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FCC Redefines Broadband: Lack of Competition Now Obvious

Just last week, broadband Internet access in the United States was looking pretty good: 99 percent of Americans had access to broadband speeds [pdf] (even if they weren’t yet taking advantage of them). In addition, competition seemed if not fierce, at least existent: nearly 75 percent of consumers had at least two broadband providers to choose from.

Now, neither statistic is true.

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A Möbius Strip Made of Light

Most nerdy kids, of the type that would grow up to read IEEE Spectrum, were excited when they first learned about the Möbius strip, a three-dimensional shape with only one surface. Many immediately fashioned their own, by cutting a thin strip of paper, twisting it, and joining one end to the other to make a continuous surface. Now scientists have figured out how to make a Möbius strip out of light.

The researchers, from Canada, Europe, and the United States, were able to twist the polarization of a light beam in order to form a 3-D structure out of an electric field that had the same topology as a Möbius strip made of matter would. Lightwaves consist of both an electric and a magnetic field, which oscillate perpendicular to each other. Polarization refers to the direction in which the electric field oscillates.

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Identifying Credit Card Users With a Few Bits of Data

Anonymized credit card data can easily be used to identify credit card users, more evidence that anonymizing data does not protect privacy as well as often thought, scientists now find.

Personal information often gets anonymized by stripping it of names, home addresses, phone numbers and other obvious identifying details. Such data often get shared, and underlie popular services such as Google’s real-time traffic monitoring, which shows conditions on major thoroughfares in more than 50 different countries.

However, anonymized data can still reveal a great deal about individuals. For example, computational social scientist Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye at MIT and his colleagues recently found that anonymized cell phone data could be better at identifying users than fingerprints. At most, 11 randomly chosen interactions with cell phone networks were needed to identify a person by the routes he or she regularly traveled, while identifying someone by a fingerprint requires at least 12 reference points.

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To Predict Flu Outbreak, Just Google It

By combining insights from Google Flu Trends with data from the CDC, scientists now say they can predict the spread of flu a week into the future in the United States.

Each year, 250,000 to 500,000 people die of influenza worldwide, with 3,000 to 50,000 of those fatalities happening in the United States. These deaths are largely preventable by using flu shots, but the CDC must have up-to-date knowledge about where influenza is happening to make sure these vaccines get to where they are needed.

The CDC continuously monitors both the number of doctor visits attributed to flu-like illness as well as the number of patient samples that test positive for influenza. However, it can take a long time to collect and analyze all this activity, resulting in data that is typically up to two weeks out of date once it’s made available.

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European VC Funding Reached 13-Yr High In 2014

A week ago, we reported that venture funding for U.S. startups is booming. Turns out, the good news isn’t for U.S. startups alone. European VC investment was also at its highest in 2014 since the dot-com boom.

According to data published this week by Dow Jones VentureSource, European startups raised $8.9 billion (€7.9 billion) last year across 1460 deals, up from €6.3 billion in 2013. That’s the largest investment since 2001, when European ventures secured €10.6 billion.

The funds are going predominantly to tech startups. And most of them are in the United Kingdom and Germany. London and Berlin are Europe’s fastest growing tech hubs, teeming with companies setting up offices in converted warehouses and startup lofts. Tech companies in London raised $1.4 billion and those in Berlin secured $1.1 billion, according to the research company CB Insights.

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Silk Implants Fight Bacterial Infection Then Vanish

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A new electronic implant can fight bacterial infection inside the body and then harmlessly dissolve. The simple, passive device is made entirely of silk and magnesium, which are both benign, biocompatible materials. The device, which can be loaded with antibiotics, could be implanted inside the body during surgery and then wirelessly triggered from outside to kill bacteria using heat or by releasing drugs. Once its work is done, it would dissolve.

The idea is to make benign, functional electronics that last in the body for a finite amount of time so that no surgical retrieval is required, explains Fiorenzo Omenetto, a professor of bioengineering at Tufts University. Researchers from Omenetto’s group, together with collaborators from the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology in China and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presented results on their device at the IEEE MEMS 2015 conference last week.

Several other research teams are exploring the potential of spider silk for electronics. Omenetto focuses on silkworm silk. In addition to vanishing medical implants, he wants to make silk-based consumer electronics that would degrade when needed rather than lying around in landfills. He has made graphene-and-silk-based nanosensing tattoos to detect bacteria in the mouth. And with UIUC’s John Rogers, he has previously made silk-encased dissolvable electronics that used silicon nanomembranes as the electronics substrate.

The device that the researchers presented at MEMS 2015—and recently in the journal PNAShas no silicon. It’s a very simple design: a power-receiving coil and a serpentine resistor made of magnesium are deposited on a silk film and then encapsulated in a silk pocket. Omenetto’s team gets the silk from silkworm cocoons. They’ve figured out how to fine-tune the silk’s crystallinity and other properties so that it degrades at time intervals ranging from minutes to weeks.

“You then have a little band-aid that you put under the skin,” Omenetto says. “Silk here acts like the plastic substrate, and it is medically digestive. And the magnesium on top hydrolyzes and breaks down and dissolves.”

The researchers implanted the device in the skin of mice that were infected with the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. They wirelessly activated the device using a transmitter for two sets of ten-minute treatments. The resistor heats up, and the heat kills bacteria. After 24 hours, tissue collected from the mice was infection-free. The device fully dissolved and vanished in 15 days.

In a separate in vitro experiment, the researchers loaded a silk film with the antibiotic ampicillin and attached it, along with a magnesium heater, to a silk pocket. When they wirelessly heated the device, the silk film released the drug.

Photo: Tufts University

Skin-Based Generators Scavenge Muscle Motion to Power Wearables

Using human skin as one of its charge-collectors, a new flexible generator converts muscle movements into enough power for small electronics. The postage-stamp-sized device takes advantage of static electricity to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy.

Such friction-powered generators could usher new types of wearable sensors that don’t require batteries but instead are powered by the wearer’s daily activities like walking, talking or holding an object.

The new device, which researchers from the National University of Singapore presented at the IEEE MEMS 2015 conference last week, can generate 90 volts of open circuit voltage when touched gently with a finger. Electrical and computer engineering professor Chengkuo Lee and his colleagues demonstrated that the new device can be used as a wearable self-powered sensor to track the user’s motion and activity.

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When U.S. Telecoms Come Calling, Will Cuba Pick Up The Phone?

This month, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration began opening the long-closed diplomatic door to Cuba. Among other things the President's plan makes way for is the ability of U.S. companies to sell telecommunications equipment to the island. Legislation imposing a broad economic embargo still stands, but the administration has some leeway over activity that improves the flow of information under the banner of “spreading democracy.”

(Exceptions to the old embargo abound: the U.S. National Science Foundation actually provided Cuba’s first Internet connection in 1996 as part of a broader connectivity drive for developing countries.)

What remains unclear, says computer scientist and Cuba telecom blogger Larry Press of California State University in Dominguez Hills, is what use the Cuban government has for U.S. telecom equipment.

“In my mind, the question is: What is Cuba going to allow?” he says.

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SpaceX Raises $1 Billion from Google and Fidelity for Satellite Internet Project

SpaceX recently announced plans to provide Internet access through a global network of about 4,000 satellites starting within five years. The private spaceflight company also revealed that it has raised $1 billion in funding from Google and Fidelity to help make those plans a reality.

The mega investment in SpaceX will give Google and Fidelity ownership of about 10 percent of the spaceflight company, according to a SpaceX press release on 20 Jan. A Wall Street Journal report cited a person close to the deal as saying the investment would aid SpaceX’s plans to expand Internet access through its global satellite network:

The investment would value SpaceX, backed by Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Elon Musk, at more than $10 billion, according to a person familiar with the matter. The financing will support the company’s nascent plans to deliver Internet access via satellites, the person said.

The company has already submitted paperwork to international regulators for approval to launch the global satellite network in low-Earth orbit, said Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, during an invitation-only announcement on 16 January, according to SpaceNews. Musk also confirmed plans to build a new SpaceX satellite factory in Seattle.

SpaceX’s satellite Internet project dovetails nicely with Google’s ambitions to spread Internet access worldwide through platforms such as balloons, drones, and satellites. Tech giants such as Google and Facebook have been considering a wide array of possible plans for expanding their reach to the world’s untapped market of future Internet users.

SpaceX had previously been in talks with Greg Wyler, a former Google executive and founder of WorldVu Satellites Ltd., about building a joint satellite Internet effort. But the Wall Street Journal says that the talks between SpaceX and Wyler floundered over disagreement about control of the possible joint project. Wyler has apparently gone his own way, leaving SpaceX and Google looking more like allies rather than rivals in the race to spread Internet access.

Musk said that the satellite venture represents a better money-making opportunity for SpaceX compared with its space-launch services. Until now, the spaceflight company has based its business on its fleet of Falcon rockets that launch commercial satellites into orbit and deliver cargo to the International Space Station under a NASA commercial contract.

The potential revenue from the satellite Internet project could help SpaceX move toward Musk’s dream of sending humans to colonize Mars. He made that point very clear during the announcement of the project plans, according to SpaceNews:

This is intended to be a significant amount of revenue and to help fund a city on Mars. Looking at the long term, what’s needed to create a city on Mars? Well, one thing’s for surea lot of money. So we need things that will generate a lot of money.

But any investors excited about getting a piece of the SpaceX future may have to wait until SpaceX is “doing regular flights to Mars” before they can expect an IPO, Musk said. He pointed out that the company’s long-term goals of establishing a human settlement on Mars don’t fit well with the short-term expectations of public shareholders.

High-Resolution Printing of Quantum Dots For Vibrant, Inexpensive Displays

Using a technique much like inkjet printing, engineers have created high-resolution patterns of quantum dots. Quantum dots (QDs) are light-emitting semiconductor nanocrystals that, used in light-emitting diodes (LEDs), hold the promise of brighter, faster displays. But there is no reliable and efficient way to pattern them at a high resolution to create multicolor pixels for displays.

John Rogers, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and his colleagues are repurposing a printing method they devised for other applications. When used with “QD ink,” it can create lines and spots that are just 0.25 micrometers wide. They made arrays and complex patterns of QDs in multiple colors, and could even print QDs on top of others of a different color. They sandwiched these patterns between electrodes to make bright QD LEDs. Details about the results were published in the journal Nano Letters.

Quantum dot TVs were big at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Companies such as Sony, Samsung and LG all have their own version. But the TVs demoed at CES use QDs along with blue inorganic LEDs to create a white backlight. The white light is beamed through color filters at each pixel to generate any color. The quantum dots are simply filled in a tube or painted on the entire backpanel; they don’t need to be patterned.

But companies such as QD Vision and Samsung seek a true QD display, wherein red, green and blue QD LEDs glow at each pixel. QD LED displays would be rich and vibrant thanks to the pure, bright glow of QDs. They would also be efficient and affordable because QDs require very little energy to light up, and they can easily be made into inks and printed.

Seems simple, doesn’t it? It was—except for the fact that no one had been able to print with these inks. The best that researchers had been able to do, Rogers told IEEE Spectrum, was print QDs on a surface using a patterned rubber stamp. But that wouldn’t cut it for mass production.

So Rogers and his team turned to a technique called electrohydrodynamic jet, or e-jet printing, which they developed and used to print patterns of DNA and carbon nanotubes.

The print tool in this case is a metal-coated glass capillary tube with a 5-micrometer nozzle at the end. A pneumatic system pushes the QD ink in the tube just enough that it bulges out of the tip. A voltage bias applied between the capillary and a metallic surface forces free ions in the ink to accumulate in that bulging ink drop.

“As those deposit, they deform the shape of the meniscus from circular to conical,” Rogers explains. “That terminates in the formation of droplets at the tip of the cone.”

The droplets, which are printed on the surface, are much smaller than the nozzle tip because they’re generated from the fluid cone rather than the nozzle itself.

Compared to stamping, he says, “We can do more diverse geometries more easily. There’s an inherent versatility in patterning. And we also eliminate any possible chemical contamination due to contact with the stamp surface.”

The researchers can print QDs on pretty much any surface as long as they lay it on a metal backplane. That means they could print on flexible surfaces, which is an exciting prospect for displays as well as lighting.

The ability to print QDs on top of other QDs, meanwhile, offers a new way to do color mixing. “In a display having separate RGB pixels at each location is one way,” Rogers says. “But you can also imagine mixing red and green by printing on top of one another. You could generate LEDs with any emission color at all by mixing and matching multiple quantum dots.”

Rogers says his team is now working on creating arrays of multiple nozzles, which would be important for manufacturing. Inkjet printers usually have a few hundred nozzles. The difficulty with the e-jet printing method is that the electric field at one nozzle affects the fields of neighboring nozzles. So the engineers are trying to figure out how to isolate nozzles in order to eliminate that crosstalk.

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