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Canada’s Telesat takes on Musk and Bezos in space race to provide fast broadband

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By Steve Scherer

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada’s Telesat is racing to launch a low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite constellation to provide high-speed global broadband from space, pitting the satellite communications firm founded in 1969 against two trailblazing billionaires, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Musk, the Tesla Inc CEO who was only a year old when Telesat launched its first satellite, is putting the so-called Starlink LEO into orbit with his company SpaceX, and Amazon.com Inc, which Bezos founded, is planning a LEO called Project Kuiper. Bezos also owns Blue Origin, which builds rockets.

Despite the competition, Dan Goldberg, Telesat’s chief executive officer, voices confidence when he calls Telesat’s LEO constellation “the Holy Grail” for his shareholders – “a sustainable competitive advantage in global broadband delivery.”

Telesat’s LEO has a much lighter price tag than SpaceX and Amazon’s, and the company has been in satellite services decades longer. In addition, instead of focusing on the consumer market like SpaceX and Amazon, Telesat seeks deep-pocketed business clients.

Goldberg said he was literally losing sleep six years ago when he realized the company’s business model was in peril as Netflix and video streaming took off and fiber optics guaranteed lightning-fast internet connectivity.

Telesat’s 15 geostationary (GEO) satellites provide services mainly to TV broadcasters, internet service providers and government networks, all of whom were growing increasingly worried about the latency, or time delay, of bouncing signals off orbiters more than 35,000 km (22,200 miles) above earth.

Then in 2015 on a flight home from a Paris industry conference where latency was a constant theme, Goldberg wrote down his initial ideas for a LEO constellation on an Air Canada napkin.

Those ideas eventually led to Telesat’s LEO constellation, dubbed Lightspeed, which will orbit about 35 times closer to earth than GEO satellites, and will provide internet connectivity at a speed akin to fiber optics.

Telesat’s first launch is planned in early 2023, while there are already some 1,200 of Musk’s Starlink satellites in orbit.

“Starlink is going to be in service much sooner … and that gives SpaceX the opportunity to win customers,” said Caleb Henry, a senior analyst at Quilty Analytics.

Starlink’s “first mover” advantage is at most 24 months and “no one’s going to lock this whole market up in that amount of time,” Goldberg said.

Telesat in 2019 signed a launch deal with Bezos’ aerospace company Blue Origin. Discussions are ongoing with three others, said David Wendling, Telesat’s chief technical officer.

They are Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, Europe’s ArianeGroup , and Musk’s SpaceX, which launches the Starlink satellites. Wendling said a decision would be taken in a matter of months.

Telesat aims to launch its first batch of 298 satellites being built by Thales Alenia Space in early 2023, with partial service in higher latitudes later that same year, and full global service in 2024.

‘SWEET SPOT’

The Lightspeed constellation is estimated to cost half as much as the $10 billion SpaceX and Amazon projects.

“We think we’re in the sweet spot,” Goldberg said. “When we look at some of these other constellations, we don’t get it.”

Analyst Henry said Telesat’s focus on business clients is the right one.

“You have two heavyweight players, SpaceX and Amazon, that are already pledging to spend $10 billion on satellite constellations optimized for the consumer market,” he said. “If Telesat can spend half that amount creating a high-performance system for businesses, then yeah, they stand to be very competitive.”

Telesat’s industry experience may also provide an edge.

“We’ve worked with many of these customers for decades … That’s going to give us a real advantage,” Goldberg said.

Telesat “is a satellite operator, has been a satellite operator, and has both the advantage of expertise and experience in that business,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive officer of the research firm BryceTech, adding, however, that she sees only two to three LEO constellations surviving.

Telesat is nailing down financing – one-third equity and two-thirds debt – and will become publicly traded on the Nasdaq sometime this summer, and it could also list on the Toronto exchange after that. Currently, Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board and Loral Space & Communications Inc are the company’s main shareholders.

France and Canada’s export credit agencies, BPI and EDC respectively, are expected to be the main lenders, Goldberg said. Quebec’s provincial government is lending C$400 million ($317 million), and Canada’s federal government has promised C$600 million to be a preferred customer. The company also posted C$246 million in net income in 2020.

Executing the LEO plan is what keeps Goldberg up at night now, he said.

“When we decided to go down this path, the two richest people in the universe weren’t focused on their own LEO constellations.”

($1 = 1.2622 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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Facebook ‘planning to rebrand company’ with new name – Al Jazeera English

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CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to talk about the name change at its annual conference on October 28, but it could be sooner.

Social media giant Facebook Inc is planning to rebrand itself with a new name next week, American technology blog the Verge reported on Tuesday, citing a source with direct knowledge of the matter.

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg plans to talk about the name change at the company’s annual Connect conference on October 28, but it could be unveiled sooner, the Verge reported.

In response, Facebook said it does not comment on “rumour or speculation”.

The news comes at a time when the company is facing increasing government scrutiny in the United States over its business practices.

Legislators from both parties have excoriated the company, illustrating the rising anger in Congress with Facebook.

‘A metaverse company’

The rebranding would position Facebook’s social media app as one of many products under a parent company, which will also oversee groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus and more, the Verge report added.

It is not uncommon in Silicon Valley for companies to change their names as they bid to expand their services.

Google established Alphabet Inc as a holding company in 2015 to expand beyond its search and advertising businesses, to oversee various other ventures ranging from its autonomous vehicle unit and health technology to providing internet services in remote areas.

The move to rebrand will also reflect Facebook’s focus on building the so-called metaverse, an online world where people can use different devices to move and communicate in a virtual environment, according to the report.

Facebook has invested heavily in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) and intends to connect its nearly three billion users through several devices and apps. On Tuesday, the company announced plans to create 10,000 jobs in the European Union over the next five years to help build the metaverse.

Zuckerberg has been talking up metaverse since July when he said that the key to Facebook’s future lies with the metaverse concept – the idea that users will live, work and exercise inside a virtual universe. The company’s Oculus virtual reality headsets and service are an instrumental part of realizing that vision.

“In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “In many ways, the metaverse is the ultimate expression of social technology.”

The buzzy word, first coined in a dystopian novel three decades earlier, has been referenced by other tech firms such as Microsoft.

The Verge report said a possible name for the company could have something to do with Horizon. Recently, Facebook renamed its in-development VR gaming platform named ‘Horizon’’to “Horizon Worlds”.

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Apple's voice-only Music subscription could boost Siri's accent understanding – TechCrunch

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Apple had a slew of interesting announcements at its event on Monday. But one that stood out to me — and I feel didn’t get as much attention — is the new pricing tier of Apple Music. A new “Voice” tier will offer the entire Apple Music library to subscribers at a reduced rate of just $5 per month: The catch is you have to use Siri to access it, eschewing the standard Apple Music visual and typing-friendly in-app user interface.

Apple didn’t share why it is launching this plan, but I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the iPhone-maker is lowering the price barrier and persuading more people to use Siri because it wants to gather more voice data to train and improve its voice assistant.

“We’re excited that even more people will be able to enjoy Apple Music simply with their voice,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said at the event.

I can’t imagine any other compelling reason why the Apple Music Voice plan exists, especially since Apple is likely offering the new service with much lower margins than the standard plan, as the licensing agreements with labels remain the same to offer up the entire Apple Music catalog.

Again, this is just speculation, but I think given the stiff competition between Apple and Spotify, if the Swedish firm could offer its streaming service at $7-8 a month to beat Apple Music at price, it would. And Apple is taking some loss with the new subscription tier because it really wants to gather vast amounts of data. When I tweeted this theory, my colleague Alex wondered aloud why wouldn’t Apple just make the subscription free? I suppose Apple, a $2.5 trillion company, can technically swallow that much of a hit on the balance sheet, but it doesn’t want to attract more criticism from standalone music streaming firms such as Spotify. It’s already facing scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior on a number of fronts.

Tech firms feed their AI models with vast amounts of data to improve the services’ capabilities. Even as Siri has considerably improved over the years, the general consensus among many people who work in tech and the masses alike is that Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are far superior.

It’s likely that Apple has already been gleaning such voice data from existing Apple Music users, but as a friend suggested, “the point is this — this feature always existed. It’s just that they’d put a high paywall. They’ve lowered that wall now.” In addition to lowering the barrier to entry, making Music voice-only via the new plan means people have to engage with Siri to make use of it; Siri is a feature for standard Apple Music subscribers, but it’s highly likely that most users primarily or exclusively access the content via the app’s UI.

If you want an example of what can happen to voice-powered assistants when you require that users treat it as a voice-first or voice-only service, look at Amazon’s Alexa. Out of the gate, Alexa had to be accessed by voice. This allowed Amazon to not only collect massive amounts of training data for its Alexa algorithms, but also helped train users about how to use it to maximum effect.

Understanding accents and dialects

Another reason why I think my theory works is the markets where Apple plans to offer this new subscription tier first: Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Having India, Spain, Ireland and France in the first wave of nations suggests that Apple is looking to amass a wide-range of dialects and accents from across the globe. On a side note, voice search is very popular in many markets, including developing nations such as India, and in markets like China and Japan where text input can sometimes be unnecessarily complex versus spoken word. (A Google executive told me once that the surprising mass adoption of voice searches in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market and where Android commands about 98% of the pie, helped the company improve Google Assistant and prompted more aggressive approach to innovate on the voice front.)

Siri is often framed as a bit of a laggard in terms of its competence versus the rest of the voice assistant competition, and Apple’s latest move in services could be an attempt to help it close the perceived gap, while offering customers a discounted way to onboard to its music streaming service.

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PSA: the MacBook Pro 14-inch’s $20 power brick upsell is probably worth it – The Verge

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If you’re looking at buying the $1,999 base model MacBook Pro 14-inch, there’s one upgrade that you may really want to make — the $20 one that gets you the 96W power adapter instead of the 67W included power adapter. That’s because, according to some wording on Apple’s MacBook Pro configuration page (spotted by MacRumors), you’ll need the more powerful charger if you want to take advantage of the computer’s fast charging feature, which can charge the laptop up to 50 percent in half an hour.

Is it ridiculous that Apple is basically taxing the people who want to buy its least expensive (but still very pricey!) new MacBook Pro? Yes, absolutely — but you should still probably pay it if you want to charge your laptop up quickly. The exception is if you already have a charging brick capable of 100W USB-PD power delivery: Apple tells The Verge that you can fast charge via Thunderbolt as long as your power brick provides enough power. If you already have a beefy power brick, you can skip the upsell.

I know it probably doesn’t feel great to encourage Apple’s nickel-and-diming, but if you want fast charging, this will likely be the best way to get it. There may be, somewhere in the world, a 100W USB-PD charging brick that sells for $20, but there’s no way I would trust it enough to charge a very expensive computer. (If it was $20, I might not even trust it not to burn down my house). I’d pick the upsell.

The one silver lining is that this is only a problem on the base 8 CPU core / 14 GPU core model — if you do any processor upgrades, you’ll get the 96W brick for “free.” Please note, though, that upgrading just the RAM and/or storage on the base MacBook Pro won’t get you that upgrade, but if you’re in the configuration screen anyways, you should absolutely check that box unless you hate fast charging.

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