MAIKEN SCOTT: This is The Pulse — stories about the people and places at the heart of health and science. I’m Maiken Scott.
A few years ago, on a beautiful but brutally hot summer day — I was in my hometown, Karlsruhe, Germany and walking around on campus of the Institute for Technology. My tour guide was Volker Krebs. He used to teach engineering there.
And we were about to enter a very special place…
MS: So he worked in this building, right?
VOLKER KREBS: Ja! He worked in this building and on the other side of this monument…
MS: He is German physicist Heinrich Hertz — of frequency fame. Hertz came to the university in 1885 to study electromagnetic waves — the result of vibrations between an electric field and a magnetic field.
At the time, everything that was known about these waves was theoretical — in equations, on paper — and Hertz wanted to take the next steps, to set up actual experiments to measure these waves…
AMBIENT NOISE: *entering the building, combing the steps*
MS: Volker and I climbed up a couple of flights of stairs to a large lecture room.
VK: This is the original building, laboratory, where Heinrich Hertz did this experiment.
MS: One one side of a long table, Hertz had an oscillator generating electrical currents and a spark. A few yards away, he set up a receiver, an antenna made from copper wire bent into a circle.
He wanted to test if the sparks generated by the oscillator would travel to the antenna, and create a spark there.
VK: And when the ignition takes place here, Hertz noticed in this antenna, that here you find ignition, too. It’s a hundredth of a millimeter only, so you can’t see it very clear, so he had to darken the room…
MS: This whole room, right?
VK: Yes, this whole room yes, and then he had a microscope to notice whether there was ignition or not.
MS: So, the spark on the one side generated an electromagnetic wave, which traveled through the room, to the antenna, and a quick spark was seen when the voltage was high enough.
Hertz was the first to observe this. At the end of 1888, he wrote a famous paper.
VK: This paper was called “Strahlen elektrischer Kraft.”
MS: That translates to “rays of electrical force.”
Hertz was not interested in what could be done with his discovery — he didn’t seem to appreciate the magnitude of his findings. He’s quoted saying that he didn’t think these waves would have any practical applications.
But basically, Hertz set the stage to harness this force — for modern communication.
Every time you listen to the radio or a podcast, every time you send a text message, or watch television or a video online — it’s made possible by electromagnetic waves, signals being sent, transmitted, and received.
During the pandemic, we have relied on our devices more than ever to keep us connected, to bring us together.
MS: On today’s episode — a closer look at electromagnetic waves, and the signals that power our lives.
Up first: The number of devices that rely on electromagnetic waves to function has exploded in recent decades. Millions of signals zipping past each other every second. And that has made things a bit crowded. Jad Sleiman reports:
JAD SLEIMAN: Among the thousands of satellites circling the earth is one called “Soil Moisture Active Passive” or SMAP. NASA gets no points for creativity in that name, but the launch and orbit entry went off without a hitch back in 2015. SMAP measures and maps the earth’s soil moisture and the level of freeze or thaw.
But almost immediately, scientists noticed all their readings were getting messed up in this one corner of Texas.
PRISCILLA MOHAMMED: We actually noticed a source in Kerrville, Texas.
JS: That’s Priscilla Mohammed, a researcher at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
PM: We notified the FCC and they sent somebody out there to actually look at the location that we gave to them. And it was actually a woman using a wireless camera on a farm because she wanted to monitor her horses foaling.
JS: The nice men from the government told this woman her particular camera was messing with a $912 million dollar satellite streaking some 400 miles above them. Could she maybe consider using a different one?
PM: It was probably a camera that was operating at the frequency it was supposed to, but it was also spewing out frequencies in our band. So it was faulty.
JS: The lady switched it off, and the science continued. But how can one little camera so easily derail everything? Priscilla explains.
PM: We’re looking down, so we have imagers that look down on the earth and what are they looking at is a faint signals that come from the earth? So like the earth actually radiates off of the planet heat.
JS: Every patch of earth is giving off some kind energy — just much too weak for us to notice it.
PM: It’s much too small. So just to give you an idea, it’s like your cell phone, [it] gives up like one watt of energy. And the amount of energy we’re trying to measure is on the order of femto Watts. So femto Watts is 10 to the minus 15 watt. So it’s like trying to discern like a whisper, in a room where people are like talking really loud, almost.
JS: For SMAP to do its job, it has to be able to pick up these whispers of radio signal. But it’s incredibly easy to drown them out.
Unintended, noisy frequencies leak out of gadgets all the time. It becomes a bit like when you’re trying to listen to one radio station …
… But signal from another keeps blaring in.
Regulators tell widget makers their products must operate in certain bandwidths, but it’s imperfect. Little things go wrong all the time.
PM: So SMACC launched in 2015, the whole of Japan is just shrouded by this radio frequency interference.
JS: SMACC is another satellite. This one looks for debris in the oceans. All of Japan was just invisible to it, apparently because of a super popular cable box a lot Japanese households used.
PM: Your satellite dish, like DirecTV almost. You have that little dish there — it collects these signals. And then what it does, it has electronics that down-converts that signal to a lower frequency, that it can now travel over like a co-ax cable and go to your setup box into your house.
JS: That’s where the leak was. When the signal from these two channels passed through the co-ax, it just spewed radio interference.
Priscilla tells me about certain algorithms she and others have developed that try and clean up otherwise unusable data. They essentially look for artificial noise and delete it from data sets automatically. But the problem is when things get too crowded, good data starts getting cut out with the bad.
The real solution to this, Pricilla thinks, is conservation. International treaties preserve certain bandwidth. They become like air wave nature preserves that governments fiercely guard.
PM: I think it’s really important for us to kind of manage what we have. So there are slivers of the spectrum that are dedicated just for passive sensing, just for radio astronomy, and those should stay as such.
JS: Astronomer Scott Ransom works at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s spent decades listening for pulsars as a way to learn more about the universe.
In that time radio telescopes have gotten more and more sophisticated, but so too has the rest of the world. With the explosion of every-day consumer tech, whole chunks of the universe have essentially disappeared from view, drowned out by radio interference.
SCOTT RANSOM: So to give you an example, the digital TV transmitters, which happen in like the 500 megahertz to 600 megahertz regime, that part of the spectrum is basically completely useless.
JS: It’s constantly broadcasting, carrying sitcoms and sports over the air.
SR: You can do almost no science whatsoever in that band. Another example is in the middle of the wifi ban. There’s a whole chunk around two gigahertz, which is the standard wifi band. That’s extremely hard to do anything with. And we basically just blank out those channels in our data.
JS: Wifi might seem somewhat modern, but like bluetooth and GPS, like your smart fridge that talks to your even smarter watch — it’s all over good old fashioned radio waves.
SR: You know, everyone nowadays carries around one or two or three things with them all the time that transmit and receive in the radio — you know, your laptop, your cell phone, your Bluetooth headset, your little clicker that opens your car door. All of these things are sending and receiving radio signals.
JS: It used to be easier to get away from these things, to find secluded enough areas or, to engineer them. For example, there’s the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia.
SR: So knowing that you’re in one, the best way is that you basically lose your cell phone signal. That’s the best way to know you’re in one.
JS: Greenbank, West Virginia in the Quiet Zone is home to the largest moveable radio telescope in the world. What they don’t have, is wifi. Like certain cell phone signals, it’s prohibited within the zone — microwave ovens are even banned in some parts of it, while landlines and pay phones live on.
But even there, it’s still not completely quiet, not all the time. Newer cars for instance, produce their own wifi signal.
SR: If someone’s using wifi in their cars, that’s going to directly impact my observation because we can’t regulate everyone in everyone’s car, driving past a radio telescope.
JS: There’s always something new on the horizon — what’s got Scott especially worried now is Starlink. It’s Elon Musk’s proposed system of low earth orbit satellites that will provide internet to rural areas.
SR: Satellite radio and GPS, those two signals are two of the biggest problems for my type of science, because they are always there.
JS: At the heart of this problem is the fact that the radio spectrum is finite — it runs from 30 hertz to 300 gigahertz. We’re using pretty much all of it.
SR: I mean, you can just look, and we’ve gone over the last couple of decades into a relentless use of the spectrum. I mean, we’re basically using every little megahertz, open megahertz of it.
JS: It’s actually big, big money. Anytime a broadcaster doesn’t need it’s particular frequency anymore — it goes to auction.
SR: They get sold for many, many billions of dollars. I mean, this is incredibly valuable territory, and that’s the way people can think of it. You know, you think of the radio spectrum, as something that can be bought and sold as property, it’s like land, because it really does have value and it’s only going to get worse because we are going to be using all of it someday.
JS: One possible solution is more efficient use of the limited spectrum we have. Right now, different broadcasters all have their own bandwidth. It’s a bit like a highway where each kind of traveler has their own lane. One rental car agency gets one lane. Its competitor gets another lane. Police and fire, they have to have lanes of their own. Engineers are basically trying to figure out ways to share the road.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, held a competition that pit teams of engineers against one another to try and figure this out.
It was called the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge and went on for three years before wrapping up in 2019. I talked to Team Gatorwings out of the University of Florida.
JOHN SHEA: Originally, wings was the wireless information and networking group. So, we put wings together with Gator for wings.
JS: That’s team member John Shea. For those who don’t follow college football the University of Florida is home to the celebrated Florida Gators, like of Gatorade fame. They went 11-2 that year, pretty good, ranked 6th overall. Gatorwings, though, took first prize in their incredibly nerdy superbowl.
TAN WONG: Sometimes it’s difficult to explain to our family or our friends exactly what we are doing [laughs].
JS: That’s Tan Wong, team lead.
TW: The cool thing is it’s kind of like the ultimate E-Sport for us. I mean, communication engineers.
JS: The teams had to engineer something like an artificial intelligence switchboard that made decisions in real time about how to use what parts of the spectrum to get a message through all kinds of competing noise.
TW: We actually have to build our system robust enough so that our system actually can work well in all kinds of different crazy cases that DARPA dreams up.
JS: There’s all kinds of situations. Like in one you’ve gotta figure out a way for soldiers to communicate with each other in a city with its crowded spectrum. The actual competition takes place in front giant monitors in this auditorium. The late Grant Imhoara of MythBusters fame hosted it.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF COMPETITION
JS: One thing all the events have in common is the winner has to get their message through without completely drowning out everyone else. You gotta be just aggressive enough. Here’s John again:
JS: We had a real shock, the very first preliminary round they had in the, in the final competition there. We were almost eliminated according to the scores. We dropped into this elimination competition and then came back out of that.
JS: Their intelligent radio robot was too aggressive at first, not so much sharing the road as it was ramming others off of it. Your message for the pizza delivery guy can’t drown out the 911 dispatch.
But in the end they somehow struck the right balance, came out of the elimination bracket and fought their way to the final – and then they won.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO – APPLAUSE
John Shea: It was elation. It was great that we worked really, really hard for three years, day and night, literally weekends all the time in the last two years. You should see the, we have this system that keeps all of our software and you can see when people add updates to it and it just updates or, you know, four or five in the morning, all the time. And so to put in so much hard work and then have the success from, was just a great feeling.
JS: Their victory came and went without much fanfare from the rest of us. Like much of the radio spectrum the modern world relies on, few people really understand how it all works. But if it’s going to keep working, it’s gonna be thanks in no small part to engineers like the Gatorwings crew.
For The Pulse, I’m Jad Sleiman.
MAIKEN SCOTT: Let’s take a closer look at what astronomers are trying to study when they are listening to space. Radio astronomer Scott Ransom says a lot of time what he’s hearing sounds like a hiss
SCOTT RANSOM It’s like a ‘sssss.’
MS: Scott is especially interested in Pulsars — these are spherical, super compact spinning objects that are what’s left of massive stars that have died.
SR: Pulsars were discovered just over 50 years ago. They’re basically like cosmic lighthouses. It’s a, basically a giant nucleus, that’s the size of a city. So we have a really, really rapidly rotating, incredibly dense object with really strong magnetic fields.
MS: And with advanced computers can hear these things buried in the endless hiss of the universe.
SR: You can hear a dunk dunk dunk from the rotating pulsar signal.
DERRICK PITTS: There’s a lot of information that radio telescopes can interpret that help us understand the origin, the structure, the function, the — almost everything about the universe.
MS: That’s Derrick Pitts, he’s chief astronomer for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
DP: And so we can use these signals to identify the existence of different kinds of stars. We can use radio signals to interpret that there are planets orbiting other stars. There are so many different things that we can use radio signals for. Oh, one other thing I can mention is that we can use radio signals to help us understand the chemical molecular atomic composition of the universe, because all of these components have radio signals that they emit. If we can tune our equipment to the correct frequencies, we can identify the existence, the behavior, the interaction of all of these different substances in the universe. And this is what helps us to understand what’s out there.
MS: But — there’s something else that some scientists are listening for, signals that seem to have a pattern, maybe a pattern that repeats.
DP: Or that it has some indication that the signal that’s being heard is not something that’s of natural origin, but that is made by a technology that signals some sort of intention.
MS: And have we captured, have we captured anything like that?
DP: Every once in a while, it seems as if we captured something that seems as if it has that kind of intentionality. But so far, we haven’t been able to identify anything that conclusively indicates that it is of an intentional nature.
MS: So, no, no aliens sending us messages?
DP: Wouldn’t it be great if we got some kind of a radio signal that had a voice in English or some recognizable language that said, “Hi, we’re from this planet orbiting this star. We’ve been here for quite some time. We’ve watched all of your television and we’d really like to know what actually happened at the end of The Sopranos.” That’s not that’s not what’s happened so far [laughing]. But that would certainly be conclusive. But no, nothing like that yet.
MS: And then if they find out what happens at the end of The Sopranos… [Laughing] There is no answer!
DP: They’ll probably cut us off and never come back again [laughing].
MS: But if there were those beings out there, they could get in touch with us potentially. Right?
DP: Well, there’s this really interesting conundrum about that. The first thing, of course, is how do you decide where you’re going to send a signal? Do you just broadcast across every possible frequency and in every direction in hopes that, you know, like trolling the ocean for one particular kind of fish, you hopefully make a contact? And then how long would it take for that to happen? Because we have to remember that radio signals have a finite, you know, traveling speed and that determines how far away, you know, a contact, quote unquote, civilization might be. So it’s entirely possible with the size of our galaxy and the size of the universe that we could send signals for thousands of years and never come across another civilization. So let’s just reverse that. Imagine another civilization decides to send out a broadband signal, but they are four million light years away from us. Well, depending upon when they sent the signal and which direction they sent it, we may not have received it. And if we did, we may not have been able to interpret it because the other assumption is that it’s transmitted in some medium that we can understand.
MS: But it sounds like a lot of pieces would have to fall into place just so for this to happen.
DP: Well, of course. And well, you know, the beginning with the idea that any other civilization that we reach out to has any semblance of development or even life form as we know it, even in the same dimensions in a sense that we are. So we have to make a tremendous number of assumptions to even get to the point of being able to understand that a signal has been sent or that a signal that we send would be received and interpreted in a way that would allow communication to happen.
MS: Derrick Pitts is chief astronomer for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
DP: It’s a very exciting time to be part of this work. As more instrumentation is built that has greater sensitivity and higher resolution, we can gather more information that helps us to better understand how the universe works, as well as the possibilities of life somewhere else in the universe. That’s the big question that we all want to answer: Are we alone?
MS: Coming up… Functional magnetic resonance imaging — fMRI — offers a glimpse inside the human brain — but does it actually measure what scientists think it does?
STEPHANIE NOBLE: As we’re measuring you in the scanner, you might be really sad about something that happened that day, but if we measure you the next week, maybe you’re on vacation or something like that, you’re in a very different cognitive state, so there’s definitely this tension between things that are fixed and things that are changing due to your cognitive state.
MS: That’s next on The Pulse.
MS: This is The Pulse – I’m Maiken Scott.
We’re talking about electromagnetic radiation — the signals that power communication, technology, science.
In 1990, a new tool called “functional magnetic resonance imaging” was introduced — fMRI. It gave us a thrilling new option — to look inside of a living human brain, in real time. People have to sit very still inside a giant magnet and then we can study their brain activity. This technique has been used in thousands of studies, and gave rise to whole new fields of inquiry.
VOICE: …We will be able to fly into the anatomy of Peter’s brain, literally fly into his body, but more importantly, look at his mind. When Peter moves his arm, that yellow spot you see there is the interface to the functioning of Peter’s mind taking place…
But, more recent work questions how reliable those fMRI findings are. Alan Yu reports.
ALAN YU: The way people describe the findings from fMRI in the brain, has almost become kind of a cliche.
<<MONTAGE: brain lights up>>
AY: And we describe brain activity that way because of how fMRI works. Blood that carries more oxygen behaves differently in a magnetic field than blood that carries less oxygen. An active area of the brain would need more oxygen. So if you track the blood with more oxygen, you are indirectly measuring which parts of the brain are active.
Being able to look inside someone’s brain is incredibly useful.Researchers have used this tool to study everything from depression and addiction to whether a bad breakup hurts as much as spilling hot coffee over yourself.
Several groups of scientists recently looked back at fMRI research to try and figure out how reliable the findings are. And reliable means something specific in this case.
STEPHANIE NOBLE: Which is the ability to get the same result every time you measure something, and specifically something you expect not to change.
AY: Stephanie Noble is a computational neuroscientist at Yale.
SN: You might expect that your brain anatomy shouldn’t change every time I measure you.
AY: She says the research shows that even if you scan the same person doing the exact same thing, but just at a different time, the measurements can change.
SN: People’s brain scans, fMRI scans collected from one minute to the next tend to be much more similar than that same person acquired a week later or even a month later, it tends to decrease in similarity, as time goes on. So it’s an interesting tension, between we know that your brain anatomy is not changing, if you have a cerebellum in one place in your brain, it’s not going to be in a completely different place of course.
But yeah, as we’re measuring you in the scanner, you might be thinking about what you had for lunch, you might be making plans for the future, you might be really sad about something that happened that day. But if we measure you the next week, maybe you’re on vacation or something like that, you’re in a very different cognitive state, so there’s definitely this tension between things that are fixed and things that are changing due to your cognitive state.
AY: To think about this, Stephanie says you can imagine two copies of the exact same picture. They’re both blurry, but blurry in slightly different ways.
SN: So it makes each individual pixel look different between the first image and the second image, even though they share the same underlying image.
AY: So you won’t be able to measure things that depend on looking at each individual pixel, but if your research question is about the overall pattern, you can still get a good answer. One problem is that different research teams can look at the same set of fMRI data, and they can come up with different conclusions.
And that’s because people studying the brain generally agree on what the noise is, where you need to clean up the picture. But they do not always agree on which tool, or software package you should use, to do the cleaning.
So if things can vary this much, how can we know, anything?
SN: Even though we find things are not very reliable at the small unit of the brain, this doesn’t necessarily invalidate existing work. We can pretty robustly identify if you’re looking at a face compared to like a house. The reliability of some common methods used in fMRI, specifically those that look at the small areas of the brain, are lower than desirable but it’s not necessarily like a big death knell for the field.
AY: Stephanie mentions that the results can still hold at a group level. That means results are more likely to be reliable if researchers look at a group of people, usually the more the better.
SN: Just because there isn’t great reliability at these small units doesn’t mean that at a group level when we look at groups of people, that we can’t see robust effects.
AY: Other researchers have looked at just how large that group should be if you want reliable results. That’s an important question because running an fMRI can cost more than a thousand dollars an hour. Some scientists use fMRI studies to try and link brain activity to behavior or mental health, to answer questions like: what does the brain activity of someone who has depression look like?
SCOTT MAREK: The small sample size studies that do this sort of brain behavior linkage, it’s hard to know whether they’re right or wrong.
AY: Scott Marek is a neuroscientist at the Washington University School of Medicine. He first looked at the existing work to see how reliable those findings are.
SM: At the very least, what we’ve shown is even if they do correctly conclude that there is a relationship, it’s likely that that relationship is inflated.
AY: Scott and his colleagues got to this conclusion by taking two of the largest fMRI datasets they can find, that have tens of thousands of people.
They asked research questions about fMRI scans and mental health, and tried answering them using different sample sizes of 10 people, 20 people, 100 people, all the way up to tens of thousands.
They found that if you want reliable results for those questions, you need thousands of people in your sample. For some researchers this is not great news.
SM: Oftentimes the initial reaction is sometimes a little bit emotional, because it does you know, hit at people’s work with smaller samples, but again this is including our own.
AY: Scott’s research partner, psychologist Brenden Tervo-Clemmens at the University of Pittsburgh, says it’s important to know that they’re not saying the fMRI research with small samples is bad. It’s just that the scientists who did this, including themselves, might want to consider repeating the work with more people. Here’s Brenden.
BRENDEN TERVO-CLEMMENS: We can’t point to a single paper or a single author and say that that work is incorrect. All we can do is kind of call for a significant change in how these studies are done.
AY: Neuroscientists could make sure a study has a large enough sample size to reliably measure what they want to measure. They could also work across the field to agree on the best ways to reduce some of the noise. Some of that is already happening. And now we have an alternative to fMRI that’s been getting more popular.
It’s called functional near infrared spectroscopy or fNIRS. Instead of lying still inside a magnet, research subjects would wear a headset that shines near infrared light at their heads. fNIRS uses near infrared light specifically because it can go through our bodies.
Paola Pinti is a biomedical engineer at the University of London. She has been using fNIRS in her work for years. She says first, remember that light is made up of all kinds of different colors like a rainbow or that Pink Floyd album. Depending what the object is, some of those colors go through, other colors do not.
PAOLA PINTI: The reason why we see I don’t know, like a green leaf as green is because all the colors of the white light like purple, blue, orange, etc., are absorbed by the leaf, except the green wavelength which is actually reflected and then perceived by our eyes.
AY: Paola explains that just as green light goes through green leaves, near infrared light can go through our brains. She says you can try this yourself. Turn on the flashlight on your phone, and put your finger on top of it.
PP: You will notice that your finger becomes red. So that’s because, as it happens for the green leaf, all the wavelengths of the white light, all the other colors of light like the purple, the green, the yellow, the orange, etc., have been absorbed by the finger, while the red and near infrared wavelength of the spectrum are able to travel through our finger and the bones. So this means that if we place a light source on the head, the red and near infrared wavelengths can reach the brain, so these colors can go through the scalp and the skull and reach the brain.
AY: And a little like with fMRI, blood that carries more oxygen responds differently to near infrared light, so you can use that to indirectly measure brain activity. It’s much cheaper, so it would not cost thousands of dollars to add more research subjects to a study.
And it’s portable, so people can move around while they wear this headset. So you can study people in all kinds of ways that you can’t with fMRI.
PP: So we literally had people walking around the streets of London with a wireless and wearable fNIRS, pairs of people playing a card game together. We had these actors performing Shakespeare with fNIRS on.
AY: But it doesn’t erase the reliability problems with fMRI we heard about earlier. Researchers who use either one of these methods to study the brain will have to figure out the best way to get reliable data, learn from their mistakes, and get better over time. That’s how science works.
Neuroscientist Scott Marek again.
SM: fMRI is a very young field, you know, we’ve been at this as a field for 30 years. Fields like astronomy and cosmology have been at it for 500 years, genetics has been at it for decades longer than us. So we’re a very new field and it’s exciting and I think that just because you have a finding that indicates that you need a course correction, I don’t think that that’s reason for pessimism, I think that’s reason for optimism.
MS: That story was reported by Alan Yu.
We’re talking about electromagnetic radiation and the signals that power so much of our lives.
And even though we’re so dependent on these signals — there are many places in the U.S. where you can’t really receive them. I’m talking now about the internet.
In the early days of the internet — you had to get connected through your phone line, and things were very slow.
NICOL TURNER LEE: Right, at that time we had what was called modems. Some of you might remember AOL with that awfully gargally sound before you got connected. It was sort of like that ‘eee.’
AOL DIAL UP AMBI
MS: That’s Nicol Turner Lee, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. Broadband and wireless internet started to replace dial-up in the 2000s. But still, even today, many people in the U.S. don’t have access to it.
Before the pandemic, Nicol took a tour across the country to take a closer look .
NTL: I did. I did. And, you know, in collecting data about the U.S. digital divide, there were rural communities that I went into that I was just in awe of, you know, the topography. I come from a city, so the cows outnumbering the people, right?
But, what was interesting in some of these communities, they did not have Uber, something that in urban communities we take advantage of, one because they didn’t have the likelihood of smartphone technology that was reliable and consistent. There was also people that I met in rural America who were day laborers, who, you know, needed some type of connectivity to report their interest and availability for work, or to be able to track the types of jobs that would come through for that type of employment.
And then there are students that sit within, you know, the land space of maybe several acres. And they live in homes where the lack of connectivity not only impacts the father or the mother who is taking care of the farm, who cannot order supplies or equipment in a reasonable amount of time, or have to travel to the main town hall or library to tap into their access. So the rural broadband problem is real. And it is not just a white rural broadband problem. It’s affecting the people in the Mississippi Delta. It’s affecting the migrant workers in parts of Arizona. It’s affecting the people that live on tribal lands throughout the country.
MS: The problem with getting high-speed internet to rural communities is that you need dedicated infrastructure for it to run on, like fiber-optic cable.
NTL: And I like to use this analogy. When we think about a highway, we think about our roads and bridges. You know, there are some places that we have easy access to if you’re riding down like I do, 95, the interstate, and you sort of know you could get off at a variety of exits. There’s easy connectivity if you were to parallel that with broadband, especially if you live in communities that are urban. There tends to be much like in our road systems, more on and off ramps to be able to utilize the Internet in different ways.
And the challenge is that it costs money to build these networks. And historically, we as a country decided to err on the side of a private capital investment because we applied what is called a light touch regulatory framework to the design of broadband networks. So what that means is, companies at the time really were the major investors in our communications infrastructure. So there are places in rural America where you don’t have broadband access, which is problematic if you’re in the middle of a pandemic and you need assistance with telehealth. And so what we’re discovering is that the type of investments that would be needed to connect all of these United States of America, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, requires an investment in capital. At the end of the day, we just don’t have, I think, the strategic plan to wire all of America. And we do not also have the data that would tell us who is not in close proximity to infrastructure to get them, you know, enjoying the benefits of being connected.
MS: And even in parts of the country where fast internet service is available, many families are not connected, which became especially apparent during the pandemic.
NTL: We failed. If we were to get a report card score [in] the United States, it would not be higher than a “C,” right? And we need digital more than ever. I tell people I’ve been doing this for like 25 years and for decades this is usually, you know, eighth, ninth, tenth on the list of priorities. Now, it’s moved to the top, because we’ve got superintendents scrambling to figure out how they’re going to deploy a virtual network to discover that, you know, a good portion of their young people are not online.
You know, we take for granted the fact that everybody is a digital native. We take for granted that we carry in our purses and pockets the same type of connectivity as everyone else. We take that for granted in light of our historical experiences with communication services, where we had to ensure at one point that everyone had access to a rotary dial phone because they needed to call 911. And so here we are, you know, decades later and we’re finding out that the digital divide that we discussed in the early 2000s is still here.
If you don’t have connectivity right now, you may not be able to do remote work. Or if you don’t have connectivity and your doctor is still pretty much dependent on you not coming into the clinic, you won’t be able to take advantage of telehealth, which we need our seniors and our medically challenged people to do. And so there’s a cost to that for society.
MS: Nicol says during the pandemic, many families and school children sat in parking lots to connect to free wifi, to do their work. She says we could do a lot better to get people connected.
NTL: And perhaps we need to look at the community as school, where people live in affordable housing. How come we’re not connecting those to become wireless hotspots? How come we’re not thinking about churches and leveraging the assets of churches to connect families within communities or transforming these digital parking lots into digital parks, where families have the ability to actually sit in a more humanized way, helping their kids to complete homework.
Let me go further — 100,000 small businesses permanently shut, which means that we will have tons of businesses, you know, literally waiting for occupancy. We can repurpose those for learning centers for young people, keeping classes together, or leveraging the people like me who are working at home, the office buildings that have our equipment just sitting there. And so I think we need to do a better job on both the hard asset infrastructure of fiber or broadband to the home or broadband to the community anchor institution. But we need to think about infrastructure from a partnership perspective.
MS: Now, given all that the pandemic has exposed in terms of the lack of access and the lack of infrastructure, what do you think has to happen next for things to get better for the future?
NTL: You know, I think we need to take this whole idea of broadband out of a bubble, and we need to prioritize it. So, I think it’s high time that we stop treating broadband as a stepchild.
MS: That’s Nicol Turner Lee from the Brookings Institution. Her book is “Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is Creating the New Underclass.”
When was the last time you were driving somewhere, and you had to stop to ask for directions? Like at a gas station, or a coffee shop. I used to get lost, all the time, until I got a smart phone with GPS.
SOUND of GPS SYSTEM: Turn right onto …
MS: This system works thanks to 24 satellites orbiting our planet — regularly pinging information back to earth. The GPS receiver on your phone picks up those signals from at least three satellites — and then calculates how long it took for the pings to get there. That makes it possible to figure out where you are.
SOUND of GPS SYSTEM: You have arrived at your destination.
MS: But — it’s not that hard to tinker or interfere with GPS systems.
SEAN GALLAGHER: if someone wanted you to be lost, for various reasons, they could jam the signal coming from satellites — to prevent you from knowing where you are.
MS: That’s Sean Gallagher, I talked to him a while ago, when he was IT editor for the website Ars Technica.
SG: Jamming and spoofing happen with some regularity around North Korea to ships travelling near North Korean, and sometimes in Black Sea, the Russians have been known to jam GPS.
MS: And, it’s happened in the U.S., too — for example in 2012.
SG: A truck driver who was using a GPS jammer to block the signal for the system his employer used to track him, actually interfered with the navigation system at Newark International Airport.
MS: Woah, that’s a lot more than he intended to do, I guess.
SG: And that’s because it doesn’t take much of a signal to interfere with GPS, because the signal is relatively weak coming from a satellite. Any ground based signal is going to be stronger than the satellite and override it.
MS: And because GPS is vulnerable — an older navigation system is making a comeback, something the coast guard was very proud of in the 1940s.
Vintage coast guard film <<something new in navigation was at work, what was it? it was secret, top secret, top secret one of the wars most precious, those on the inside those that knew used a strange new word to describe it, that word was, Loran long-range navigation>>
MS: Sean was in the navy in the 1980s, when that system was still around. By then it was called Loran-C.
SG: Loran-C covered with its radio beacons, most of the North Atlantic, and most of the coastal areas of the United States, and Canada, and Europe, and most of the Mediterranean and a good portion of the Pacific.
if you have two radio beacons that you can pick up the signal from.
<<<< Loran sound>>>>
SG: …those radio beacons carry time information, much like GPS does, that tells you when the signal was broadcast. And since we know when the signal was broadcast, and we understand how fast radio waves travel, we can use that information to get a difference in time, between when it was sent and when it was received, and that tells
us how far away the station was. So if you know where two stations are, or you have two stations that you have signals from, and you know how far you are from both of them, you can fix your location on the planet.
MS: South Korea has been on the forefront of bringing back Loran, because North Korea has been jamming GPS signals.
SG: South Korean fishing fleets will go out and they’ll have to come back immediately, because they don’t know where they are. They’ve lost track of where they are on the charts, so they turn around and go home. That has an economic impact. And — there was a new technology for Loran called enhanced Loran or E-Loran, and that will allow them to have three stations and will offer almost the same accuracy as GPS.
MS: And you can’t jam the Loran?
SG: No, because it depends on such a much stronger signal. And because the signals are locked into specific locations, so because it’s a terrestrial system and because you would have to essentially build a bigger antenna some place in line with it to broadcast to interfere with it, it’s pretty easy to tell where somebody trying to jam you is.
MS: The U.S. is working on bringing back Loran-C as well — but first, all of the old stations have to be resurrected. Sean says other old navigation techniques are making a comeback, too.
SG: The naval academy now teaches people how to navigate by the stars again, which is something that hadn’t been formally taught for some time.
MS: Sean Gallagher is now Senior Threat Researcher at SophosLabs. When I spoke to him he was IT editor for Ars Technica.
SG: So naval officers in training are getting experience using a sextant to take lines in the position of sun and stars, and use that and charts to figure out where they are.
MS: And if you think about it — even that ancient way of navigating by the stars is based on electromagnetic radiation.
That’s our show for this week — The Pulse is a production of WHYY in Philadelphia.
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Our health and science reporters are Alan Yu, Liz Tung, and Jad Sleiman. Sojourner Ahebee is our health equity fellow. Charlie Kaier is our engineer. Xavier Lopez is our associate producer. Lindsay Lazarski is our producer.
I’m Maiken Scott, thank you for listening!