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Elon Musk’s SpaceX now owns about a third of all active satellites in the sky

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By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business
Updated 4:12 PM ET, Thu February 11, 2021

Austin, Texas (CNN Business) — SpaceX created a swarm of about thousand satellites that is circulating about 340 miles overhead, and building the constellation has put SpaceX in a “deep chasm” of expenses, according to CEO Elon Musk. The constellation has also raised concerns about potential in-space collisions and the impact on astronomers’ ability to study the night sky. But for some early customers of the $99-per-month Starlink service, the satellites are already improving how rural communities access the internet.

With the latest SpaceX launch last week, which carried 60 more internet-beaming satellites into space, the company’s Starlink internet constellation grew to include about 1,000 active satellites — by far the largest array in orbit. SpaceX now owns about one third of all the active satellites in space.
More Starlink satellites were put in orbit last year than had been launched by all the rocket providers in the world in 2019.
SpaceX has promised its satellite clusters will bring cheap, high-speed internet to the masses by beaming data to every corner of the globe. The company now says it has roughly 10,000 customers, which proves that Starlink is no longer “theoretical and experimental,” the company said in a February 4 filing with the Federal Communications Commission.
    For comparison, Verizon, one of the most popular fiber-optic internet providers, has more than 6 million customers.
    At least one participant in Starlink’s beta testing program, Steve Opfer, a manager at chipmaker Broadcom (AVGO) who works out of his in rural Wisconsin home, said he “could not be happier” with his service — echoing what dozens of beta testers have said in online forums.
    Whether or not Starlink will become a sustainable business, however, remains to be seen. Musk noted in a tweet Tuesday morning that the company “needs to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow over the next year or so to make Starlink financially viable.”
    He also refloated the idea of one day taking SpaceX’s Starlink business public, saying that could happen “once we can predict cash flow reasonably well.” Musk had said last year that the company had “zero thoughts” about a Starlink IPO.
    The Starlink network is the largest and most meaningful attempt in history to build a low-latency, space-based internet service for consumers, and Musk noted Tuesday that several previous attempts to create such a network have been abandoned or endured bankruptcy (latency refers to how much lag time or delay is built into a internet service). Systems that require data to travel longer distances, such as more traditional internet satellites that orbit thousands of miles from Earth, create longer lag times. Low-Earth orbit constellations such as Starlink aim to drastically reduce latency by orbiting massive networks of satellites just a few hundred miles over ground.
    The idea has its critics. Fiber-optic-based internet providers, for example, are pushing back against the federal government’s decision to award SpaceX $885.5 million dollars in subsidies. Professional astronomers are also concerned about light pollution. And the sheer number of satellites that make up the Starlink constellation — and other networks planned by companies such as OneWeb and Amazon — has space experts worried about traffic jams and the risk of collisions that could create plumes of debris.
    Here’s where those controversies stand, and what SpaceX has done to respond to its critics.

    Rural broadband

    SpaceX and the FCC are facing blowback after the company was awarded nearly $900 million in subsidies through the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, despite objections from traditional telecom companies and even some regulators.
    Some beta testers have reported top-of-the-line speeds, but as of late 2020, they were also reportedly experiencing intermittent outages because SpaceX hadn’t launched enough satellites to guarantee continuous coverage. It also remains to be seen how affordable SpaceX’s service will be. CNBC reported in October, citing emails shared with those who expressed interest in becoming Starlink customers, that the service could cost about $99 a month, plus a one-time fee of about $500 for the router and antenna. SpaceX has not yet publicly released Starlink’s price points or terms of service.
    Musk said in a tweet Tuesday that if Starlink doesn’t fail, “the cost to end users will improve every year.” Yet many still argue that the network will, ultimately, be too expensive to provide the type of paradigm-shifting internet coverage that SpaceX has advertised.
    Still, beta testers such as Opfer argue that Starlink is a vast improvement over what many residents of rural areas are used to. Before Starlink, he and his wife relied on HughesNet or ViaSat, a more traditional satellite-based internet provider that has large satellties orbiting thousands of miles from Earth, whose services are known to be bogged down by frustrating lag times, or high latency.
    Opfer’s Starlink connection still has some spotty service, which he attributes to the fact that SpaceX is still building up the constellation. The company has said that the total number of satellites could be as high as 40,000. But “when Starlink works bad, it’s not worse than the best of ViaSat,” Opfer told CNN Business.
    ViaSat’s head of residential broadband Evan Dixon told CNN Business that ViaSat has invested “tens of millions of dollars in addressing, and mitigating latency that people will experience” using ViaSat’s service. In a recent earnings report the company’s executive chairman, Mark Dankberg, also indicated that the company is skeptical of Starlink’s efficacy. He referred to low-Earth orbit constellations like Starlink as “technologies that are unproven and may not be able to meet the obligations that are associated with them.”

    Astronomy and orbital debris

    Professional astronomers have been concerned about how Starlink satellites — which are fairly large at 550 lbs- — will impact the ground-based telescopes that have long been at the heart of breakthroughs in astrophysics and cosmology. Through much of last year, astronomers were working with the company on ways to make the satellites appear dimmer in space.
    After initially trying a dark coating, SpaceX settled on using a retractable sun visor. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said those have been present on every Starlink satellite launched since last summer. That has made most of them invisible to the naked eye — a win for communities that want to limit light pollution in night sky.
    But the satellites do still interfere with observatories that are essential to astronomers’ efforts to study the cosmos. That has scientists scrambling to figure out how to scrub telescope data that is speckled with bright streaks created by the Starlink satellites. That uses up valuable resources that astronomers hoped to put toward their research rather than “trying to clean the bugs off our windshield just so we can see out of our cars,” said Meredith Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.
      McDowell and Rawls applaud SpaceX’s desire to keep satellites at lower altitudes, below 1,000 km (or 310 miles). Keeping Starlink satellites in a lower orbit makes them less of a nuisance for telescopes, and it guarantees that satellites that malfunction will be dragged out of orbit in a matter of months, rather than becoming uncontrollable projectiles that can threaten other satellites for centuries.
      Astronomers and space traffic experts are still concerned about the lack of regulation around satellite brightness and orbital traffic. OneWeb’s satellite internet constellation, for example, orbits higher than 1,000 km. And if any one of its 6,000 planned satellites malfunctions, it could become a major issue.

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      Lyft focuses on seniors with new option to book rides by phone call

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      By Sara O’Brien, CNN Business
      Updated 12:50 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

      (CNN Business) — Lyft is adding an option to allow people to order a ride in a more retro way — by phone call — a year after Uber tried doing the same before shutting it down.

      The ride-hail company said Wednesday it launched a special service in dozens of Florida cities to allow people to call a number (631-201-LYFT) with a cell phone to book a car on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It’s geared towards seniors and those without access to its app. Once a ride is booked, Lyft (LYFT) said it will communicate updates via text message.
      The service, which Lyft said it piloted in late 2020 in Miami before expanding to more Florida cities, is similar to one Uber announced last February. Uber’s service was only available in select markets — Arizona, Florida and New York City — for rides or meal deliveries, but by the end of 2020, the company paused the program.
      An Uber (UBER) spokesperson told CNN Business Wednesday that there was declining use of the service, with only a few hundred people a month using it. Uber’s service also allowed users to order food delivery. (Those who call the Uber hotline now are told they can request rides from the mobile site or app.)
        Sam Bond, regional director for Lyft in the Southeast, said in a statement that the company looks forward to “helping seniors access transportation to essential services and resources that may be currently out of reach without a car.”
        The company didn’t directly address why it believes the program will succeed where Uber’s stalled, only reiterated that it is dedicated to serving vulnerable and underserved communities.
          On an earnings call earlier this month, Lyft president John Zimmer said the pandemic “has amplified transportation and security, especially for seniors and vulnerable communities. We are committed to ensuring that transportation access is not a barrier to beating this virus.”
          At the end of 2020, the company announced a vaccine access program with a goal to provide 60 million rides to and from vaccination sites alongside JPMorgan Chase, Anthem Inc. and United Way.

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          Facebook will restore news in Australia after talks with the government

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          By Michelle Toh and Chandler Thornton, CNN Business
          Updated 11:08 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

          Hong Kong (CNN Business) — Facebook will restore news pages in Australia after the government agreed on changes to a planned media code that the company said would allow it to retain greater control over what appears on its platform.

          The announcement caps months of bitter dispute between the American tech firm and Canberra, which had been working on legislation that would force tech platforms to pay publishers for news content.
          The initial version of the legislation would have allowed media outlets to bargain either individually or collectively with Facebook and Google (GOOGL) — and to enter binding arbitration if the parties couldn’t reach an agreement.
          On Tuesday, the Australian government said it would amend the code to include a provision that “must take into account whether a digital platform has made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with news media businesses.”
            Arbitration, meanwhile, will now only be used as a “last resort” following a period of “good faith” mediation.
            Facebook’s decision to restore news came as the Australian Senate discussed the latest iteration of the media law.
            “It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally, and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Brown said.
            Google, meanwhile, had already been trying to get ahead of the new legislation by announcing partnerships with some of the country’s largest media organizations, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (NWS) and Seven West Media. Facebook revealed its own deal with Seven on Tuesday.
              Asked about Google’s partnerships last week, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg alluded to the changes that were ultimately announced Tuesday. He said that “if commercial deals are in place, then it changes the equation.”
              — Kerry Flynn contributed to this report.

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              The worldwide web as we know it may be ending

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              By Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
              Updated 12:00 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

              (CNN Business) — Over the last year, the worldwide web has started to look less worldwide.

              Europe is floating regulation that could impose temporary bans on US tech companies that violate its laws. The United States was on the verge of banning TikTok and WeChat, though the new Biden administration is rethinking that move. India, which did ban those two apps as well of dozens of others, is now at loggerheads with Twitter.
              And this month, Facebook (FB) clashed with the Australian government over a proposed law that would require it to pay publishers. The company briefly decided to prevent users from sharing news links in the country in response to the law, with the potential to drastically change how its platform functions from one country to the next. Then on Tuesday, it reached a deal with the government and agreed to restore news pages. The deal partially relaxed arbitration requirements that Facebook took issue with.
              In its announcement of the deal, however, Facebook hinted at the possibility of similar clashes in the future. “We’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Campbell Brown, VP of global news partnerships at Facebook, said in a statement Tuesday.
                But if such territorial agreements become more common, the globally-connected internet we know will become more like what some have dubbed the “splinternet,” or a collection of different internets whose limits are determined by national or regional borders.
                The stakes will only get higher if more governments jump on the bandwagon.
                “It’s kind of a game of chicken,” said Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Business and author of “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy and Our Health.”
                Aral says companies such as Facebook and Google will encounter a slippery slope if they start to exit every market that asks them to pay for its news, which would “severely limit” the content they can serve their global user base.
                “They have a vested interest in trying to force any one market to not impose such regulations by threatening to pull out,” he said. “The other side is basically saying: ‘If you don’t pay for the content, you’re not going to have access to our market of consumers or the content in this market.'”

                As the internet fractures, global regulators coalesce

                A fight over news in Australia is a relatively small part of the clash between tech and governments, which has largely been focused on issues such as censorship, privacy and competition. But the response to Facebook’s move in Australia has shown that a more international effort to rein in Big Tech may be gathering momentum — and with it, the potential for additional fracturing of how internet services function from one country to the next.
                As his government faced off against Facebook last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a warning to the social media giant: what you do here may come back to hurt you in other countries.
                “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” he said in a Facebook post. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”
                On Tuesday, Morrison said Facebook’s decision to restore news was “welcome,” adding that the government remained committed to proceeding with its legislation to ensure “Australian journalists and news organisations are fairly compensated for the original content they produce.”
                Several other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada are now considering similar legislation against social media companies — and many of those countries are talking to each other about how best to do that.
                “It would be extremely useful if governments would come together in some kind of transnational process and come up with a treaty or some kind of standard about who gets to reach out and affect content and information outside their national territory,” Keller said, “because that’s what a lot of them are trying to do, but they haven’t, and so as a result you get this very fragmented patchwork.”
                  If that increased fragmentation is allowed to reach its natural conclusion, however, the consequences could be dire.
                  “If the eventual outcome of that is that we have social media platforms in every major country or market that are separate, then what we will have is an information ecosystem that is completely bifurcated or splintered across the globe,” Aral said. “What that portends is a citizenry that has completely different sets of information about local events, about world events, and perhaps a very splintered worldview of reality.”

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                  Former WeWork CEO in talks to get nearly $500 million in SoftBank settlement

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                  By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
                  Updated 2:29 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

                  (CNN Business) — Adam Neumann, the disgraced former CEO and cofounder of WeWork, may soon have a massive payday as part of a possible settlement with SoftBank, the company’s largest investor, but the amount under discussion is far less than the golden parachute originally offered.

                  Neumann, who stepped down in late 2019 after a disastrous attempt to take WeWork public, could be eligible to sell nearly $500 million worth of his shares to SoftBank as part of a $1.5 billion stock buyback program for early WeWork employees and investors, according to a source familiar with the matter. The deal is not yet finalized.
                  The deal is part of a settlement under discussion to resolve a long-simmering legal dispute between Neumann, WeWork and SoftBank after the Japanese conglomerate walked away from a $3 billion WeWork share purchase agreement.
                  The terms of a possible settlement were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. A second source familiar with the matter told CNN Business that the deal is close to being finalized but could still fall through.
                    WeWork, SoftBank, and a representative for Neumann declined to comment.
                    The settlement is half of what was previously on the table when SoftBank agreed to bail out the co-working company after a period of turmoil. As part of the deal in fall of 2019, Neumann departed and had the chance to sell back nearly $1 billion of his shares — an opportunity that infuriated some workers.
                    Under Neumann’s leadership, WeWork raised billions of dollars, scaled its coworking operations to hundreds of cities around the world, and was valued at an eye-popping $47 billion during one investment round. But the company also failed spectacularly in its attempt to go public in large part because IPO paperwork revealed his unchecked power and numerous potential conflicts of interest, as well as WeWork’s staggering losses.
                      In April 2020, SoftBank abandoned plans to buy $3 billion in WeWork stock from Neumann and others, citing certain conditions of the deal that hadn’t been met, including the existence of pending criminal and civil investigations into the company, global restrictions related to the coronavirus, and the failure to restructure a joint venture in China. In response, Neumann and a special committee of WeWork’s board brought lawsuits.
                      News of a possible deal comes as SoftBank and WeWork attempt to turn the page on the Neumann chapter of the company. As the Journal reported, WeWork is in talks about a potential deal to merge with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a public company at long last.

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                      The hot new thing in tech: speaking into your phone

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                      By Kaya Yurieff and Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
                      Updated 9:03 AM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

                      (CNN Business) — Before last year, 28-year-old Meredith Giuliani thought voice notes were “kind of weird,” and she mostly stuck to texting. But after the pandemic hit, audio messages became a daily routine for her and many of her friends.

                      “This is my way to debrief and tell everybody what’s going on,” she told CNN Business. “It’s not like it used to be where I would wait until I was going to see my friends over the course of the next week for drinks or for brunch.”
                      For years, Apple and others have offered the option to record short messages and send them via text and chat apps. But the format has gained new appeal for many in the United States during the pandemic as we approach a year of limited opportunities to socialize with friends, family and coworkers.
                      Romina Hyskaj, a 23-year-old recruiter who lives in New York City, uses them mainly to keep in touch with her parents who live six hours away, noting that “it can get your tone, attitude, or joke across.” Nick Hofstadter, a 38-year-old luxury travel adviser in Los Angeles, sends voice notes to a handful of close friends, mostly to tell funny stories with a more “dramatic effect” and to avoid sending long text messages. (He prefers using voice notes on iMessage over Instagram so he can listen to it before sending.)
                        And it’s not just voice messages. Voice is having a moment — and the tech industry is taking notice.
                        Hall said an added part of the appeal — beyond conveying more emotional nuance — is how easy voice notes are to record, store and replay.
                        “Back when we had answering machines, people used to save important messages, particularly from loved ones, sometimes for as long as the machine had space and power to store those messages,” he said. “People don’t use voicemail in the same manner, partly because the phone is not the easiest way to leave a message for another person — that would be a text.”
                          Prior to the pandemic, Giuliani said there were many friends she didn’t talk to daily. Voice notes have changed that.
                          “It’s kept some of my friends and I really close together,” she said. “We send over voice notes and we’re chatting every single day, way more than we ever did before the pandemic.” She added: “I can’t believe that we didn’t before.”

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