November 21, 2013

This Week in Tech: November 22, 2013

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This week, Spotify was valued at more than $4 billion, the FCC may allow phone calls during commercial flights, Congress goes after “patent trolls,” and researchers create a microscopic FM transmitter.

Spotify Valued at “North of $4 Billion”

The music streaming service secured about $250 million in new financing from a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. The Swedish company is already established in many Western nations, including the U.S. and U.K., but the new financing will allow it to target new markets such as Japan. According to The Wall Street Journal, Spotify’s valuation is approaching the market capitalization of Pandora, which is publicly traded and valued at $5.7 billion:

“Spotify generated more revenue last year—€434.7 million, or about $585 million—compared with Pandora’s $427 million.

“Losses at both companies, however, have widened as robust listener growth has brought with it higher royalty costs for playing songs.”

FCC to Propose In-Flight Cellular Use

While many US airlines have loosened their restrictions on the use of electronic devices since the Federal Aviation Administration announced on October 31 that it would allow personal electronics to be used under 10,000 feet, one major restriction remains: those devices still have to be in “airplane mode.”

That may not be the case in the near future, as the Federal Communication Commission has proposed lifting the ban on airborne calls and cellular data in flight. In a statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the “time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules.” If the measure is adopted, airlines would have to install equipment in planes that connects to cell towers on the ground.

The FCC made a similar proposal in 2004, but dropped it in 2007 after receiving 8,000 comments from flight attendants and other groups that overwhelmingly opposed the change, on the grounds that in-air phone calls would be a nuisance. Public opinion is split on the issue, with one survey of 1,600 Americans finding 51 percent were opposed to allowing cellular use onboard and 47 percent in support of it. However, some airlines, such as Delta, have stated unequivocally that they will not allow voice calls on planes. “Years of customer feedback” show that “the overwhelming sentiment is to continue with a policy that would not allow voice communications while in flight,” a Delta spokesperson said.

House Committee Passes Bill Targeting “Patent Trolls”

The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee approved a bill that targets patent “trolls,” companies that buy or license patents from others and then aggressively pursue licensing fees or file infringement lawsuits.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the bill “aims to fight frivolous patent litigation. In one case, a patent assertion entity, or PAE, demanded licensing payments from retailers who provided services to customers such as free Wi-Fi.

“‘Within the past couple of years we have seen an exponential increase in the use of weak or poorly granted patents against American businesses with the hopes of securing a quick payday,’ said [Rep. Robert] Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, who chairs the committee.

“‘These suits target a settlement just under what it would cost for litigation, knowing that these businesses will want to avoid costly litigation and probably pay up,’ Goodlatte said at the committee session in which the bill was approved.

“The bill requires judges hearing patent cases to award fees to the winner in an infringement lawsuit, unless the judge decides otherwise. The bill would also require companies filing infringement lawsuits to provide specific details on what patent is infringed and how it is used.”

The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.

Researchers Create World’s Smallest FM Radio Transmitter

A team from Columbia University has created a tiny FM transmitter out of graphene. Composed out of a single atomic layer of carbon, graphene is the strongest material known to man, according to Wired. It has electrical properties superior to silicone, making it great material for electromechanical systems at a microscopic scale.

“This work is significant in that it demonstrates an application of graphene that cannot be achieved using conventional materials,” said Prof. James Hone, mechanical engineering, Columbia, one of the members of the team. “It’s an important first step in advancing wireless signal processing and designing ultra-thin, efficient cell phones. Our devices are much smaller than any other sources of radio signals, and can be put on the same chip that’s used for data processing.”