Dish’s AirTV launches an $80 streaming stick for accessing Sling TV, Netflix & broadcast channels

Dish is expanding its hardware lineup today with the launch of a new 4K streaming stick, the AirTV Mini, designed to make it easier for cord cutters to access from one user interface its live TV service Sling TV, plus Netflix and over-the-air channels. The Android TV-powered device is meant to complement an existing setup that already includes an OTA digital antenna and an AirTV Wi-Fi-enabled network tuner, the company says.

For a limited time, new and existing Sling TV customers can get the latter two items for free — an AirTV Wi-Fi-enabled network tuner and an indoor antenna — by prepaying for three months of Sling TV’s service.

In addition, the AirTV Mini also includes support for 2×2 802.11AC Wi-Fi, a lost remote finder feature, support for Google Assistant and Google Play, as well as support for VP94K decoding, which allows you to watch YouTube or Netflix content in 4K.

airtv mini

The company has been offering streaming devices for a couple of years. Dish first unveiled its AirTV Player, a 4K media streamer set-top box, at CES 2017. In 2018, it expanded its hardware lineup to include a new device, just called the AirTV, a networked TV tuner that streams local programming via Wi-Fi.

Despite the new AirTV Mini’s streaming stick form factor, it’s not meant to compete with rival streaming sticks like the low-cost Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku streaming stick or Chromecast in terms of price. Instead, it’s a $79.99 alternative to the $119.99 AirTV Player bundle — perhaps for someone who doesn’t care for the sort of Playskool-inspired design of the original streaming box, but still wants over-the-air channels, 4K support and easy access to Sling TV and Netflix.

The remote for the Mini is improved as well, in a more typical shade of black instead of the AirTV Player’s white and blue design. It’s also a more standard length and width than the stubby and seemingly childish AirTV Player remote. And it still has dedicated buttons for Sling TV, Netflix and Google Assistant.

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Through the remote, users can issue voice commands to control their TV experience. For example, you can use voice search to find favorite shows and movies, or say things like “go to guide,” “show me my DVR” or “rewind 10 seconds.”

“The AirTV brand is committed to making local TV relevant and easily accessible to streamers,” said Mitch Weinraub, director of product development for AirTV, in a statement. “The AirTV Mini is a powerhouse streaming stick with more memory and a faster processor than anything else in the category. When combined with the AirTV network tuner and the Sling TV app, the Mini delivers a superior streaming experience, especially for Slingers who want premium features in a small package at an affordable price.”

The audience for this sort of product — or any AirTV device, for that matter — is fairly niche. While there’s certainly some demand for access to over-the-air programming among cord cutters, there are other solutions that don’t lock you into Sling TV, specifically.

For instance, you can easily switch to your connected antenna from a Roku TV or you could buy the (currently $179.99) Fire TV Recast, which offers a Fire TV interface plus access to stream and record from live TV with its built-in DVR. Neither the AirTV Mini nor the AirTV tuner come bundled with a DVR — you have to provide your own, and plug it into the tuner.

Overall, the solution makes sense for DIY’ers who also subscribe to Sling TV and prefer a Google Assistant-powered experience instead of Alexa.

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SpaceX Launches 60 Satellites for Elon Musk’s Starlink Internet Constellation

The 60 satellites packed tightly into a fairing.

The 60 satellites packed tightly into a fairing.
Image: SpaceX

With one launch in the books and potentially dozens still to go, SpaceX has begun its build-out of the ambitious Starlink internet constellation—a series of interconnected satellites designed to deliver high-speed internet to paying customers around the globe.

The 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing 500 pounds (227 kg), were released to low Earth orbit (LEO) yesterday at around 11:32 pm ET, SpaceX confirmed in a series of tweets. Together, the tightly packed satellites weighed 13.6 metric tons, “making this launch the heaviest mission for SpaceX to date,” according to SpaceNews.

The satellites were deposited at an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles) by a Falcon 9 rocket that launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The reusable rocket booster successfully landed upright on a droneship in the Atlantic ocean nine minutes after launch.

Once complete, the Starlink constellation of satellites would transmit signals for high-speed internet access to paying customers. The massive telecommunications system should go online once 400 satellites are in orbit and activated, but Starlink will reach “significant operational capacity” at 800 satellites, in the words of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, as reported by SpaceNews. The private space firm will need to conduct at least a dozen or more launches before this can happen. Musk said Starlink will become “economically viable” at 1,000 units. Incredibly, as many as 12,000 satellites could one day comprise the entire Starlink constellation. Starlink is expected to go online by the mid 2020s.

Indeed, this venture, announced in 2015, could represent an important new revenue stream for SpaceX. Musk has previously stated that monies generated by the Starlink project will be used to fund eventual missions to Mars. The internet service enabled by Starlink is expected to be low cost and accessible to remote areas of the world where internet is hard to come by.

Two experimental Starlink satellites were launched to orbit in February 2018. Yesterday’s deployment of 60 satellites is the first build-out of the system.

Each Starlink satellite is designed to last no longer than five years, after which time it’s supposed to fall into and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. This should reduce space debris, and allow the private space firm to replace them with more advanced versions, per a SpaceX press kit. The satellites are also equipped with technology to help them avoid collisions in LEO. Each device is powered by a single solar array and equipped with a navigation system that will allow SpaceX to accurately track the satellites. Thrusters on each satellite will nudge them to an operational altitude of 550 kilometers (340 miles).

Earth’s low orbit is about to become a very busy place—and not just on account of SpaceX. Similar constellations are being developed by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat for the U.S. market, which suggests this is about to become a highly competitive space. In space.

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Google Launches CallJoy, a Virtual Customer Service Phone Agent For Small Businesses

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Google Launches CallJoy, a Virtual Customer Service Phone Agent For Small Businesses (techcrunch.com)






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from the interesting-tools dept.

Google is combining several technologies, including virtual phone numbers, audio transcriptions, automated reporting and analytics, in a new effort to help small business owners better manage their inbound phone calls. From a report: The company’s latest project from its in-house incubator is CallJoy, launching today. Aimed at the U.S.’s 30.2 million small business owners, the system offers a low-cost customer service agent that helps block spam calls, provide callers with basic business information and redirect customers to complete their requests — like appointment booking or placing a to-go order — over SMS. Any other calls or questions would be directed to the main business phone number. Typically, customer service phone agents like this are out of reach for small business owners, but CallJoy is priced at a flat monthly fee of $39 to make the technology affordable.

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Google launches CallJoy, a virtual customer service phone agent for small businesses

Google is combining several technologies, including virtual phone numbers, audio transcriptions, automated reporting and analytics, in a new effort to help small business owners better manage their inbound phone calls. The company’s latest project from its in-house incubator is CallJoy, launching today. Aimed at the U.S.’s 30.2 million small business owners, the system offers a low-cost customer service agent that helps block spam calls, provide callers with basic business information and redirect customers to complete their requests — like appointment booking or placing a to-go order — over SMS.

Any other calls or questions would be directed to the main business phone number.

Typically, customer service phone agents like this are out of reach for small business owners, but CallJoy is priced at a flat monthly fee of $39 to make the technology affordable.

Like other virtual customer service systems, CallJoy can greet the caller and offer basic information like the business hours or address, for example. It also frees up the business owner from having to deal with the ever-increasing number of spam calls that waste their time, and can move customers off of phone lines to complete tasks online, where appropriate.

To do so, CallJoy’s virtual agent can send a customer who opts in an SMS text message that includes a URL where the task — like appointment booking or online orders, for example — can be completed.

For example, the agent may ask the customer “Can I send you our food ordering link?” If the customer says “yes,” the text is sent immediately. In addition, the feature can be customized for sharing other types of information — like the company’s email or where to find an online contact form.

If the customer is calling from a landline, however, this textback feature will be disabled and they’ll be directed to the business line instead.

Like other customer service software that alerts callers that calls “will be recorded for quality assurance purposes,” CallJoy records the incoming calls (which is also disclosed). This can help cut down on spam calls because once spammers know the call is recorded, they usually hang up.

The recorded calls are also encrypted and transcribed, and these transcripts then become searchable in the CallJoy dashboard.

Here, call information — including the phone number, audio and transcript — is stored. The business owner can also go back and tag the calls in order to run reports that help them gain insight into their business. For example, if a salon got a lot of inbound calls about “wedding hairstyles” they may then decide it would make sense to include this information on their website; or a restaurant may want to track how many calls it gets per night for reservations.

Other insights are available, too, like call volume, peak call times and new versus returning callers. These are displayed in the online dashboard and sent out in a daily email.

The service works today with existing landlines, mobile phones, Google Voice lines or other cloud providers by routing calls to the business phone number.

But phone numbers are not ported to CallJoy. Instead, similar to Google Voice, the business would select their virtual CallJoy number with their local area code.

To start receiving calls there, they’d have to update all their business information with this new number — including the website, business cards, online listings, ads, social media and anywhere else the number appears.

CallJoy is also tied to only one location and one phone number. Additional locations with their own lines can be added within the CallJoy dashboard, but businesses are charged per line.

At launch, CallJoy is available on an invite-only basis. Businesses must request a spot on the waitlist from the CallJoy homepage. More invites will be shared every day; eventually, the system will open to all.

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USDA launches pilot program allowing SNAP recipients to shop for groceries online

USDA launches pilot program allowing SNAP recipients to shop for groceries online

The USDA this morning announced the launch of a pilot program that will open up online grocery shopping to those on public assistance. During a two-year pilot program, those receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits — often referred to as “food stamps” — will be able to shop for groceries from online retailers, including Walmart, Amazon and, soon, ShopRite and others. The pilot is live in New York state at launch, with availability that varies by retailer.

Amazon’s program will encompass the grocery and household selections available on both AmazonFresh and Prime Pantry, the retailer says, without the requirement of a membership fee. This program will operate only in the New York City area, as will ShopRite, when it joins the pilot next week.

Meanwhile, Walmart’s pilot will cover grocery pickup and delivery in upstate New York locations.

The USDA says other retailers are expected to join the pilot in the months ahead. Eventually, the program will also expand to other areas in New York and beyond, including Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

Plans for the program have been in the works for years. The 2014 Farm Bill authorized the USDA to conduct and evaluate a pilot for online purchasing using SNAP, before rolling out support nationwide. During this pilot, the goal is to test that SNAP benefits are processed safely and securely, and to better understand the challenges involving online acceptance of SNAP.

This is also the first time that SNAP participants will be able to order grocery delivery online — something that the USDA believes should no longer be considered a luxury.

At times, online retailers can offer lower prices on items, which can benefit budget shoppers. Plus, not all online grocery items are marked up, versus what you can buy in store. That tends to be more true for fast delivery services like Instacart or Shipt. Walmart, for example, charges the same prices for its online groceries as it does in stores. And when free delivery is offered, SNAP recipients can save both time and gas. (SNAP will only cover food items, not delivery or other fees.)

These are all the same perks that any e-commerce shopper enjoys, but can be even better appreciated by those who don’t have a car, can’t afford gas or work multiple jobs trying to make ends meet and don’t have time to shop.

“People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food – by ordering and paying for groceries online. As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, in a statement. “We look forward to monitoring how these pilots increase food access and customer service to those we serve, specifically those who may experience challenges in visiting brick and mortar stores,” he added.

The pilot program will involve the use of electronic benefit (EBT) cards issued by New York to allow for the online purchasing. Walmart and Amazon are live today, with ShopRite and others joining in the weeks ahead.

Amazon says the program will “dramatically increase access to food for more remote customers and help to mitigate the public health crisis of food deserts,” — a reference to areas where it’s difficult to find healthy food choices, which leads to Americans opting for convenience foods and fast foods instead. This, in turn, can lead to further health problems down the road.

The USDA today proclaimed this is the “first time SNAP customers can pay for their groceries online.” That’s true, but comes with a caveat. In 2017, Walmart began EBT acceptance for groceries bought online starting in one store in the Houston market and four more in Boise. Its program supported SNAP and EBT Cash / TANF but not WIC. However, those customers could only order grocery pickup, not delivery.

The difference between that program and the USDA’s program, Walmart clarified to TechCrunch, is that SNAP recipients would have to pay for their groceries at the pickup location by choosing “Pay at Pickup” at checkout. Walmart wasn’t actually processing the transactions online, but rather in a parking stall at the Walmart store.

Walmart says it has since expanded that earlier SNAP at Pickup program to 40 stores across several states. For the USDA program, however, it has nearly 275 Grocery Pickup stores in the nine eligible states where the pilot is set to run.

“We are excited to be part of the USDA’s pilot program and to be able to make our Grocery Pickup and Delivery service available to more and more people, regardless of their payment method,” a Walmart spokesperson said. “Access to convenience and to quality, fresh groceries shouldn’t be dictated by how you pay. This pilot program is a great step forward and we are eager to expand this to customers in other states where we already have a great online grocery business.”

Amazon has also rolled out support to those on public assistance before today.

In 2017, it launched a low-cost version of Prime for U.S. customers with a valid EBT card, and later followed by offering low-cost Prime to Medicaid recipients last year.

Other retailers who were selected for the USDA pilot include Dash’s Market, FreshDirect, Hy-Vee, Safeway and Wright’s Markets. They are not yet live.

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