TIME Innovation

Microsoft Is Getting Close to Perfecting a Universal Communicator

Some 40,000 people are using software program Skype Translator in hopes of achieving real-time translation

Gurdeep Pall was confident Skype’s automatic translation program would work. But as Microsoft’s corporate vice president in charge of Skype prepared to hold the first public demonstration of the program last May, Pall found himself worrying about the room itself. “Any sound that goes into the microphone, you basically have logic running trying to figure out what the sound said,” he says. “You can have feedback or you can have somebody coughing faraway that the mic picked up, somebody shifting far away, the squeak from their foot.”

Pall’s anxiety was for naught. An audience of several hundred reporters and industry insiders watched on as Pall and a native German speaker held a nearly flawless conversation through the company’s prototype of Skype Translator. Roughly a second after Pall Spoke, subtitles in German and English appeared at the bottom of the screen, and a synthetic Siri-like voice read the words aloud to the German caller. The audience murmured in astonishment, but the program didn’t falter as it shot back a translation from German to English. Pall, on the other hand, was flustered as his jitters about the room metastasized to two presenters who were whispering to one another nearby throughout the demonstration. “I’m thinking, ‘Get out of here!’” Pall recalls, laughing.

Researchers working on automatic translation technology like this are familiar with this blend of hope and anxiety. The concept of a universal translator has long been a fixture of science fiction, not to mention a dream of inventors and linguists since long before computers existed. The granodiorite slab announcing the kingly reign of Ptolemy V in Egypt circa 196 BC, better known as the Rosetta Stone, might be considered an early stab at the idea. In the 1930s, two inventors filed patents for “mechanical dictionaries” promising to translate words in real time. And in more recent decades, firms ranging from NEC to Jibbigo have periodically tried to crack the problem. But as practical reality, the idea has been perennially delayed.

Now, advances in so-called machine learning—computer programs that can essentially self-teach with enough exposure to spoken language—hope for a universal translator is increasingly replacing anxiety. What has changed from previous generations is that the underlying technology thrives through use, trial and error, recorded and reviewed, ad nasueam. The current crop of translation software gets smarter, researchers and programmers say, the more it absorbs. “The more data you have, the better you’re going to do,” explains Lane Schwartz, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois.

Which is why Microsoft released a preview version of Skype Translator to a limited number of users last December. (The Redmond, Washington-based tech giant bought Skype for $8.5 billion in 2011.) The program is expected to reach a major milestone near the end of March. Late last year, Google announced its translation app for text would include a “conversation mode” for the spoken word. Baidu, the so-called Google of China, has had a similar feature available in its home market for several years. And the forthcoming release of the Apple Watch, a powerful computer with echoes of Dick Tracey’s famous wrist wear, has some speculating that near-instant translation might be the nascent wearables market’s killer app.

That leaves a handful of search giants—Microsoft, Google and Baidu—racing to fine-tune the technology. Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist likens what’s coming next to the space race. “It doesn’t work if you have a giant engine and only a little fuel,” he says. “It doesn’t work if you have a lot of fuel and a small engine.” The few companies that can combine the two, however, may blast ahead.

So Many Fails

There’s no shortage of false summits in the history of translation. Cold War footage from 1954 captured one of the earliest machine translators in action. One of the lead researchers predicted that legions of these machines might be used to monitor the entirety of Soviet communications “within perhaps 5 years.” The demonstration helped generate a surge of government funding, totalling $3 million in 1958, or $24 million in present-day dollars.

But by the 1960s, the bubble had burst. The government convened a panel of scientific experts to survey the quality of machine translations. They returned with an unsparing critique. Early translations were “deceptively encouraging,” the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee wrote in a 1966 report. Automatic translation, the panel concluded, “serves no useful purpose without postediting, and that with postediting the overall process is slow and probably uneconomical.”

Funding for machine translation was drastically curtailed in the wake of the report. It would be the first of several boom and bust cycles to buffet the research community. To this day, researchers are loath to predict how far they can advance the field. “There is no magic,” says Chris Wendt, who has been working on machine translation at Microsoft Research for nearly a decade. But he admits that the latest improvements resulting from artificial intelligence can, at times, be mystifying. “There are things that you don’t have an explanation for why it works,” he says.

Wendt works out of Building 99, Microsoft’s research hub on the western edge of its Redmond campus. The building’s central atrium is wrapped by four floors of glass-walled conference rooms, where Microsoft engineers and researchers can be seen working on pretty much any project they please. The open-ended aspect of their work is a point of pride enshrined in the lab’s mission statement. “It states, first and foremost, that our goal as an institution is to move the state of the art forward,” said Rick Rashid in 2011, twenty years after he launched the lab, according to a Microsoft blog post celebrating the milestone. “It doesn’t matter what part of the state of the art we’re moving forward, and it doesn’t say anything in that first part of the mission statement about Microsoft.”

In other words, if Microsoft’s researchers want to tinker with strange and unproven technologies, say motion-sensing cameras or holographic projectors, nobody is likely to stop them. In the mid-2000’s, there were few technologies quite as strange and unproven as “deep neural networks,” algorithms that can parse through millions of spoken words and spot the underlying sound patterns. Say, “pig,” for instance, and the algorithm will identify the unique sound curve of the letter “p.” Expose it to more “p” words and the shape of that curve becomes more refined. Before long, the algorithm can detect a “p” sound across multiple languages, and exposure to those languages further attunes its senses. “P” words in German (prozent) improves its detection of “p” words in English (percent).

Those same lessons, it turns out, apply to volume, pitch or accents. A lilt at the end of the sentence may indicate that the speaker has asked a question. It may also indicate that the speaker talks like a Valley girl. Expose the deep learning algorithm to a range of voices, however, and it may begin to notice the difference. This profusion of voices, which used to overwhelm supercomputers, now improves their performance. “Add training data that is not perfect, like people speaking in a French accent, and it does not degrade overall quality for people speaking without a French accent,” says Wendt.

The results of deep neural network research in language applications stunned Microsoft’s research team in 2011. Error rates in transcription, for instance, plummeted by 50%—from one out of every four words to one out of eight. Until then, the misunderstood word was one of the most persistent and insurmountable obstacles to machine translation. “The system cannot recover from that because it takes that word at face value and translates it,” explains Wendt. “Employing deep learning on the speech recognition part brought the error rate low enough to attempt translation.”

Speaking into Skype Translator, the commercial face of all of Microsoft’s linguistic research, shows how far things have come. The sound of your voice zips into Microsoft’s cloud of servers, where it is parsed by a panoply of software developed by the company. The team that developed those green squiggly lines under grammatical errors in Word documents laid the groundwork for automatic punctuation, for example. The team that created Microsoft’s translation app, which is currently used to translate posts on Facebook and Yelp, provided the engine for text translation. The team that developed the voice for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated personal assistant similar to Apple’s Siri, helped develop the voice for Skype.

When Microsoft’s researchers debuted a prototype of Skype Translator at the company’s version of an annual science fair, they enclosed it in a cardboard telephone booth, modeled after the time-traveling machine from the Dr. Who television series. Co-founder Bill Gates stepped inside and phoned a Spanish speaker in Argentina. The speaker had been warned that when the caller said, “Hi, it’s Bill Gates,” it wasn’t a joke. It really would be Bill Gates. What did Gates say? Pretty much what everyone says at first, according to the team: “Hi. How are you? Where are you?”

My Turn

I posed the same questions to Karin, a professional translator hired for a hands-on demonstration at Microsoft’s Building 99. She answered in Spanish, and paused as Skype’s digital interpreter read a translated reply: “Hello, nice to meet you. Now I’m in Slovakia.”

The program has the basic niceties of conversation down cold, and for a moment, the Star Trek fantasy of a “universal translator” seemed tantalizingly within reach. But then a few hiccups emerged as the conversation progressed. Her reason for visiting New York was intelligible, but awkwardly phrased: “I want to meet all of New York City and I want to attach it with a concert of a group I like,” from which I gathered that she wanted to see a concert during her visit. I asked her if the program often faltered in her experience. “In the beginning,” came the translated reply, “but each time it gets better. It’s like one child first. There were things not translated, but now he’s a teenager and knows a lot of words.”

With some 40,000 people signed up to use Skype Translator, it has been getting a crash course in the art of conversation, and those words could work wonders on its error rates. An odd quirk of machine translation systems is that they tend to excel at translating European Union parliamentary proceedings. For a long time the EU produced some of the best training data out there: a raft of speeches professionally translated into dozens of languages.

But Microsoft is rapidly accumulating its own record of casual conversations. Users of the preview version are informed that their utterances may be recorded and stored in an anonymous, shuffled pile that makes it impossible to trace the words back to their source, Microsoft stresses. The team expects the error rate to drop continuously as Skype Translator absorbs slang, proper names and idioms into its system. Few companies can tap such a massive corpus of spoken words. “Microsoft is in a good position,” says Wendt. “Google is also in a good position. Then there’s a big gap between us and everyone else.”

For now, the Skype team is focused on adding users and driving down error rates, with the long-run goal of releasing instant translation as a standard feature for Skype’s 300 milllion users. “Translation is something we believe ought to be available to everybody for free,” says Pall.

That raises an awkward question for professional translators like Karin. “Do you feel threatened by Skype Translator,” I asked her through the program. “Not yet,” was her translated reply, read aloud by her fast-developing, free digital rival.

Read next: Here’s Why Microsoft Is Giving Pirates the Next Windows for Free

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Consumers

Why Annoyed Americans Are Signing This Online Petition

Vintage Cell Phone Collection
Jim Golden

People hate robocalls and want them to stop

More than 200,000 Americans have signed a petition asking telecom companies to provide tools for people to block commercial robocalls. Which is about as surprising as 200,000 people signing a petition against legalized murder.

The Consumers Union launched the petition at endrobocalls.com, just a week or so ago. The Federal Trade Commission says that if phone companies want to provide robo-blocking tools, they can. “Americans are fed up with being harassed by robocalls and they are demanding relief,” said Christina Tetreault, staff attorney for Consumers Union, in a statement. “The phone companies need to start listening and provide their customers with effective tools to block unwanted robocalls.”

The Consumers Union is the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

In 2014, the FTC received more than 3 million complaints about robocalls. Many of them (you might have heard from “Rachel from account services”) ran afoul of existing laws and regulations, such as the federal Do Not Call list. And many such calls originate overseas, out of the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities. About the only recourse consumers have is blocking numbers, when that’s possible.

In November, attorneys general from 39 states complained to the Federal Communications Commission, asking why phone companies don’t just block the calls. The phone companies responded that regulations forbade them from doing so. So the FTC sought input from the FTC, which in January said

Last month, though the FTC weighed in with an opinion: call–blocking by telcos is just fine since it would “make a significant dent in the problem of unwanted telephone calls.”

Hence the petition. The telcos have argued that blocking calls would run afoul of “common carrier” rules, which in general require them to accept all traffic, regardless of origin (similar to the concept of net neutrality). The FTC says that as long as customers opt-in and request the feature, telcos “can offer call-blocking services to their consumers without violating their common carriage obligations would be in the best interest of American consumers.”

The FCC is considering whether to issue an order forcing the telcos to make blocking technology available The FTC opinion will surely weigh heavily on that decision. It’s not clear when the decision will be made.

For now, other than making use of the call-clocking features offered by some handsets, consumers can file a complaint with the FCC, which has recently improved its help center.

TIME Telecommunications

Hong Kong Billionaire Li Ka-shing Eyes British O2 Telecoms Network

Li Ka-shing, Victor Li
Vincent Yu—AP Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, right, and his son Victor Li, react during a press conference in Hong Kong Friday, Jan. 9, 2015.

Acquiring O2 may allow a merger with Li's Three mobile network

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing is negotiating to spend almost $15 billion to acquire O2, Britain’s second-largest mobile network.

Taking over O2, currently owned by Spain’s Telefonica, would allow Li, 86, to merge the company with Three mobile network, which is currently owned by his firm Hutchison Whampoa. That would create Britain’s largest mobile telecommunications group, reports the BBC.

Hutchison shares increased by 4% after reports of a potential deal emerged, but negotiations with Telefonica are expected to take weeks. The purchase may also be hampered if European industry regulators perceive the move infringes on competition protocols.

In a bid to restructure his business empire, which spans everything from telecommunications to ports, Li, who until he was overtaken by Alibaba boss Jack Ma this year was the richest man in Asia, has spent nearly $30 billion this year acquiring foreign assets to diversify his Hong Kong holdings.

[BBC]

TIME technology

Discovery Channel Says No to Comcast Merger

The proposed merger, which could give the combined company control of up to 70% of certain high-speed broadband connections, has been widely criticized by the tech industry and consumer rights activists

After six months of simmering silence—punctuated by anonymous griping to regulators and reporters—big television content companies and programmers are beginning to speak out against Comcast’s $45.2 billion proposed merger with Time Warner Cable.

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission last Thursday, Discovery Communications, which owns Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and TLC, wrote that the merger could create monopoly-like conditions in the TV space by giving the combined company unprecedented control over advertising, sports programming, broadband speeds, and what TV shows make it into American homes, at what price.

The merger, which would tie the biggest and second-biggest cable companies in the country, “could result in lower quality, less diverse programming, and fewer independent voices among programmers,” the statement said. Discovery is backed by Jon Malone, the billionaire former head of Liberty Media and Comcast CEO Brian Robert’s one-time mentor.

Silicon Valley tech firms, like Netflix, small regional cable companies, like RFD TV, and satellite TV distributors, like Dish, have already voiced their opposition to the merger, testifying before Congress on the subject since it was announced in February. But until last week, big TV content companies have remained silent on the issue.

While a Discovery Communications representative declined to explain the timing–why now?–industry analysts have suggested that a public statement from a behemoth like Discovery might prompt other large networks to pipe up in the last four to six months of the review. Opposition from large, influential companies, like Viacom, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner and Disney, could change the tenor at the FCC and the Justice Department, the two federal agencies that are in the process of reviewing the merger for anti-trust issues and consumer concerns. The agencies are widely expected to approve the deal as early as this winter.

The FCC has received roughly 75,000 complaints about the merger, mostly from the tech industry, consumer rights activists, and citizens concerned with dismal customer service experiences at both Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

One reason content producers and programmers have not said much thus far is likely because they rely heavily on payments from TV distributors—Comcast chief among them—for their bottom line. Last year, Comcast paid networks $9.1 billion in “retransmission fees,” a sum that makes up the majority of profits for even the nation’s largest programmers. Without those fees, many content producers’ business models would collapse, or they would be forced to join forces–Scripps and Discovery? Viacom and AMC?–to compete.

If the merger is approved, a new, even-larger Comcast will control 30% of the American TV market and dominate 19 out of 20 of the biggest cities in the country, giving it a much more powerful position at the negotiating table. Rivals fear that if Comcast chooses not to carry a network, or to relegate a channel to a cable tier that reaches fewer American homes, it could all but destroy a network’s ability to survive or receive adequate advertising.

Comcast, for its part, has said that its merger with Time Warner Cable would simply recalibrate what it describes as a grossly unequal balance of power in the TV marketplace. In April, Comcast’s man in Washington, David Cohen, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April that programming costs have gone up 98% in the last decade because “programmers have more power at the negotiating table” than distributors.

The debate is underscored by concerns about Comcast’s overwhelming dominance in the high speed broadband space. At a time when more and more Americans are shifting from watching traditional cable to watching TV over the internet (Netflix, Roku, Apple TV!), they are becoming more dependent than ever before on the high speed broadband pipes that deliver the internet to their homes–and those pipes are largely owned by Comcast too.

If the merger is approved, Comcast could control up to 70% of American broadband internet connections fast enough to stream or record several high-definition TV shows at the same time, according to recent studies. (Comcast says that it will control only 30% of broadband connections, but its definition of “high speed broadband” includes DSL connections that are too slow to stream multiple HD videos.)

Comcast’s dominance in the TV distribution space could give it the power to demand that content producers and networks do not distribute their content online, either via an independent website or through an existing platform, like Netflix. Programmers and content producers will inevitably see their industry shaped inexorably by a Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Whether it’s in their interest to speak out now–or to hedge their bets, stay on the giants’ good side, and wait for the merger to be approved–remains to be seen.

TIME technology

FCC Chairman Says All the Right Things, But Critics Remain Suspicious

US-POLITICS-BUDGET-FCC
Karen Bleier—AFP/Getty Images FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler gives testimony before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing on "Review of the President's FY2015 funding request and budget justification for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)."on March 27, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

America's lack of broadband competition is "intolerable," Wheeler said

Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler gave an impassioned speech Thursday, saying it’s “intolerable” that 75% of Americans have no choice between Internet Service Providers offering fixed broadband at speeds fast enough for modern use. Wheeler also called for the government and industry to “do everything in our power” to increase competition among ISPs like Comcast and Verizon, and to create a robust public policy that protects a vibrant, dynamic, and open Internet.

On the surface, Wheeler’s speech hit all the right notes with tech entrepreneurs, open Internet advocates and consumer rights groups. But behind the scenes, it was met with a dose of cynicism.

Critics pointed out that Wheeler has previously sworn allegiance to popular concepts like “net neutrality,” the notion that ISPs must treat all web content equally, while simultaneously advancing federal rules that many tech entrepreneurs decry for betraying that concept. Advocates have submitted a record-breaking 1.3 million comments to the FCC in recent months over the issue, many of which pan Wheeler’s version of “net neutrality” rules.

Similarly, Wheeler’s fervent call for more competition–“competition, competition, competition!” he said repeatedly during his speech–in the broadband market was met with approval from most in the audience. But it seemed to some consumer advocates to be disingenuous in a climate where the FCC is widely expected approve of a massive planned merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the next six months.

“The real proof will be in the agency’s actions and not just its speeches,” wrote advocacy group Free Press’ policy director, Matt Wood, in a prepared statement.

In one part of his speech that will likely draw support from many in the Internet advocacy community, Wheeler re-defined high speed broadband Internet as having download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (mbps). The FCC’s official definition is still only 4mbps, which doesn’t make sense, Wheeler said, in a world where it takes 5mbps to download a single high-definition video, much less to access streaming apps for educational or healthcare purposes.

Quibbling over the definition of high speed broadband matters in this highly politicized space. Broadband service providers often claim at Congressional hearings and in legal filings that they have lots of competition from other ISPs, but they cite as examples rival companies that offer what most Americans would consider unacceptably slow service. For example, in the legal filing for its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, Comcast claims that it’s engaged in “robust competition” with telecom and mobile phone companies, many of which offer DSL or other services with download speeds significantly slower than 25 mbps.

On this point, Wheeler was clear: “At 25mbps [download speeds], there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” he said, unequivocally.

Wheeler, who spoke at 1776’s start-up space in downtown Washington, D.C., spent a good portion of his speech laying out what he called his “Agenda for Broadband Competition.” It centers on not only encouraging competition between existing broadband service providers, but also creating new competition—a turn of phrase that seemed to suggest that the FCC may move more actively into citizen-supported municipal broadband.

“Where meaningful competition is not available, the commission will work to create it,” Wheeler said. He also cited recent petitions asking the FCC to review recent laws, most of which were underwritten by local cable and telecom companies, that make it illegal for cities to create their own broadband. Eliminating such local laws would allow municipalities, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, to build and maintain their own Internet networks, competing directly with incumbent telecom and cable companies–a highly controversial idea in this space.

Wheeler also pointed to the fact that in cities where Google Fiber has begun offering super-fast gigabit download speeds, local cable and telecom companies, which have balked in the past at the cost of investing in faster networks, have recently increased the speeds of their service. He added that while the majority of Americans have access to 100mbps download speeds, that’s just not enough.

“Just because Americans have access to next generation broadband doesn’t mean they have competitive choices.”

TIME China

A Smartphone Maker Called ‘Little Rice’ Has Big Plans

Xiaomi Samsung China Sales
ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun speaks during a product launch on May 15, 2014 in Beijing, China.

For the first time in years, the biggest player in China's smartphone market is homegrown

“Little rice.” That’s the literal translation for Chinese electronics company Xiaomi, but its humble name hasn’t stopped it from conquering the Chinese smartphone market. And now it’s looking abroad, too.

Analysts say it’s precisely Xiaomi’s modesty that’s allowed it to dethrone Samsung and log the highest smartphone sales volume in the world’s biggest market this past quarter. A three-year-old firm known for its affordable prices and affable branding, Xiaomi shipped about 15 million units compared to Samsung’s 13.2 million in the second quarter this year, according to a report by Canalys.

“Samsung had been the leading vendor in China for the last two-and-a-half years, but [Xiaomi’s strong performance] comes in the context that Samsung has had an uncharacteristically weak performance,” Tom Shepherd, senior analyst at Canalys, told TIME, noting that the firm plans to adjust inventory after its 3G products had underwhelming sales. “We expect a sort of rally in terms of [Samsung’s third quarter] performance, but will that performance be sufficient to reestablish a leadership position over Xiaomi?”

But analysts are skeptical that Xiaomi will loosen its newfound grip on China’s smartphone market. Its sales overshadowed Apple’s a year ago, and the homegrown firm is on track for 60 million shipments in global smartphone sales this year, more than three times last year’s figure of 18.7 million, according to Linda Sui, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics. Estimates of the two manufacturers’ shipments in China suggest that “little rice” is reaping the harvest of its land:

Xiaomi Samsung Quarterly Shipments in China
Data from Canalys

“The two vendors are neck to neck,” Sui told TIME. “I think Samsung now feels much pain in low-tier and mid-tier markets in China. For low-tier and mid-tier markets, pricing is still the key factor in determining people’s purchasing behavior in China.”

Affordability has indeed been Xiaomi’s allure—Xiaomi’s most popular smartphones retail at half the price of most iPhones in China—but analysts believe the real cause of Xiaomi’s explosive growth is its localized and personalized features, the opposite of what’s made global brands like Samsung so successful. Unlike Samsung, Xiaomi has strategically sold 4G products while China Mobile pushes its 4G services; it has its own pre-installed Chinese app store, since Google Play is heavily censored; it boasts its user interface customization software unavailable on Samsung’s phones; and all phones arrive with pre-installed local business directories. With Xiaomi, “made in China” might not be so bad.

“We see that phrase evolving within China to the phrase ‘made for China,'” Jeff Orr, Senior Practice Director for Mobile Devices at ABI Research, told TIME. “‘Made in China’ is going to mean something, something people will take pride in within China. That’s going to be an increasing challenge for multinational brands like Samsung that are importing products.”

But Xiaomi’s secret to success is a double-edged sword: analysts say achieving that same degree of localization will be necessary if Xiaomi wants a future beyond its home country, which Sui said is “very well covered” by Xiaomi, as it has penetrated both rural areas and cities. On the other hand, only about 100,000 of Xiaomi’s global smartphone units, less than 1%, were shipped outside China during the second quarter, according to data from Canalys. Its recent launch of its Mi 3 model in India, though, is a big encouragement: Xiaomi has already scored 100,000 pre-orders for only 10,000 units. Analysts expect the firm’s hit list will include several emerging markets in the Asia-Pacific region and also in European countries like Russia, where global brands like Apple don’t have a strong presence.

There’s one place, though, where analysts say “little rice” won’t grow: America. While Xiaomi nabbed an American Android executive last year, prompting speculation over a possible U.S. entry, sustained controversy over Xiaomi’s intellectual property infringements on U.S. companies and the sheer saturation of the American smartphone market are casting doubt on Xiaomi’s future in the U.S.

TIME Telecom

Verizon: Slowing Data Speeds for Some Users Is Necessary

Verizon Defends Throttling Policy After FCC Letter
Bloomberg via Getty Images Pedestrians walk past a Verizon Wireless store in New York, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014.

Verizon is defending itself after the FCC criticized its "throttling" policy

Verizon has defended its policy of slowing data speeds for some users after receiving stinging criticism from the Federal Communications Commission.

After receiving a letter from the FCC condemning the policy last week, the telecom company said slowing speeds—known as “throttling”—for heavy users of unlimited data plans during high traffic periods is necessary to ensure network quality, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The FCC’s letter followed Verizon’s July 25 announcement that under its “network optimization policy,” customers with 4G LTE devices on unlimited data plans who are in the top 5 percent of data users “may experience slower data speeds when using certain high bandwidth applications.”

“It is disturbing to me that Verizon Wireless would base its ‘network management’ on distinctions among its customers’ data plans, rather than on network architecture or technology,” wrote FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. “I know of no past Commission statement that would treat as ‘reasonable network management’ a decision to slow traffic to a user who has paid, after all, for ‘unlimited’ service.”

But Verizon, whose CEO Daniel Mead was “very surprised” to receive the FCC’s letter, was unapologetic in its reply to the FCC’s request that it explain its rationale behind throttling. Part of the FCC’s criticism suggested that throttling may be incentivizing customers to move to usage-based plans that would ultimately benefit Verizon. Verizon, however, disagrees.

“Unlike subscribers on usage-based plans, [heavy users on unlimited data plans] have no incentive not to do so during times of unusually high demand,” Kathleen Grillo, senior vice president of federal regulatory affairs at Verizon, said in the letter. “Rather than an effort to ‘enhance [our] revenue streams,’ our practice is a measured and fair step to ensure that this small group of customers do not disadvantage all others in the sharing of network resources.”

Verizon’s throttling policy dates back to 2011, when heavy data users’ speeds on the telecom’s 3G network were slowed to ensure equal access to network resources—a policy that’s “been widely accepted with little or no controversy,” Grillo wrote.

The practice of throttling has raised questions about what it means to subscribe to an “unlimited” data plan. AT&T also throttles speeds for some users grandfathered into its now-discontinued unlimited data plans, and in 2012, AT&T settled a lawsuit from a user upset about his slowed data speeds despite paying for uncapped data usage. Even former FCC Chairman Michael Powell has suggested limiting data speeds isn’t actually about network optimization, saying data caps on usage-based plans—increasingly common as wireless carriers slash unlimited plans—are instead about fairness among users and “how to fairly monetize a high fixed cost.”

TIME Telecom

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

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

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 Telecom

Streaming Music Won’t Count Against T-Mobile Data Plans

Wireless carrier T-Mobile will soon begin allowing customers to stream as much music as they want from services like Spotify and iTunes Radio. The company announced Wednesday that it will no longer count music streamed from select services towards customers’ monthly data usage limits.

The services currently included in the program are Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes Radio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify and Milk Music. These options comprise about 85 percent of the music streaming traffic on T-Mobile’s network, the company said. Customers can vote via social media on other services they’d like to see included as well.

The move will allow avid music listeners to do considerably more with their monthly data allotment. A person that streams music for 50 minutes a day uses about 1.5 GB of data per month just for that task, according to T-Mobile’s own data calculator. If unchecked, such use can lead to huge overage charges on competing carriers’ networks or throttled speeds on T-Mobile (the carrier eliminated overage charges earlier this year in favor of slowing down service for people who use more than their allotted data).

The new feature has similarities to AT&T’s Sponsored Data plan, which alllows companies to pay AT&T to let customers use apps or websites without eating into their monthly data allotment. Some have said that these concepts violate the ethos of net neutrality, which discourages companies from granting preferential treatment in the way they deliver certain types of data across the Internet — though net neutrality rules have not previously applied to mobile Internet use.

Unlike AT&T’s Sponsored Data program, though, T-Mobile will collect no fees from the streaming services that are granted unlimited streaming.

In addition to lifting data caps on music streaming, T-Mobile also announced a new streaming service of its own, called unRadio. The new, on-demand service, made in partnership with Rhapsody, has a catalog of 20 million songs and no ads. It will be free for T-Mobile subscribers with an unlimited data plan and $4 per month for subscribers with more limited plans.

The new programs are the latest steps in T-Mobile’s “Un-Carrier” initiative, which has introduced several disruptive concepts to the wireless industry, such as the elimination of two-year contracts and international data charges. The cost-cutting measures are making T-Mobile bleed money, but they also helped the carrier gain more new subscribers in the first quarter than AT&T, Verizon and Sprint combined.

TIME Shopping

Senior Citizens Are, Like, Totally Into Shopping and Gossiping on the Phone

Regional Economy In Coastal Town Ahead Of Second Quarter GDP Report
Chris Ratcliffe—Bloomberg/Getty Images Elderly people sit with their shopping bags as they wait for transportation at a bus stop in Hastings, U.K., on Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

Survey finds they're always hanging around the mall, bragging about their grandkids

Most adults think they’ve outgrown the days of endless hang outs at the mall and marathon chats over the phone. In fact, they haven’t quite grown into them.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics annual survey of how Americans spend their time, released Wednesday, reveals that the pasttimes typically associated with adolescence, shopping and gabbing, tend to peak in the golden years.

Calling, texting, e-mailing and snail mailing consumes roughly 12 minutes of an average teenager’s day. If that figure seems low, it’s partly because the survey only counts the moments when gabbing is a “primary activity,” outside of work and school for instance. It appears to be a primary activity of the golden years, however, steadily climbing to nearly 16 minutes a day.

Untitled

Shopping tends to consume more and more waking minutes of Americans’ lives as they age, beginning at 30 minutes a day in adolescence and steadily climbing to a peak of 52 minutes for Americans 75 years and older.

Untitled3

 

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com