Economist 3/24/15

  1. Smartphone growth has rocketed in the Gulf—by most counts the region has the highest penetration. WhatsApp and Facebook have become standard modes of communication. Nowhere is that more so than in Saudi Arabia. Several surveys in 2013 showed that the kingdom has the world’s highest percentage of people on Twitter relative to its number of internet users; and on YouTube too. Saudis also spend more hours online than their peers elsewhere. It has a GDP per capita of almost $26,000. Today thousands of its young people study abroad, speak English and are as globalised as their peers in other countries. Fully 75% of the population are under 30. They have grown up thinking it normal to go online to do everything from ordering a coffee to watching TV.It is the wedding of these factors to Saudi Arabia’s social peculiarities that may account for its topping of the virtual rankings. Shopping malls are pretty much the only source of entertainment for young people, because the clerics dislike cinemas and bars.
  2. There are believed to be hundreds of foreigners—from South Africa, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics—engaged in Nigeria as private soldiers. It is unclear whether they are taking active roles in fighting, as several reports say, or simply providing training and technical support for foreign-bought weapons, as the Nigerian government claims.In the dying days of apartheid a stream of white South African ex-soldiers sought to ply their trade in conflicts abroad. The best-known mercenary outfit was Executive Outcomes, which in the 1990s fought rebels on behalf of Angola and Sierra Leone, to controversial but often impressive effect. These soldiers of fortune, with experience drawn from subjugating the black majority, were an embarrassing export for the post-apartheid rulers of South Africa. An “anti-mercenary” law, the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, was enacted in 1998 and toughened in 2006.Regulating them, rather than trying to ban them, might be a better solution on a continent that has too few effective regular soldiers of its own.
  3. Since 1976, when capital punishment was brought back in the United States, only three people have been executed by firing squad in America—all in Utah. The state banned the method in 2004 (though since the law did not apply to past cases, another man was shot in 2010). But on March 10th its legislature passed a law to bring back the guns. Utah is one of several states trying to ensure it can kill people if lethal injection, the preferred modern way, is not available.Lethal injection has been becoming more controversial, and trickier, since 2011, when the European Commission banned the sale of eight drugs if the purpose was to use them in executions. Many manufacturers, including American ones, fearing bad publicity as well as regulatory problems, stopped making or supplying drugs too. The result has been an acute shortage of the chemicals with which it is legally possible to execute people in most of the 32 states that still have the death penalty. In Oklahoma, where a botched lethal injection took 43 awful minutes to kill a prisoner last year, the state House on March 3rd overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow the state to execute people by gassing them with nitrogen. On March 12th the Alabama House voted to reintroduce the electric chair. In Wyoming, the state House has passed a bill to bring back firing squads.So far, however, few alternatives have passed into law
  4. What to expect from 5G? At this stage, one of the few things that can be said about 5G with certainity is that—if it is to meet society’s growing demands for ubiquitous and instantaneous connectivity—such networks will need to have a “latency” (ie, response time) of about one millisecond. The speed at which two devices can begin to communicate with one another over today’s 4G networks is about 50 milliseconds, and around 500 milliseconds for the still widely used 3G services.Even 4G is nowhere near fast enough for, say, cloud-based systems to transmit emergency instructions to driverless cars threading their way through traffic.Another cornerstone requirement is going to be a data rate of at least one gigabit per second (1Gbps) to start with, and multiple gigabits per second thereafter. Mobile users will need such speeds if they are to stream ultra-high-definition (ie, 4k and soon 8k) video formats to their phones and tablets.Today, 4G networks based on LTE (long-term evolution) technology can manage between 10 and 100 megabits per second (Mbps), depending on the setup and amount of traffic. The peak bit rate of LTE-A is claimed to be 1Gbps. In the real world, however, it is more like 250Mbps.
  5. Two technical features—carrier aggregation and MIMO antennas—are responsible for giving LTE-A its big boost over earlier iterations. Neither technique is particularly new, but both are expected to play a big role in helping 5G fulfill its promise.For its part, carrier aggregation is a way of boosting download speeds by plucking signals from a number of local base stations, instead of simply the most powerful one in the vicinity.MIMO (multiple input/multiple output). This works by transmitting two or more data streams via two or more antennas, and having the receiving antennas process all the incoming signals instead of just the strongest one. Today’s wireless devices operate in the crowded 700MHz to 2.6GHz part of the radio-frequency compass.The obvious answer for 5G is to migrate from today’s UHF frequencies to either the SHF (super high frequency) band between 3Ghz and 30GHz, or even to the EHF (extremely high frequency) band from 30GHz to 300GHz.
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