Internet White Spaces, Pollen Protein, and Tiger Conservation

11:42 minutes

Google’s Project Loon and Wikimedia’s “Wikipedia Zero” are all projects aimed at bringing the Internet to unconnected parts of the world. Last fall, the U.S. government announced its own plans to bring 1.5 billion people online with the Global Connect Initiative. Amy Nordrum from IEEE Spectrum talks about one of the proposals presented by the initiative to utilize TV white space—unused TV frequencies—as an Internet network in some of these remote regions.

Plus, wild tiger populations have increased in the past six years, according to the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum, but what do those numbers really tell us? Science writer Sharon Guynup breaks down the good and bad about the current conservation efforts for these charismatic cats.

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Sharon Guynup

Sharon Guynup is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She’s also co-author of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat (National Geographic, 2013). She’s based in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, a little bit later in the hour and the story of Ian Burkhardt. Ian is a man living with paralysis who was able to regain movement of his hands– and we’ve been following that story– using a computer wired to his brain. We’re going to hear from Ian himself on what it was like to relearn to move his arm and hands.

But first lots of companies are trying to find ways to bring the internet to remote places. You got Facebook trying out free basics in India. Wikipedia is testing a project in Angola. And of course, there’s Project Loon. And that’s a Google’s network of high altitude balloons.

Well, the US government has its own plan. One of the Fed’s proposals is to create a network out of TV white space. That’s the unused broadcast frequency bands on television. Amy Nordrum is here to tell us about that story and other short selected subjects in science. She’s an associate editor at the IEEE Spectrum. She joins us here in our CUNY studios in New York. Welcome back.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about what is TV white space?

AMY NORDRUM: So TV white space is sort of the leftover frequencies that are available out there to be repurposed. So all the wireless communications in the world are broadcast over radio frequencies. And those frequencies are divvied up among different kinds of broadcasters. And this is usually done by a federal regulator. So for example, mobile phone carriers, they get one part of the spectrum, radio broadcasters get another, and TV broadcasters get a third chunk of the spectrum.

So the mobile phone space is getting pretty crowded, because our smartphones are getting so much more data these days. And so some people have proposed switching over to some of the leftover spectrum in the radium and TV channels. So why do we have all this leftover spectrum in the first place?

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for asking my question.

AMY NORDRUM: I could tell you were wondering.

IRA FLATOW: And the answer is?

AMY NORDRUM: So traditionally, TV and radio channels needed some extra spectrum built in. They needed some extra frequencies built in between them in order to keep that interference from the channels overlap each other. But we moved on from analog technology to digital technology, and they can broadcast those channels on adjacent frequencies without any problem.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s not going to affect TV broadcast? It’s not going interfere with our TV?

AMY NORDRUM: It shouldn’t. And so we have all this leftover spectrum on those two sections that we can actually repurpose. And one of the interesting ways that we can do that is broadcast wireless broadband signals out to places that have never had broadband internet before. So that’s the proposal, one of the proposals that came out this week when I was attending some meetings in DC hosted by the US State Department.

IRA FLATOW: So how would this differ from the Google and the Facebook plans?

AMY NORDRUM: So it’s interesting because there’s a lot of companies, a lot of ideas about a bring more internet to more places. So obviously, they have an incentive to find new customers in those areas. But the State Department through its initiative is really emphasizing the tried and true technologies that we know will work. And this white space theory has already been in the works for a couple of years.

Companies have already debut a couple devices that work in this way. And it’s already gaining some traction. So I’d say were a little bit closer in the strategy than we are in some of the loftier projects.

IRA FLATOW: No balloons. So what will we have to do to move the needle a little bit further to make it happen?

AMY NORDRUM: Right now the US State Department is really focused on this goal of getting 1.5 billion more internet users by 2020. But to do that, you need to get a lot of money behind the project.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, money. Money, I forgot money.

AMY NORDRUM: Do you want to guess how much?

IRA FLATOW: Oh, my calculator goes off the chart when I think of that. How many billions?

AMY NORDRUM: $450 billion is what the World Bank said yesterday. That’s their estimate for what this entire project will cost.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Well, let’s move on then, because we know how soon that’s going to happen. We’re still talking about the internet, but this time you’re talking about it in space.

AMY NORDRUM: So there’s this really interesting start-up called Kepler Communications that is trying to, basically, add some infrastructure to space. So a lot of private space companies have been starting up lately and getting funding for a lot of ideas that revolve around the use of satellites in new and interesting ways, because satellites have gotten cheaper. And they’re very personal, but these companies are inevitably going to run into a problem, which is that satellites can easily communicate with each other or with the ground. So basically, the way satellites work is they orbit around the earth, and then they beam down their information when their over a ground station.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re saying that geosynchronous orbit.

AMY NORDRUM: These are the low orbit satellites.

IRA FLATOW: They’re low orbit satellites.

AMY NORDRUM: So geosynchronous are further out. So for those low orbit satellites that are orbiting the earth, but they’re only over ground station every once in awhile. And so that’s a problem and creates a delay in the time it takes to get data down to the ground.

So this company is trying to create a space grid of other satellites that can, basically, network and always be over ground station at any given time and always link up with all the other satellites. I think there was more than 1,300 now that are up there in Earth orbit and sort of serves as this intermediary or infrastructure. You could think of it like it as an internet in space?

IRA FLATOW: So this would give you 24/7 internet all the time, because all those satellites would be– one of them would be passing overhead at sometime?

AMY NORDRUM: So somebody like one of the customers of this company might eventually try to create like an internet network based off of it that could reach to far corners of the world. But right now, this company is really focused on trying to serve some of the satellites are already up there doing things like Earth imaging, space tourism. There’s some efforts behind that right now. So they’re thinking more about those applications in the moment.

IRA FLATOW: Dear I ask a figure, money for this one?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, they’re not going to say, because they are raising the money right now. And we don’t really know what the cost will be, but the cost of these satellites has come down significantly.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, what about a project– isn’t there Iriduim, wasn’t it an old project that was supposed to have 77 satellites?

AMY NORDRUM: Right. Iridium is legendary. And satellites have gotten much smaller since then. So this project right now, they’re proposing about 50 satellites. So that’s five each or 10 each and five orbital planes, which are slices of the sky that are sort of the most common orbits for satellites. But Iriduim was using much, much bigger satellites to accomplish a similar purpose. And they were very focused on getting internet to remote corners of the world when they first started.

IRA FLATOW: That was back in ancient days of the ’90s.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. So you’re getting deja vu, right now?

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yes, I remember. I think we have to have one more, increasing carbon dioxide levels could be affecting bees, the bees?

AMY NORDRUM: So there’s this really interesting trend that increasing carbon dioxide levels seem to actually have an effect on the nutritional content of food and staple food crops. So we’ve seen this in rice. We’ve seen this in wheat.

And now these researchers out of the USDA, Purdue, and the University of Maryland are seeing this also in goldenrod, which is a key protein source for North American bees, especially in the late fall, early winter period when they’re getting ready to store over for next spring. So the researchers took 170 years of goldenrod pollen samples. And they analyzed them for protein content, which is what the bee’s are looking for in that pollen. And they found that the protein content had dropped by about a third over that 170 year period since it started the Industrial Revolution. So it went from 18% to 12%.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s a drop.


IRA FLATOW: So are we worried that that could be what’s colony collapsed involved here?

AMY NORDRUM: So they haven’t actually linked it to either a bees individual health or the population health. Right now, they’re sort of thinking about that as a theory. It could affect the bees if they’re not getting as much protein over time. Or another option might be that the bees bodies adapt over time, and they’re actually able to operate with less protein.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, we’ll keep following that, Amy. Thank you. Great stuff. Amy Nordrum, associate editor at the IEEE Spectrum here in New York. And now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing.

Because every story has a flip side and today, we’re going to talk about the number of tigers in the world. Good news, it went up according to the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum. Their estimates say that there are 3,890 wild tigers, almost 4,000 wild tigers, nearly 700 more than their last count in 2010. So what could be bad about that? Well, here with both sides now is a Sharon Guynup, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She’s also the co-author of Tigers Forever, Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat. Welcome to Science Friday.

SHARON GUYNUP: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s good news here, right?

SHARON GUYNUP: Well, you know, 3,890 tigers is certainly better than the prior estimate of 3,205. But keep in mind there are 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century. And while the good news is that there are a few more tigers in places where they’re well protected and have enough to eat, there aren’t necessarily that many more tigers.

IRA FLATOW: You mean, totally, there should be more tigers?

SHARON GUYNUP: Well, it’s more about the way they’re being counted.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, really?

SHARON GUYNUP: In some places, countries are doing more accurate and wider surveys that are identifying which areas to protect, which is great. But these new numbers aren’t being framed correctly. Tigers were never systematically counted in Bhutan before. And India just started counting tigers outside of tiger reserves. So if you’re counting cats in areas that have never been studied before, that’s not an increase in population. It’s just better data.

IRA FLATOW: And what’s the biggest threat to the tigers?

SHARON GUYNUP: Well, I’d like to talk a little bit more about numbers.


SHARON GUYNUP: This isn’t a dramatic turnaround for tigers. In China, Vietnam, and Laos showed single digit populations. And tigers are extinct in Cambodia now. And some of these numbers are in question, including India’s most recent count.

The mathematical models that they use to estimate numbers were contested by one of the country’s foremost tiger biologists, Ullas Karanth, in collaboration with Oxford University researchers. And some data is old. And Nepal’s numbers are from 2013.

IRA FLATOW: Why is that? Are we just not going out? Is it hard to estimate the number of tigers that are out there?

SHARON GUYNUP: Well, you know, they’re spread in deep forest, often in large areas. And there’s two ways to count them. The old very inaccurate way, which actually is what Russia used, was counting pub marks. So if you’re counting tiger tracks, you could count into the same tiger five times and say it’s five tigers. And India did that years ago and actually overestimated their population by triple.


SHARON GUYNUP: The more accurate method is to use, camera traps, that photograph tiger stripes, which are like a fingerprint. They definitively identify individuals. So no, they’re not easy to count. But now they are doing more accurate and broader studies so they are getting a better sense of true numbers. That said, there still are a few more tigers, but not the almost 700 that’s being touted.

IRA FLATOW: I can’t believe how many used to be. What was that number, 100?

SHARON GUYNUP: There was over 100,000 tigers around the time that Rudyard Kipling penned the Jungle Book.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, and they’re down, all the way down to that few 1,000. Thank you very much. Sharon Guynup is public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson– remember him– International Center for Scholars. She’s co-author of Tigers Forever, Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cats.

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