Alphabet’s Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to deploy internet connectivity to areas underserved by more traditional methods, has received rapid FCC approval to deploy its technology in Puerto Rico, where cellular service continues to be widely disrupted after the recent hurricane. Project Loon has relatively few real-world deployments out there despite testing for years, but this seems like a fantastic application for the technology if it can work out some of the kinks, and if it can deploy much more quickly than it has elsewhere. Interestingly, Facebook’s connectivity group has also worked on some airborne technologies for deployment in disaster zones, including a “Tether-tenna” it described at F8 earlier this year. Given that neither company’s connectivity efforts has had a massive impact yet, perhaps it’s best deployed in these scenarios, where the flexibility it offers is arguably a better fit than land-based approaches typically used by traditional cellular carriers in these situations.
Following on the heels of yesterday’s iPhone 8 reviews, today the reviews for the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE came out, and they were rather different in tone, in at least some cases. Whereas yesterday’s reviews were largely positive with some misgivings around the edges, today’s Watch reviews were bifurcated between those that were almost entirely positive and those that noted significant connectivity issues, notably those at the Wall Street Journal and The Verge (once again, I’m linking to the Techmeme roundup here). All seemed to agree that the faster processors and watchOS 4 combine for significantly better performance across multiple areas including fitness and heart rate tracking, app use, and music, but the differences occurred around LTE/WiFI connectivity.
It appears (there’s a good explainer here) that the Watch tends to try to hop onto so-called captive WiFi networks – those that allow devices to connect without a password but require going through an interstitial or popup before allowing internet access – but can’t progress beyond the interstitial, putting the Watch in an awkward in-between state where it’s connected to WiFi but can’t actually reach the internet. That, in turn, stops the Watch from trying to connect to LTE, which is what you really want it to do in that situation. That should be a relatively easy software fix for Apple, and it’s suggested that’s the case, but it’s baffling that this issue didn’t come up during all the testing that must have gone on over recent months, and as such is an embarrassing slip-up for Apple when the new connectivity options are the key selling point for this device.
It is notable that not all reviewers experienced the problem, which may be indicative of either their differing use during the review period or their differing earlier use, with some perhaps more prone to hop onto captive WiFi networks with their iPhones (and thereby inadvertently setting up their Watches for failure) than others. At any rate, many regular users likely won’t see those issues either, especially if using the Watch out in the wild rather than in busy urban areas, while those who do will hopefully see the problem fixed very quickly in a software update. Regardless, this clearly wasn’t what Apple was hoping for from these reviews, and it’s likely that the glitches will color perceptions of the Watch at least until Apple does issue a fix and that gets some decent coverage.
★ Apple Announces Upgraded Watch and TV Devices (Sep 12, 2017)
Facebook is Testing Downloadable Instant Videos (Sep 12, 2017)
AT&T Launches Own-Brand Tablet with DirecTV Front and Center (Aug 21, 2017)
AT&T today announced Primetime, an own-brand LTE-enabled tablet which it will sell under an installment model and allow customers to add on to their shared data plans. The device puts the DirecTV services AT&T also sells front and center, meaning that this is not just an opportunity to sell more connected tablets but also another push to connect its wireless and entertainment offerings in bundles. History here throws up some worries: Sprint and Verizon have seen terrible tablet subscriber growth in the past year because they’re passing the two-year anniversary of when they gave away lots of free tablets on two-year contracts, and customers are now churning in big numbers. This tablet from AT&T carries its own brand, and it’s not clear from AT&T’s press release what sort of specs the device has, but there’s a risk that AT&T sees the same churn in 20-24 months when customers have paid these things off. Overall, I’d also argue that AT&T’s bundling of wireless and entertainment hasn’t worked all that well either for its TV business or its wireless business, both of which continue to bleed subscribers, while Verizon bounced back in a big way in Q2 thanks to its big push around unlimited. That, and not TV/wireless bundles, seems to be what’s selling in the US wireless industry at the moment, and AT&T is the odd one out among the major carriers in not promoting the unlimited offerings it re-introduced earlier this year. I’m not sure this tablet changes any of that, and it feels like another attempt to shoehorn DirecTV into a wireless proposition rather than simply leading with what customers are looking for.
One of Facebook’s numerous connectivity efforts is its Aquila unmanned aircraft for delivering Internet access in remote or unconnected areas. The first test flight earlier this year ended in a crash, something Facebook wasn’t entirely forthcoming about before an NTSB investigation revealed the details. The second flight happened about a month ago, but Facebook seems to have waited until now to talk about it for some reason, and it seems to have gone rather better. It was still short – under two hours, relative to the months Facebook expects Aquila to stay in the air eventually – and the landing is still a little awkward given that the aircraft has no landing gear, but Facebook seems to be making progress. At F8 in April, Facebook talked about its various internet connectivity efforts, and put Aquila firmly in the long-term bucket, saying it would take up to 10 years to get the project up and running, so that’s useful context for these efforts and the PR around them, which is mostly feel-good stuff and has little bearing on anything the company might do commercially in the near term. The other connectivity efforts including millimeter wave wireless technology for cities, and tethered antennas for emergency sites or rural areas seem to have nearer-term launch prospects, but it’s hard to see any of them delivering a meaningful boost to the addressable market for Facebook, which is arguably the whole point of these initiatives. But expanding the addressable market is going to be critical as Facebook pushes from 2 billion to 3 billion users, as I wrote in my blog post earlier this week.
Facebook Expands Paid WiFi Access Product to India (May 4, 2017)
The headline here is overblown – Facebook, Google, and many other over-the-top services have already eaten into telcos’ business, but end user Internet access remains pretty inviolate as a telco domain. This piece skims over that element very quickly, without addressing any of the big barriers to entry that exist. I’ve no doubt that some of the other changes discussed will occur, but that’s the big one that’s going to keep telcos relevant and even healthy going forward.