April 6 – 13, 2013

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This week’s headline story: Bitcoin – A Wild, Unregulated Digital Currency

bitcoin-600x400A new kind of currency gained national attention this week when it was discovered that the Winklevoss twins, who you may remember as the Olympic rowers who claim to be the legal owners of Facebook, own around $11 million of the stuff. Bitcoin is a digital currency that is not managed by any government or central authority. It was created by a group of hackers in 2009 and is managed by a system of servers called bitcoin miners that track bitcoin transactions, and produce and sell 25 new bitcoins every 10 minutes. Yes, people pay real cash for bitcoins. One bitcoin goes for around $120. They are likely to go up in value in 2017, when bitcoin miners are programed to reduce production by 50 percent.

Because they are unregulated, bitcoins provide individuals with the ability to perform all kinds of transactions “off the books.” As many as 70,000 bitcoin transactions can occur in any given day. As you might guess, a good percentage of those transactions are for illegal goods or gains. However, bitcoin advocates are quick to point out that many, many perfectly legal transactions occur in bitcoin every day. The Winklevos twins and others like them believe that bitcoins represent the first true global currency. Other financial analysts call bitcoins a Ponzi scheme and a bubble waiting to burst leaving investors broke. Serious investors are beginning to invest in bitcoins on the chance that the currency might just take off and make a fortune for early investors.

and elsewhere in Tech News.

  • New technologies from AT&T and Japan’s NTT dramatically increase the distance that data can travel through long distance fiber-optic connections. The new breakthrough will help telecom companies cope with the anticipated surge in data use—projected at 30 to 40 percent a year, by increasing the throughput of undersea fiber optic cables.
    AT&T Researchers Set a Long-Haul Data Record [Tech Review]
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley leaders have teamed up to form a political-focused group named Fwd.us (pronounced “forward us”). Forward Us is committed to reform U.S. immigration policy so that talented, skilled immigrants are provided a path to citizenship. It also calls for higher standards and accountability in schools and increased focus on learning about science, technology, engineering and math. The end goal is to address the shortage of science, technology and engineering professionals in the U.S. to allow the country to advance economically.
    Facebook CEO Zuckerberg Gets Political [NewsFactor]
  • An online survey of around 3,000 respondents by VitalSmarts found that 78 percent of users believe online incivility is rising, and 2 in 5 users have blocked, unsubscribed or unfriended someone over an argument conducted via social media.The firm recommends keeping an eye on the use of offensive words, pausing to keep emotions in check, pointing out areas of agreement before noting the disagreements, and taking emotional conversations offline.
    Rising Rudeness in Social Media, Study Finds [NewsFactor]
  • Verizon and other wireless carriers have altered their privacy policies to begin selling member location data anonymously. The huge data sets show where people live, work, and play and should yield some valuable information for businesses, city planners, health professionals, and others. The move also provides carriers with a new sources of revenue.
    How Wireless Carriers Are Monetizing Your Movements [TechnologyReview]

and in Information Security news this week…

  • The latest security patch from Microsoft has caused some Windows 7 PCs to crash and not recover. “We’ve determined that the update, when paired with certain third-party software , can cause system errors,” said Dustin Childs, group manager of Response Communications for Microsoft Trustworthy Computing. Microsoft advises that Windows 7 users uninstall the update to revert to the pre-patch state.
    Windows Security Patch Killing Some PCs [NewsFactor]

and in Tech Industry news…

  • The PC market is down 13.9 percent compared with the year-ago, the steepest decline ever in a single quarter. Some analysts are blaming the decline on Microsoft’s new Windows 8 which some say not only failed to stimulate the market, but actually may have effectively killed it.
    Did Win 8 Kill the PC Market? Worst Quarterly Drop Ever [NewsFactor]
  • Google Glass is coming! The head-mounted computer will be released within a month and will cost $1500.
    Google Glass Shipping Within a Month — for $1,500 [NewsFactor]
  • Facebook has begun charging its users to send messages to individuals outside their friends list. It now costs $1 per message to send a message to a non-friend’s inbox. In the UK Facebook charges $15 per message to message celebrities. The new policy is intended to reduce spam, while making Facebook some money.
    Spam Attack? Facebook’s $1 Message Charge Expands [NewsFactor]
  • LinkedIn, the social network for professionals, has purchased mobile newsreader app Pulse. The acquisition indicates LinkedIn’s aspirations to become the go-to resource for industry-specific news on mobile devices.
    LinkedIn’s Mobile Strategy Gets a Pulse [Ecommerce Times]

and finally….

  • Google has created new policies that allows its members to decide what happens to their data when they die. Google members can choose whether to delete their data after three, six, nine or 12 months of account inactivity. Alternatively, users can designate a digital next-of-kin to receive their data. The new policies provide users with privacy after death, and also address the immense amount of data that is accumulating online.
    How Long To Let a Digital Life Linger? Google Lets You Pick [NewsFactor]

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February 11 – 17, 2013

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This week’s headline story: The drones are coming! The drones are coming!

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 10.31.31 AMRemote controlled drone aircraft, that can carry video cameras and other sensors, are empowering tools for law enforcement, news agencies, and other industries in the U.S.. Law enforcement authorities say drones can be a cost-effective technology to help with a host of policing efforts, including locating bombs, finding lost children, monitoring weather and wildlife or assisting rescue workers in natural disasters. While that may be true, drones have also given rise to fears of government surveillance. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington calls drones “a concrete and instantly graspable threat to privacy.”

Public concern over drones is prompting local and state lawmakers across the country to develop laws restricting their use or grounding them altogether. In Seattle, Mayor Michael McGinn answered public protests by banning the use of drones. Last week, members of Congress introduced a bill that would prohibit drones from conducting what it called “targeted surveillance” of individuals and property without a warrant. The Federal Aviation Administration has received about 80 requests from police, government agencies and others, for clearance to fly drones. Consumer grade drones that can carry video cameras or iPhones are available for less than $400 from companies like HeliPal. No doubt we will be hearing a lot regarding drones and privacy over the course of the year.

and elsewhere in Tech News.

  • Google has prided itself on being able to track the spread of the flu virus based in information that it mines from user search and social media data. But this year, Google’s projection was off… way off. Google predicted nearly twice as many flu cases as actually occurred. Analysts suspect that the widespread media coverage of the flu, caused many more flu-related searches, and online conversations, throwing a monkey wrench in Google’s algorithm. These results serve to caution researches about the dangers of drawing scientific conclusions from online interactions.
    When Google got flu wrong [Nature]
  • President Obama’s State of the Union address featured a record number of references to technology, suggesting that technical innovation is the key to U.S. economic recovery and global leadership. The president referenced a number of technologies including Macs, 3-D printing, drugs to regenerate damaged organs, new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful, wind energy, solar energy, technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner, high-speed rail, high-speed Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids, and modern pipelines to withstand a storm, to name a few.
    Obama: Technology Will Save the Country [TechReview]

and in Information Security news this week…

  • In the wake of cyberattacks against major news and media agencies, the big anti-virus companies have been forced to admit that their tools are insufficient against today’s most serious attacks. When it comes to so-called advanced persistent threats, Symantec says that “antivirus software alone is not enough.” Zero day viruses, those that are brand new and not guarded against by antivirus software, require more sophisticated methods of detection. New companies like FireEye are developing new techniques to battle these types of viruses and cyberattacks. Meanwhile, as the President presents technology as the savior of the economy, others wonder if technology might not be our downfall.
    Targeted Hacking Forces a New Reality on Antivirus Companies [TechReview]
  • President Obama has signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to share cyberthreat information with private companies and to develop standards to secure companies that provide the nation’s critical infrastructure.
    Obama signs cybersecurity order [Computerworld]
  • Facebook has reported that its network was breached by sophisticated hackers around the same time frame that Twitter, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others made similar admissions. Facebook has not found any evidence that Facebook user data was compromised. Both Facebook and Twitter were breached through a well-publicized vulnerability in Oracle’s Java software.

    Facebook Says Hackers Breached Its Computers [NYTimes]

  • Microsoft had a huge patch Tuesday this month: 12 security bulletins to fix a whopping 57 vulnerabilities, including five critical issues. The updates require several system reboots prompting security analysts to classify this month’s Patch Tuesday as “disruptive.”

    Microsoft Unleashes a Mammoth, ‘Disruptive’ Patch Tuesday [News Factor]

and in Tech Industry news…

  • In the U.S. smartphones currently make up roughly 80 percent of new phone sales, and roughly half the phone-carrying public use smartphones. However, in poorer countries smartphones have been priced out of reach, leaving most of the global population using feature phones. Now, with smartphone prices coming down, the global population is gradually switching over. Research firm Gartner is projecting that by the end of the year, smartphones will outsell feature phones world wide.
    Gartner: Smartphones To Outsell Feature Phones this Year [NewsFactor]

and finally….

  • Microsoft has purchased a Los Angeles television studio to produce original interactive television content for the Xbox. The new Xbox Entertainment Studios is a 125-employee production studio being led by former CBS Television President Nancy Tellem.
    Microsoft Seeks to Boost Xbox Claim on the Living Room [Newsfactor]

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February 4 – 10, 2013

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This week’s headline story: FCC Proposes Robust National Wi-fi Networks

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 10.28.09 AMThe Federal Communications Commission is proposing the creation of free, powerful Wi-Fi networks that could dramatically change wireless access to the Internet in the U.S. The plan would be the first of its kind for any country. Compared with existing Wi-Fi networks, the FCC networks would have greater penetration through walls and over hills, would be able to travel much further, and would make Wi-Fi available throughout virtually every city and many rural areas. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that “freeing up unlicensed spectrum is a vibrantly free market approach that offers low barriers to entry to innovators developing the technologies of the future, and benefits consumers.” As you might guess, the proposal is raising strong objections from the existing wireless carriers and cable operators.

and elsewhere in Tech News.

  • The Amber Alert system, designed to notify citizens of child abductions, has been extended to cell phones. The next time a child is abducted near you, your cell phone ma y shriek to life with an alert text message. Amber Alert messages have already taken tens of thousands of people by surprise. There is concern that, while the system is useful in catching abductors, the messages sent to cell phones are vague on details. One Amber Alert message stated “Emergency Alert: Amber Alert. An Amber Alert has been issued in your area. Please check local media. “FEMA officials said they are aware of the confusion the Amber Alerts have caused and are working with the U.S. Department of Justice to include more information in the text messages.
    Shriek! Texts on Missing Kids Startle Cell Users [NewsFactor]
  • The Federal Trade Commission has released a major report on mobile privacy in which it makes a number of recommendations to the industry. A key recommendation is that companies consider offering a Do Not Track mechanism for smartphone users, so that users could choose to opt out of having their path through apps or the Web reported to ad networks or other third parties.
    FTC Tackles Mobile Privacy with New Report [NewsFactor]
  • The use of social media during the Super Bowl was up significantly this year. Trendrr reports that there were 47.67 million instances of social-media engagement during the game this year, up from 17.4 million last year, and only 3.1 million in 2011.
    Super-Social Engagement Set Record for Super Bowl [NewsFactor]
  • The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, have found that 69 percent of online adults use some kind of social networking site like Facebook, compared with 47 percent in September 2009. It also discovered that 61 percent of current Facebook users say they have felt the need to take periodic long breaks away from Facebook.
    Need to Take a Break from Facebook? You’re Not Alone [NewsFactor]
  • Cisco is predicting that mobile data traffic will increase 13-fold over the next four years as more and more devices become connected.Cisco Predicts 13-Fold Mobile Data Traffic Increase by 2017 [NewsFactor]

and in Information Security news this week…

  • After recent reports of China-based cyber-attacks against The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Department of Energy told employees in an e-mail that its systems, too, had been infiltrated.
    Energy Dept. Reportedly Latest Target of Hackers [NewsFactor]
  • Twitter has admitted that 250,000 of its user accounts may have been hacked last week. “This attack was not the work of amateurs, and we do not believe it was an isolated incident,” said Bob Lord, Twitter’s director of Information Security, writing in a blog post. “The attackers were extremely sophisticated, and we believe other companies and organizations have also been recently similarly attacked.”
    Twitter Hack ‘Not the Work of Amateurs’ [NewsFactor]
  • A hacker broke into several e-mail accounts belonging to friends and family of former President George W. Bush. A wealth of personal photos, correspondence, home addresses, and other sensitive information were exposed on the website The Smoking Gun. The intrusions have prompted a criminal investigation, according to published reports.
    Bush family privacy shattered after e-mails, photos exposed online
    [Ars Technica]

and in Tech Industry news…

  • It looks as though Blackberry is hoping to gain market share by taking a stance to protect its user’s privacy. The company has begun issuing notices to application developers — and consumers — anytime it finds an app approved for distribution in its BlackBerry World online store that collects more data than users might think. Blackberry’s new phones running it’s latest OS are expected to be available in the US around mid-March.
    Sneaky Apps Beware: BlackBerry Is Watching [NewsFactor]
    New BlackBerry Scheduled for Mid-March U.S. Release [NewsFactor]
  • Amazon has received patent No. 8,364,595 for a “secondary market in digital objects.” The patent describe an electronic marketplace for used e-books, music, video, computer applications and other digital content. So soon, you may be able to sell your old, unwanted ebooks, digital music, movies, and apps on Amazon.
    Save Those Old Music Files, Content Markets Are Brewing [NewsFactor]
  • Industry researcher Canalys has released a new report which concludes that worldwide PC shipments have increased by 12 percent year-over-year for the fourth quarter. What’s unique about the report is that it includes tablets as PCs, while other similar reports that don’t include tablets conclude that the PC market is slowly drying up. So if tablets are PCs, then PCs are thriving and Apple is king.
    If Tablets Are PCs, PCs Are Thriving and Apple Is King [NewsFactor]
  • Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet computer is now available to U.S. consumers. The surface has a 10.6-inch screen and includes an optional Type Cover keyboard dock that doubles as a case. The tablet comes in models with 64GB and 128GB of storage, and runs the full version of Windows 8 – unlike its predecessor that runs the more limited Windows 8 RT.
    Microsoft Surface Pro goes on sale Saturday [Computerworld]
  • Sony is poised to unveil the next PlayStation game console on Feb. 20, a date that would give the Japanese electronics company a head start over Microsoft ‘s expected announcement of an Xbox 360 successor in June.
    New PlayStation Announcement To Trump Microsoft [NewsFactor]
  • Amazon has come up with it’s own form of currency: Amazon coins, and is using it to promote its Kindle Fire. The company plans to give Kindle Fire users tens of millions of dollars’ worth of free Amazon Coins to spend on apps in the Amazon Appstore. One Amazon Coin equals one penny of value. Who knows, perhaps perks will expand to purchases of other products on Amazon.
    Kindle Fire Users to Get Pennies From Heaven [ecommerce times]

and finally….

  • We often hear about private companies going pubic – for example Facebook’s initial public offering made headlines last year. We rarely hear about public companies going private. This week Michael Dell made headlines by signing a leveraged buyout agreement worth $24.4 billion, to purchase the company that he founded in his Texas dorm room. Roger Kay, senior analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates, says that taking Dell private “will shelter the company from Wall Street while it makes its potentially ungraceful transformation from supplier of commodity PCs over to full-line enterprise solutions provider.” Microsoft is pitching in $2 Billion to help.
    A $24.4 Billion Bet on Dell’s Future [NewsFactor]
    Dell Hightails It Into Private Territory [Ecommerce Times]

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Cell Phone Surveillance

In a recently released report, cell phone carriers say they respond to thousands of police requests per day asking for customer locations, text messages, and call details often times without warrants. Such requests totaled 1.3 million in 2011 – an alarming surge over 2010. Cell phone carriers have set up special legal teams to field law enforcement requests, in a time when laws governing such request are vague. AT&T created a team of over 100 workers to deal with the more than 250,000 subpeonas last year. Sprint reports receiving about half a million subpoenas last year. Verizon and T-Mobile report a 12 percent increase over 2011. Dealing with subpoenas has gotten so costly for carriers that they have begun charging law enforcement agencies for each record they turn over. AT&T collected nearly $8.3 million in fees last year. The revealing report was generated in response to a request from Massachusetts congressman Ed Markey.

Big Data and the Internet of Things

A new buzz word is emerging as a mainstream topic for corporate executives. Actually, it’s two words: BIG DATA. The concept of Big Data emerged from the vast and exponentially-growing amount of data generated by social media, mobile devices, apps, and all the other digital tools wielded by the global population every day. Corporations and others are driven to collect all of that data and analyze it to gain useful insights that can be used to make better business decisions. Companies like Google, Facebook, AT&T, and many others have gotten good at collecting the data. Developing software to analyze the massive amount of data being collected is the primary challenge of the Big Data industry.

In coming years that challenge will become much more complex. Today, the average Internet user owns two Internet connected devices: typically a smart phone and computer. Over the next couple years, that number is expected to jump to seven, more than tripling the amount of devices on the Internet. The bulk of new Internet devices will represent things rather than people – thermostats, security systems, televisions, electric meters, cars, refrigerators and other appliances. These devices will increase the amount of Big Data by adding information like the temperature in every home at every moment, the energy usage of each residence and business, eating habits, laundry habits, water usage, waste production, and more. Add this information up and the Internet becomes a source of real-time information about the state of the entire planet at any given moment in time.

IBM researchers view the Internet as becoming a “global electronic nervous system, with trillions of individual sensors monitoring the status of everything of interest to humans.” IBM wants to stream all of those exabytes of data to its cloud-based cluster supercomputers to extract the “ultimate value from the data using Analytics software modeled on the human mind.”

You’ll be hearing a lot more about Big Data in coming months and years, as the world awakens to the potential of IBM’s vision. Many companies are working on developing analytics software that can tackle Big Data for all industries including health care, transportation and energy. Last week, Big Data company Splunk Inc, made an impressive debut on Nasdaq where it doubled its $17 initial public offering price. This marked Wall Street’s awakening to the value of Big Data, and alerted the media to a new industry focus. Big Data could provide many benefits beyond improving corporate profit margins and padding investment broker’s wallets. If managed properly, Big Data could also provide valuable insight for improving life on Earth. Managing Big Data in a secure and ethical manner, with concern for consumer privacy, may end up being the biggest challenge of all.

Green Social Media

The Department of Energy has launched the Apps for Energy competition, “challenging developers to use the Green Button data access program to bring residential and commercial utility data to life.” The Green Button is an initiative that gives developers access to energy usage data in a standardized, streamlined and easy-to-understand format. The Green Button will include data on 27 million U.S. homes by the end of the year. The app developers that create the most useful and energy-saving apps will win $100,000 in cash prizes.

Smart-grid technology and energy-saving apps have become a federal government priority. The White house has issued a challenge to utility companies to enable customers to download and compare data on energy use. Opower Corp has come up with a “social energy app” that pools data from 16 utilities nationwide, representing 20 million households to provide users with actionable information for saving energy. The Opower app is available in Facebook to help users find energy savings opportunities through friendly competition and shared information.

Hand Over Your Facebook Password, Please!

Most of us know that employers check social networks as part of their background check for prospective employees. The Associated press is reporting that some government agencies and companies are now asking for Facebook usernames and passwords as part of the job interview process so they can check the applicants private profile page. Facebook is fighting against the practice by threatening to sue the companies involved for violating member privacy. The ACLU is fighting the practice as well and calling it an invasion of privacy.

The concern over employers asking job seekers for Facebook login credentials has grown this past week. Senators Richard Blumenthala and Charles Schumer called for a federal investigation into the new hiring practice. Numerous employers in New York City, Seattle, Washington, and elsewhere across the nation have begun demanding that job applicants turn over their Facebook and e-mail user names and passwords. With 8 percent unemployment, Blumenthal and Schumer say that such requests amount to a form of coercion “that could set a dangerous precedent.” “In an age where more and more of our personal information — and our private social interactions — are online, it is vital that all individuals be allowed to determine for themselves what personal information they want to make public,” Schumer said in a statement released Monday. “This is especially important during the job-seeking process, when all the power is on one side of the fence.” According to Blumenthal, a ban on such hiring practices is necessary to stop unreasonable and unacceptable invasions of privacy. “With few exceptions, employers do not have the need or the right to demand access to applicants’ private, password-protected information,” he said.

Want a Job? What’s Your Facebook Logon? [NewsFactor]
Senators Call for Probe Into Coercion of Facebook Logins [NewsFactor]

More Distracted Driving

New federal rules are pending that will force automakers to limit built-in electronic devices, like GPS systems, to accept user input only when the vehicle is in park. The intent is to reduce accidents caused by drivers typing on electronic devices. Automakers are complaining because they feel that mobile devices providing the same services should also be covered by the new rules. Meanwhile MIT researchers are studying the next front of distracted driving: wandering minds. The researchers are discovering that even a small amount of “cognitive demand” – drivers thinking about something other than driving, can cause an accident – even when the driver is looking at the road. How will the fed regulate that? Time to roll out the self-driving cars!

Start ’em Young!

Educators and innovators are calling for an earlier introduction to computer science for U.S. school children. “Producing computer scientists and engineers to fill the demand from domestic companies should be a national priority,” says Jeannette Wing, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University. While enrollment in engineering and computer science schools is growing, it is not growing at the same pace as other countries. In many such programs U.S. citizens are a minority. The class of 2012 at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science drew 2,390 applicants – 590 from the United States, 602 from India, 678 from China, and the rest from other countries. “Most (U.S.) students are not exposed to computer science in the same way they are to biology and physics,” Wing said. She is pushing for incorporating computer science in the K-12 curriculum.

Some educators believe that increased exposure to computers has naturally created a generation of computer whizzes. Digital natives are often assumed to have heightened computing and technical skills. Microsoft senior researcher Danah Boyd says the stereotype is false. While the vast majority of digital natives know how to chat on Facebook and text their friends, many lack media literacy and information literacy skills. “Ironically, they are often less skilled when it comes to technology than those already in the workforce. They may, on the whole, be more experimental, but they’re not necessarily more skilled,” Boyd states.

MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten group is working on one possible solution. The group has released tools that allow preschoolers and kindergartners to create animated stories on the computer through the use of modular blocks. The technology prepares children for learning how to program later in grade school. Mitch Resnick, director of the group, states that the intent is to allow children to “develop a relationship with the computer where they feel they’re in control.” “We don’t want kids to see the computer as something where they just browse and click. We want them to see digital technologies as something they can use to express themselves,” Resnick said.

Researchers at Cambridge have designed a fully functional Linux computer on a single circuit-board that is selling for just $35. Just connect a keyboard and display or television and you’re ready to go! The product is called the Raspberry Pi, and is selling like hotcakes. The primary intent of the inventors is to promote computer science and programming in grade schools. In an article about the device, columnist John Noughton points out that so far “we’ve taken a technology that can provide “power steering for the mind” (as a noted metaphor puts it) and turned it into a lesson for driving Microsoft Word.” Like the others quoted here, Noughton hopes that school systems can begin early in teaching children how to control and program computers to extend human capabilities and shape our future. Not to be passive users, but to become active developers and innovators.

The Ever Crowding Airwaves

A Cisco Systems report predicts that mobile data traffic will grow 110 percent this year, and at a compound annual growth rate of 78 percent through 2016. “By 2016, 60 percent of mobile users — 3 billion people worldwide — will belong to the ‘Gigabyte Club’ — each generating more than 1 gigabyte of mobile data traffic per month,” Cisco Systems Vice President Suraj Shetty said. As if to back up Cisco’s prediction, Gartner reported that Smartphone sales grew a whopping 47 percent in the 4th quarter of 2011. It seems unlikely that cellular service providers, who are already complaining about “data hogs” and overuse of their data networks, will be able to cope with demand doubling every year. Fortunately, there is a bill making its way to President Obama’s desk that will allow wide swaths of the wireless spectrum, previously used for broadcast TV, to be auctioned off to cellular companies. The President is expected to sign the legislation. The availability of more spectrums will help, but will it be enough?