Weekend news roundup

13 Jun 2011

A trawl through some of the weekend newspapers’ tech coverage, including the US planning a “shadow” internet that will help citizens in oppressed countries speak freely, how the UK teeters on the brink of legal battles over delays in rolling out next-generation wireless spectrum, and why Groupon is the gift that keeps giving.

US to create ‘shadow’ internet to help bypass oppressive regimes

The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

The effort includes secretive projects to create independent mobile phone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “internet in a suitcase.”

Financed with a $2m State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global internet.

The American effort, revealed in dozens of interviews, planning documents and classified diplomatic cables obtained by The New York Times, ranges in scale, cost and sophistication.

UK telcos told not to get legal over LTE

The Financial Times reported that the UK government has warned mobile operators not to embark on legal action that would delay an auction of airwaves suitable for supporting fast web surfing on smartphones.

The culture department responded to a thinly-veiled threat of legal action by O2 over the proposed auction rules by saying it was important the radio spectrum was released “as soon as possible”.

Google and Skype have also waded into the heated debate over the auction rules by urging regulators to ensure that mobile operators do not stop their customers using services that threaten the telecoms companies’ revenues.

Britain has missed the opportunity to be an early adopter of mobile networks based on fourth-generation wireless technology that enables fast web browsing on smartphones. Consumers in the US and Japan are already enjoying the benefits.

The spectrum available in the auction planned for early next year is suitable for 4G networks, but the infrastructure is unlikely to built until 2013 or 2014 at the earliest.

Groupon shows faster growth spurt than Google or eBay

USA Today said Groupon’s first-quarter revenue jumped 1,475pc from a year earlier, to $645m, dwarfing the first-to-second-year results of such legendary internet growth names as Google, Amazon and eBay.

Google’s revenue, for instance, rose 352pc to $86.4m in its second year, while Amazon and eBay both saw increases of more than 700pc, according to Wedbush Securities.

Groupon, an internet coupon facilitator, also saw the number of subscribers surge eight-fold, to 83m during the quarter, according to Wedbush’s emerging social media or “Second Internet” research unit.

“Groupon and the rest of the industry have grown so rapidly because, for the first time in history, merchants can leverage the internet in scale,” said Lou Kerner of Wedbush. “The deal commerce space is going to be massive.”

Another golden nugget …

In another insight into the group buying phenomenon, The Guardian points out there’s nothing new in bulk buying and negotiating discounts. But Groupon does it in 47 countries for more than 70m people. It’s an idea so simple anyone could have thought of it. Unfortunately, Andrew Mason got there first … And now he’s sitting on a company worth $30bn.

Four years ago, a 26-year-old from Pittsburgh named Andrew Mason launched a website called The Point. The point of The Point, immodestly, was “to solve the world’s unsolvable problems”, harnessing the collective potential of the internet to lobby for social justice. As with the British site Pledgebank, campaigners could wield far greater power by pledging to give money or take action – but only if a certain number of others did the same. (Sometimes, they set other conditions: users once promised to donate “a ton of money” to fight AIDS in Africa, provided that U2 frontman Bono retire permanently from public life.) There wasn’t a business model to speak of, but Mason didn’t really care: at heart, he was a left-leaning musician who played piano in a rock band and had, as he recalls, “an allergic reaction to the idea of making money”. It was only under pressure from The Point’s main investor that he started looking for ways to make it pay for itself.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years