Virgin Media to offer 100Mbps broadband

Virgin Media plans to roll out a broadband service that tops out at 100 megabits per second to residential customers by the end of the year.

The company said Thursday that it will use its fiber-based network to deliver the new high speeds. Virgin Media, which provides broadband, TV, phone and/or mobile phone service to roughly 4.1 million homes across the U.K., currently offers 10Mbps, 20Mbps, and 50Mbps tiers of broadband service. And soon it will be delivering 100Mbps, the company said.

The company says the 100Mbps service will allow users to download a music album in as little as five seconds, an hour-long TV show in 31 seconds, and a high-definition movie in roughly seven minutes. The company claims this is significantly faster than the time it would take a person using the fastest speeds from slower services.

“There is nothing we can’t do with our fibre optic cable network, and the upcoming launch of our flagship 100Mb service will give our customers the ultimate broadband experience,” Virgin Media’s CEO Neil Berkett said in a statement.

In some places, the company says it will be able to boost speeds even faster than 100Mbps. Also on Thursday the company announced it will extend testing of a 200Mbps service to other parts of the U.K. It announced the initial test in May 2009.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission is also hoping that broadband providers will boost speeds to 100Mbps. Last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said he is challenging U.S. Internet service providers to offer 100Mbps to 100 million homes within the next 10 years. He is making this goal a part of the National Broadband Plan that will be presented to Congress next month.

The FCC has been encouraging “test beds” where these ultra high-speed broadband networks can be tested. Google has already announced it plans to launch experimental ultra-high speed networks to test new applications. Rumors have also floated around that Cisco Systems, the company which makes the routers and switches that power the Internet, will make a big announcement on March 9 about a similar type of test bed.


New Windows software turns one PC into many

Microsoft announced Wednesday that it is ready with Windows MultiPoint Server 2010, a product that lets schools run a classroom full of systems using just a single computer.

Based on Windows Server 2008 R2, Multipoint allows up to 10 different set-ups, each with their own keyboard, mouse, and monitor to run from a single server.

“We heard clearly from our customers in education that to help fulfill the amazing promise of technology in the classroom, they needed access to affordable computing that was easy to manage and use,” Microsoft vice president Anthony Salcito said in a statement.

Microsoft had said in November that it was working on the product.

NComputing, which already offers a similar approach using both Linux and standard versions of Windows, said it will incorporate MultiPoint Server across its product lineup.

Hewlett-Packard, ThinGlobal, Tritton and Wyse also plan to build products based on the software.


Bloom box: An energy breakthrough?

In the world of energy, the Holy Grail is a power source that’s inexpensive and clean, with no emissions. Well over 100 start-ups in Silicon Valley are working on it, and one of them, Bloom Energy, is about to make public its invention: a little power-plant-in-a-box they want to put literally in your backyard.

You’ll generate your own electricity with the box and it’ll be wireless. The idea is to one day replace the big power plants and transmission line grid, the way the laptop moved in on the desktop and cell phones supplanted landlines.

It has a lot of smart people believing and buzzing, even though the company has been unusually secretive–until now.

K.R. Sridhar invited “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl for a first look at the innards of the Bloom box that he has been toiling on for nearly a decade.


Apple creates ‘explicit’ category for App Store software

Though it is not yet in use, Apple has added a category for developers to label their applications as “explicit” software in the App Store for the iPhone and iPod touch.

A developer revealed to Cult of Mac that the new category is available for selection on the iTunesConnect Web site. However, applications with the “explicit” distinction have not yet appeared in the App Store.

The change could signal that Apple is preparing to launch an adults-only section of the App Store that would segregate potentially offensive content from the remainder of applications.

The move follows Apple’s removal of more than 5,000 applications the company said were “overtly sexual.” The change in policy came after the company received numerous complaints from users who were concerned children would be able to access inappropriate content from the App Store on their iPhone or iPod touch. Whether those applications removed in the last week would be allowed in to the App Store under the new “explicit” category is unknown.

Apple is also preparing to launch its iPad device, a new form factor the company will pitch as a multimedia accessory that can serve as an e-reader of novels and textbooks. The new hardware will also have access to the App Store and its library of more than 140,000 applications. Its potential adoption in the education market could have played a part in Apple’s decision to remove sexual content.

Though Apple purged a number of applications (including some mistakenly), other adult oriented content remained on the App Store, including applications from Playboy and Phil Schiller, head of worldwide product marketing for Apple, told The New York Times that his company had decided that well-known, established brands would be allowed to remain on the App Store.


Toshiba Develops 1TB SSD That Fits On A Postage Stamp

SSDs are still overpriced for most average consumers, but the companies responsible for making them are constantly searching for ways to make them larger (in terms of capacity), smaller (in terms of form factor) and cheaper (in terms of real dollars). Toshiba has their own line of solid state drives right now, but just as the company has innovated in the optical storage department, they’re also hoping to innovate in the world of NAND storage.

A new partnership between the company and Tokyo’s Keio University has led to the creation of a new technology that could allow SSDs up to 1TB in size to be made “with a footprint no larger than a postage stamp.” That’s far, far smaller than even the 1.8″ drives that currently reside in the larger iPod units, and exponentially smaller than the 2.5″ SSDs that are shipping now for existing notebooks.

The report states that the two have been able to integrate 128GB NAND Flash chips and a single controller into a stamp-sized form factor. They have even made it operational with transfer rates of 2Gbps (or 250MB/sec) with data transfer that relies on short-range, electromagnetic communication. Somehow, they even claim to have made it 70% more power efficient than the average 2.5″ SSD, making it cheaper to operate as well. The company expects to be able to produce a proof of concept application-ready version sometime in 2012. The main issue right now is that there’s no industry standard in place for this type of technology, so it could be difficult to gain acceptance from PC makers and the like. Of course devices will get smaller as time goes on, and we could easily see this being the go-to drive for the next generation of portable media players and possibly even netbooks. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of a consumer product release date just yet, but we’re guessing it’ll be a few years still.

Regardless, it’s easy to see where the industry is going with Solid State Drive technologies. Eventually, with the level of resource behind its development, storage as we know it will transition completely over to the SSD, similar to the way of the vacuum tube transistor so many years ago.


Houston aims to be electric car capital

Houston, nicknamed the Petro Metro for the profusion of oil and gas companies that dot its skyline, is an unlikely host for an electric-car revolution.

But the fourth-biggest U.S. city, which claims the title of the “Energy Capital of the World,” is competing with cities like San Francisco to be the nation’s electric car capital.

“We are the Petro Metro but we are also a car city,” said newly elected Mayor Annise Parker, speaking at an event on February 5 to promote the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric, five-passenger vehicle that can travel 100 miles on a single charge. “To have an electric vehicle that appeals to a car culture will make the real difference for market penetration.”

Cities like Houston and San Francisco are forging partnerships with automakers and power companies to make the vision a reality.

In Houston, for instance, Japanese-based Nissan Motor has signed a deal where the city and power provider Reliant, a unit of NRG Energy, will build a handful of public-charging stations to allow electric car drivers to recharge their cars.

Nissan has signed agreements with other cities like San Diego, Seattle, and Orlando and states like Tennessee and Oregon to ensure that public-charging stations are built.

Such agreements are key to easing skeptical consumers’ fears of running out of juice if their car batteries run low before they can reach their garage charging stations.

For beleaguered U.S. automakers like General Motors and Ford Motor, electric cars could be a way to boost shrinking market share.

“Detroit needs something to be exciting and new,” said William Hederman, a senior vice president at Concept Capital’s Washington Research Group.

General Motors’ highly-anticipated battery-powered Chevy Volt hits showrooms in November, about the same time that Nissan begins U.S. sales of the Leaf.

Love of big cars
Texas drivers have a well-established affinity for over-sized cars, but the case for electric cars is strong.

Even if a small percentage of Texas drivers switch to electric cars, the payoff could be substantial. The Houston area alone is home to 4.5 million vehicles that travel 86 million miles a day, according to state statistics.

And Texas leads the nation in producing clean, carbon-free electricity from windmills. But the state must build billions of dollars worth of transmission lines needed to channel the wind power to urban centers.

For U.S. utilities that have seen electric demand slump 5 percent over the last two years due to a recession, the electric car is a godsend, said Kevin Book, managing director of research at ClearView Energy Partners.

“What a salvation the electric car revolution would be for generators that are well below their capacity margins and trying to figure out how to make money,” Book said.

In a strange bedfellows story of sorts, U.S. utilities have moved in recent months to cement ties with automakers.

“We’ve worked very closely together,” said Tony Earley, chief executive of a Detroit utility and chairman of the U.S. electric industry’s main lobbying group who also sits on Ford’s board of directors.

Such coordination has helped utilities fend off clean-car competition in the form of natural gas-powered vehicles promoted by Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens, Hederman said.

Utilities see electric cars as a perfect market for spare electricity that is generated by power plants in off-peak hours that could be sold to consumers who will recharge their electric cars during late-night and early-morning hours when power is the cheapest.

“If it works the way utilities envision, it’s growth that fills in the valleys of their demand patterns, and that would be a wonderful thing,” Hederman said.

Utilities must build or buy generation to meet the one day of the year when electricity demand is the highest. “The other 364 days of the year our system is under-utilized,” said Earley, also chief executive of DTE Energy in Detroit. “There is a lot of capacity that is unused.”

Under pressure
For utilities and auto companies watching climate change legislation advance on Capitol Hill, electric cars are a useful tool to reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions to comply with looming first-ever U.S. greenhouse gas restrictions.

“We know that our utility partners face the same pressures that we do to reduce emissions,” said Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning.

About one-quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are linked with cars. U.S. President Barack Obama wants to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

And even without climate change legislation, smog-enveloped cities like Houston are already under the gun from federal regulators to reduce smog-causing pollutants like nitrogen oxide, which comes mainly from vehicles.

One big question mark for utilities is how they will be compensated for building charging stations. One study by the University of California Berkeley pegged the cost of building U.S. charging stations at $320 billion in coming decades.

State public utility commissions will have to give utilities permission to recover infrastructure costs via higher rates, but won’t approve electric charging stations until they are widely used, Hederman said.


Windows patch cripples XP with blue screen, users claim

Angry customers blame MS10-015 for Blue Screen of Death and XP reboot hell Tuesday’s security updates from Microsoft have crippled Windows XP PCs with the notorious Blue Screen of Death (BSOD), users have reported on the company’s support forum.

Complaints began early yesterday, and gained momentum throughout the day.

“I updated 11 Windows XP updates today and restarted my PC like it asked me to,” said a user identified as “tansenroy” who kicked off a growing support thread . “From then on, Windows cannot restart again! It is stopping at the blue screen with the following message: ‘A problem has been detected and Windows has been shutdown to prevent damage to your computer.'”

Others joined in with similar reports. “There is something seriously wrong with the update. I can’t even open in safe mode,” said “Ghellow,” referring to Windows diagnostic mode that’s often a last-chance way to boot a PC.

“I am not very happy with Microsoft as I got to work this morning to find my helpdesk flooded with messages that the PC has the famous Blue Screen,” said “brawfab.”

“I had to go to work and use my Mac to get online to find out what is going on with the XP updates last night,” complained “moosewalk” on the same thread. “I am this much closer to switching over to a Mac for good.”

The support thread, which was first noticed by security blogger Brian Krebs , contained more than 120 messages as of early Thursday, making it the third-longest on the Windows Update support forum. The thread had been viewed more than 2,800 times since its inception.

Several users posted solutions, but the one laid out by “maxyimus” was marked by a Microsoft support engineer as the way out of the perpetual blue screens. To regain control of their PCs, users were told to boot from their Windows XP installation disc, launch the Recovery Console and enter a series of commands.

Unfortunately, that left netbook users out of luck, since most of the lightweight, inexpensive laptops lack an optical drive, and so can’t boot from an XP installation disc. “Are there any fixes for netbooks, or am I essentially screwed for the time being?” asked “HimDen.”

Several users tentatively identified the MS10-015 update as the one which triggered the BSOD, and claimed that uninstalling that security fix — which was labeled as KB977165 — returned their PC to working condition.

MS10-015 , one of 13 security updates Microsoft issued Tuesday, patched a 17-year-old kernel bug in all 32-bit versions of Windows. The vulnerability went public three weeks ago when a Google engineer disclosed the bug and posted proof-of-concept attack code.

This was not the first time that a Microsoft update has incapacitated Windows PCs. Two years ago, a set of updates for Vista sent an unknown number of machines into an endless series of reboots . Similar problems stymied users who tried to upgrade to Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) in May 2008, and others attempting to upgrade from Vista to Windows 7 last October.

Microsoft was not immediately available for comment early Thursday.

When webcams go bad: Students sue school officials for remote spying

If your laptop computer’s webcam could talk about what it sees, what would it say?

Students of a Pennsylvania school district are hauling educators to court over allegations that administrators remotely activated the webcams on school-issued laptops and used that remote access to spy on students and their family members. (Techmeme)

The civil suit (PDF) was filed last week against the Lower Merion School District in Ardmore, PA, its board of directors and the Superintendent. It alleges violations of the electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania Common Law. In part, the suit reads:

Unbeknownst to Plaintiffs and the members of the Class, and without their authorization, Defendants have been spying on the activities of Plaintiffs and Class members by Defendants’ indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District, This continuing surveillance of Plaintiffs’ and the Class members’ home use of the laptop issued by the School District, including the indiscriminant remote activation of the webcams incorporated into each laptop, was accomplished without the knowledge or consent of the Plaintiffs or the members of the class.

The suit notes that there are about 1,800 students in the district’s two high schools and that students were each assigned a laptop computer that was purchased, in part, through state and federal grants secured over the past few years. The suit also notes that all of the written documentation that accompanied the laptop made no reference to the district’s ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam.

The issue came to light in November when an assistant principal informed a student about improper behavior in his home and produced a photograph captured from the laptop’s webcam as proof. The suit did not specify the type of activity the student was engaged in.

Because the webcam would capture images of anything in its range, including the actions of other household members and their guests, the plaintiffs in the case extend to family members, as well as the students themselves.


IPv4 addresses in short supply

The shortage of IPv4 addresses has reached a critical stage, according to the registries that allocate Internet numbers around the world.

The Number Resource Organization (NRO), which represents the registries, said Tuesday that less than 10 percent of all IPv4 addresses remain available, threatening the future network operations of all businesses and organizations unless ISPs and businesses step up their migration to IPv6.

“The limited IPv4 addresses will not allow us enough resources to achieve the ambitions we all hold for global Internet access,” NRO Chairman Axel Pawlik said in a statement Tuesday. “The deployment of IPv6 is a key infrastructure development that will enable the network to support the billions of people and devices that will connect in the coming years.”