up

The truth is out: yes, some bags of Lay’s potato chips do in fact contain fewer chips. It’s intentional, and it’s saving the company millions.

Lay’s regular packs are 10 oz., but the company’s bags of flavored chips are 9.5 oz, yet both sell for $4.29, according to the Associated Press. The difference is equivalent to roughly 5-6 chips. And while that gap is saving consumers about 75 greasy calories, the biggest benefits are to Lay’s parent company, PepsiCo, which raised its full-year earnings forecast Wednesday in part because of these flavored bags, whose interesting tastes were crowdsourced by potato chip-loving Americans.

Just how much is Lay’s making? Cutting half an ounce from a bag while leaving its price unchanged correlates roughly to a 21 cents-per-bag saving. Lay’s potato chips bring in over $1 billion annually in retail sales, equivalent to over 200 million bags, if the average price per bag is somewhere around $4. At 21 cents saved per bag, the total amount saved is therefore upwards of $50 million—quite a lot for Lay’s considering the tiny amount of chips on which consumers miss out.

The fewer chips strategy is a tack-on to PepsiCo’s larger effort to cut costs through productivity increases, a plan announced in 2012 that’s expected to save PepsiCo $1 billion annually through 2019. Overall this quarter, PepsiCo saw a 5% rise in worldwide on global organic snack revenue, and even a 2% global increase in global beverage sales. The two upward sales and general cost cutting are vital for PepsiCo’s ongoing battle against investor Nelson Peltz, a stakeholder who’s launched a campaign urging PepsiCo to split its snack business from its sluggish beverage business.

In the coming months, the reduced flavored bags will continue to benefit sales volume for Frito-Lay North America, according to PepsiCo CFO Hugh Johnston.

 

 

TIME India

An Indian Boy With 260 Teeth Just Got 232 of Them Pulled Out

Indian Boy Gets 232 Pulled
Indian dentists operate on Ashik Gavai at JJ Hospital in Mumbai on July 22, 2014, AFP/Getty Images

Doctors said the operation was "really fun"

A boy in India endured a six-hour operation Monday to remove 232 teeth that grew as a result of a rare medical condition. Now, Ashik Gavai, 17, has 28 teeth left—four fewer than most adult mouths.

17-year-old Gavai had been suffering from composite odontoma, a condition in which a benign tumor forms in the mouth, causing additional teeth to grow as well. In Gavai’s case, a molar tooth in his lower jaw had grew hundreds of smaller teeth. Gavai’s doctors at J.J. Hospital in Mumbai couldn’t initially remove the growth deep in Gawai’s jaw with normal surgical tools, so they opted for a “basic chisel and hammer” before more delicately removing teeth one-by-one. His doctors called their operation a “world record,” and are planning to submit it to Guinness World Records.

“I have never seen anything like it in all my years of practice,” Sudanda Dhiware, head of the hospital’s dentistry department, told the Washington Post. “We were so excited by it. And it was really fun for us to be able to extract them all, one by one.”

The condition doesn’t normally result in teeth as plentiful as Gavai’s — Dhiware said medical literature shows that a maximum of 37 teeth have been extracted in the past.

Gavai, who comes from a poor family of cotton growers hours outside of Mumbai, had noticed swelling along his jaw months before his operation. But local doctors were unable to fix his condition, and his family didn’t have enough money to seek immediate, proper treatment. Fearing that Gavai’s puffy cheek may have been cancer-related, his family went to a state-run hospital, where they obtained funds through a program offering financial support to poor patients.

Gavai is currently recovering from his grueling surgery, and his doctors are hoping that the condition doesn’t reoccur—which it could, if a bit of tumor, even microscopic, remains.

[Washington Post]

TIME Diversity

90% of Twitter’s Tech Employees are Male

Twitter released its long-awaited diversity report on Wednesday, and the skewed demographics are no surprise

A lack of employee diversity is a trending topic in Silicon Valley, and the data on Twitter’s racial and gender diversity, released Wednesday, further confirms what’s already become clear: male, white and Asian workers occupy the vast majority of tech jobs and leadership roles.

Ninety percent of Twitter’s global tech employees are male, while non-tech jobs are equally split by gender, according to data posted on Twitter’s blog by Janet Van Huysse, Vice President of Diversity of Inclusion. Additionally, men occupy 79% of leadership positions and comprise 70% of the total workforce. Here’s the breakdown:

 Employee Gender Diversity
Twitter

When it comes to racial diversity, 88% of all Twitter employees and 92% of tech employees are either white or Asian (mostly white). And unlike gender diversity, Twitter’s non-tech roles similarly lack racial diversity: 83% are white or Asian (mostly white). In leadership, non-Asian minorities hold only 4% of leadership roles. Here are the full details:

 Employee Ethnic Diversity
Twitter

Twitter’s statistics very much align with those released by other tech giants. In May, Google’s diversity report, the first of its kind from a major tech firm, spearheaded the diversity transparency movement that’s now gained traction across the U.S. Google reported that men were vastly overrepresented in tech jobs, while non-tech jobs had a roughly even gender split. Facebook’s report, LinkedIn’s report and Yahoo’s report also found similar results. But compared to all these companies, Twitter posts the highest proportion of male tech employees (90%) compared to Facebook (85%), Yahoo (85%), Google (83%) and LinkedIn (83%).

“We are keenly aware that Twitter is part of an industry that is marked by dramatic imbalances in diversity—and we are no exception,” writes Huysse, noting that Twitter has sponsored and partnered with several groups, like Girls Who Code and Girl Geek Dinners, that encourage women and underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in tech.

Twitter’s diversity report arrives roughly a month after the similar reports were made public, a delay that’s caused civil rights groups, including one led by Jesse Jackson, to petition Twitter to release its own statistics. Twitter and other companies are required to file the EEO-1 report to the federal government—LinkedIn went a step ahead and published its EEO-1—but there’s no such requirement that diversity data is released to the public. And though it may not a federal requirement, it certainly seems to be a social one, as companies like Twitter realize the value of a diverse workforce.

“By becoming more transparent with our employee data, open in dialogue throughout the company and rigorous in our recruiting, hiring and promotion practices, we are making diversity an important business issue for ourselves,” the blog states.

TIME Companies

You Can’t Check-In on Foursquare’s Main App Starting Tomorrow

Foursquare Squares Off with Yelp After Major Overhaul
Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley speaks during the NikeFuel Forum at Spring Studios on October 15, 2013 in New York City. Mike Lawrie—Getty Images

Foursquare is shedding its rep as a check-in app to compete with discovery services like Yelp

You can check out Foursquare’s new app starting in the next few weeks, but you can’t check-in.

Foursquare said Wednesday that users will have to use its secondary app, Swarm, to check-in to locations starting Thursday. That change comes after Foursquare announced an unbundling into two separate apps back in May: Foursquare, where users run local searches, and Swarm, where check-ins are re-hosted.

That split gave Foursquare—now with a brand new logo—time to cocoon up for a metamorphosis that’s “almost ready for you,” according to Foursquare’s blog post. The “new” Foursquare app, releasing sometime in the next two weeks, will feature personalized local searches, giving users different results based on their preferences and activity. Foursquare promises no two people will have the same experience.

“In a couple weeks, we’re rolling out a brand new version of Foursquare that’s all about you,” Foursquare’s blog states. “Tell us what you like, and we’ll be on the lookout for great places that match your tastes, wherever you are.”

Personalized searches have been a hot topic for Foursquare and similar rival apps, like Yelp. Foursquare has previously personalized user experiences through an “Explore” button. The feature allowed users to filter by category and to receive recommendations, services resembling those on Yelp, which also added a feature similar to Foursquare’s check-in function. Foursquare’s new primary app, meanwhile, is clearly intended as a salvo in the direction of Yelp and similar services — though it remains to be seen how Foursquare user’s will react to being forced over to a new app for check-ins; similar service splits have not gone well in the past.

 

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