The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 10th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 10th 2015


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

ps: sorry I’m late. Its a very slow nes week.

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1) University Rolls Out Adblock Plus, Saves 40 Percent Network Bandwidth

I am always amazed to see the amount of noise and clutter on websites when I use a computer which does not have ad blocking software. As a rural Canadian I pay through the nose for Internet service and since I have never bought anything due to Internet advertising I have no problem shutting it down. This study suggests the effect is not trivial: 25 – 40% of the bandwidth you pay for may be stolen by advertisers. I have moved on from Adblock to uBlock, which has no white list and seems to work better. Ironically, the Techweek Europe website popped up a message asking me to disable ad blocking on their site.

“A Canadian university claims to have saved between 25 and 40 percent of its network bandwidth by deploying Adblock Plus across its internal network. The study tested the ability of the Adblock Plus browser extension in reducing IP traffic when installed in a large enterprise network environment, and found that huge amounts of bandwidth was saved by blocking web-based advertisements and video trailers. “While the present popularity of Adblock Plus represents a certain vindication of its ad-blocking model, there is a lack of technical studies on its effectiveness,” said Malcolm Toms, Manager of Network Operations in the faculty of arts and social sciences at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “The purpose of this study was to fill this knowledge gap and evaluate the effectiveness of Adblock Plus in an enterprise environment, and document any reduction in network traffic.””

2) Apple Watch sales plunge 90%

This report caused a flurry of excitement when it came out. Not surprisingly, Apple fan boy websites dismissed the story as it contradicts their reality bubble. I have no idea whether the methodology is correct, however, the findings are credible. “Smartwatches” in general tend to wear thin pretty quickly as they have little utility and there tends to be a large aftermarket in slightly used devices. There does, however, seem to be some interest in FitBit type activity trackers.

“Sales of the new Apple Watch have plunged by 90% since the opening week, according to a new market-research report. Apple has been selling fewer than 20,000 watches a day in the U.S. since the initial surge in April, and on some days fewer than 10,000, according to data from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Slice Intelligence. That is a sharp decline from the week of the April 10 launch, when Apple sold about 1.5 million watches, or an average of about 200,000 a day, Slice estimates.”

3) Where Electric Vehicles Actually Cause More Pollution Than Gas Cars

This is the first article I have seen which looks at the full impact of operating EVs on pollution (not the manufacture, but the operation). Not surprisingly, a lot depends on how the electricity is being produced. Long story short, this analysis seems to show the US federal subsidy of $7,500 cannot be justified anywhere in the US and, in fact, EVs should be taxed extra in many areas. Note that the $7,500 subsidy is just a component of the lavish subsidies for EVs. One serious failing of the study is that it assumes both vehicles will last 150,000 miles. While this is readily achievable with a gasoline powered vehicle, 150,000 miles from an EV is borderline delusional since the battery pack would need replacement long before then, resulting in the EV being scrapped.

“A view from the tailpipe gives EVs a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe. So the truth of the matter hinges on perspective—and, it turns out, geography. That’s the sobering lesson from an incredibly sophisticated new working study by a group of economists. Using a fine-grained, county-level measure of U.S. vehicle emissions traced to tailpipes and electricity grids, the researchers mapped where gas cars and EVs cause more respective pollution. In some places electrics do so much relative harm that instead of being subsidized, as is currently the case, they should actually be taxed.”

4) Linux Creator Linus Torvalds Laughs at the AI Apocalypse

A few months back there was a lot of discussion regarding the “threat” of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Actual AI experts tried to explain that very few expected to see sentient machines with needs and wants (in particular the need and want to survive). AI, from the expert’s perspective is not the same thing as a sentient machine, rather it is a system which learns. You might want a self-driving car which learns, but you would have less use for a sentient car than a farmer would have for a sentient ox so it is hard to believe anybody would make a sentient machine, assuming they knew how. Torvalds is a pretty smart guy and worth listening to. His Sartre quoting dishwasher reminded me of Talky Toaster from Red Dwarf ( Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“We’ll get AI, and it will almost certainly be through something very much like recurrent neural networks. And the thing is, since that kind of AI will need training, it won’t be ‘reliable’ in the traditional computer sense. It’s not the old rule-based prolog days, when people thought they’d *understand* what the actual decisions were in an AI. And that all makes it very interesting, of course, but it also makes it hard to productise. Which will very much limit where you’ll actually find those neural networks, and what kinds of network sizes and inputs and outputs they’ll have. So I’d expect just more of (and much fancier) rather targeted AI, rather than anything human-like at all. Language recognition, pattern recognition, things like that. I just don’t see the situation where you suddenly have some existential crisis because your dishwasher is starting to discuss Sartre with you.”

5) IBM Watson CTO: Quantum computing could advance artificial intelligence by orders of magnitude

I wish the IBM executive had gone into detail here. Since there are no working quantum computers, and all known natural intelligent systems are, in fact, neural networks (which are not quantum computers), and all artificial AI systems are based on traditional computing hardware which has nothing in common with quantum computers, its really hard to make that connection.

“Combining the vast processing power of quantum computers with cognitive computing systems like IBM’s Watson will lead to huge advances in artificial intelligence, according to a C-level executive at the US software giant. Speaking to IBTimes UK at the recent Hello Tomorrow conference in Paris, IBM Watson’s chief technology officer Rob High said there was a “very natural synergy” between cognitive computing and quantum computing, revealing he hoped to one day see Watson run on a quantum system.”

6) Growing number of Canadians cutting traditional television, CBC research shows

This is part of a global trend and it is remarkable it is even happening in a place with such a poor Internet infrastructure. What is happening is that the traditional broadcast infrastructure, where there are discrete “channels” and time slots for programming, which made sense in the context of radio and TV broadcast, is no longer relevant. A one-to-many system only really works when there is no alternative or when important live events, such as sports, are taking place. Broadband offers the opportunity for fully customized delivery of what you want and when you want it, as well as (eventually) tailored delivery of multimedia content. Eventually this will result in fewer “hit shows”, which typically represent lowest common denominator content, and a much broader chose of content for consumers.

“A growing number of Canadians are ditching their traditional television subscriptions, according to a new CBC research report. The May 2015 report said more than half of Canadians currently without cable television have “cut the cord,” meaning they had a television subscription and canceled it. “With the prevalence of TV content on the internet and Netflix, Canadians are seeing less need to have a TV subscription,” the report said. Sixteen per cent of Canadians don’t pay for a traditional TV service, up from 12 per cent three years ago, the report said.’

7) Rebooting the Automobile

This is a relatively long article which discusses some of the trends in automotive electronics and establishing a more intimate connection with the smartphone of your choice. It is not clear to me this will catch on: while there is some merit to intelligent tethering, the number of permutations of devices, operating systems, etc., would likely cause all kinds of expensive consumer service issues for the auto vendors. It seems more likely they would simply add an integrated platform (most likely Android, since it is open) which would take care of all the difficult stuff and leave communications to your smartphone, possibly through a wireless link.

“Where would you like to go?” Siri asked. It was a sunny, slightly dreamy morning in the heart of Silicon Valley, and I was sitting in the passenger seat of what seemed like a perfectly ordinary new car. … The vehicle was, in fact, a Hyundai Sonata. The Apple-like interface was coming from an iPhone connected by a cable. Most carmakers have agreed to support software from Apple called CarPlay, as well as a competing product from Google, called Android Auto, in part to address a troubling trend: according to research from the National Safety Council, a nonprofit group, more than 25 percent of road accidents are a result of a driver’s fiddling with a phone. Hyundai’s car, which goes on sale this summer, will be one of the first to support CarPlay, and the carmaker had made the Sonata available so I could see how the software works.”

8) Autonomous Taxis Would Deliver Significant Environmental and Economic Benefits

Item 3 looked at the environmental impact of EVs while this looks at the environmental impact of autonomous vehicles (AVs), which may or may not be EVs. Long story short, most cars are bigger than they need to be because people buy on the basis of what they might need (mom, dad, 2 kids, dog) rather than what they use most of the time. Autonomous taxis would, in principal, be ‘right sized’ and thereby more energy efficient. I’d be cautious about their comments regarding EVs, besides the questionable environmental benefit as outlined in item 3, The battery in an EV is a consumable and part of it is lost with every charge. The more miles, the faster the battery is used up. There is no economy of scale with an EV.

“Imagine a fleet of driverless taxis roaming your city, ready to pick you up and take you to your destination at a moment’s notice. While this may seem fantastical, it may be only a matter of time before it becomes reality. And according to a new study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), such a system would both be cost-effective and greatly reduce per-mile emissions of greenhouse gases. The analysis found that the per-mile greenhouse gas emissions of an electric vehicle deployed as a self-driving, or autonomous, taxi in 2030 would be 63 to 82 percent lower than a projected 2030 hybrid vehicle driven as a privately owned car and 90 percent lower than a 2014 gasoline-powered private vehicle. Almost half of the savings is attributable to “right-sizing,” where the size of the taxi deployed is tailored to each trip’s occupancy needs.”

9) Uber will buy all the self-driving cars that Tesla can build in 2020

I am a big fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which I figure is a must watch for anybody in the technology business. Uber may be highly valued, but it is a prodigious destroyer of capital and that alone brings into question the viability of the business. Furthermore, not content with blowing through money like there is no tomorrow, the company has embarked on a number of strange acquisitions such as mapping businesses. As much as I like the service I sometimes wonder if they are a self-parody. The idea that they might buy 500,000 self-driving Teslas in 2020 is too bizarre for words: at an unachievable cost of $20,000 each that is $10B – lot of money for a money losing car service. Not only that but the odds of Tesla having such a thing by 2020 are close to nil: remember Telsa’s October 2014 promise of self driving cars by 2015 Even Tesla fanatics who paid for the feature are beginning to notice

“If Tesla can produce half a million cars by 2020, then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will buy them all for his service, according to venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson. Jurvetson, a Tesla board member and partner in the VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, was speaking at the recent Top 10 Tech Trends dinner, put on by the Churchill Club, when he relayed a conversation he’d had with Kalanick about his hopes for “robocars” and the future. “Travis recently told me that in 2020, if Telsa’s are autonomous, he’d want to buy all of them. He said all 500,000 of estimated 2020 production, I’d want them all,” Jurvetson said. “But he couldn’t get a return call from Elon.””

10) Autonomous vehicles will have tremendous impacts on government revenue

I continue to believe AVs will have a profound impact on a number of industries including the auto-insurance business, which will be devastated, and trucking. This is the first study I’ve see which looks at the impact on government revenues. It seems the overall societal impact will be positive, however, one challenge with governments is that their costs for services are likely to stay around longer than the need for those services. So, even if fewer highway patrols will be needed, there is a good chance they’ll be there even if DUIs, speeding, etc, are no longer a problem.

“Two decades from now, there are likely to be a number of Americans who travel using autonomous vehicles (AVs). In an article on Slate we assert that this emergent vehicle technology will inhibit the public sector’s ability to generate revenue. In our recently published report Local Government 2035 we explain how AVs will reduce cash flows to governments when speeding tickets, DUI’s, and towing fees are ostensibly eliminated by driverless systems. This was only one side of the coin; AVs will also increase safety and mitigate inefficiencies in transportation systems, thereby saving government and taxpayers big bucks.”

11) Toyota radio ad shuts down iPhones because drivers won’t

I figure people who up with idea like this should face summary execution. Just think of it: some creative director thought it was a good idea to disable your phone for you, for safety’s sake. It might be you are a passenger, or perhaps using the phone for navigation, but some halfwit figured he’d shut it off for you. Now, some people are going to immediately fiddle with the phone to set it back, maybe disable Siri, and hopefully change radio stations, all the while driving while distracted. Other people aren’t going to notice their phone disabled itself until somebody asks them why they never return calls. Come to think of it summary execution is too good for them.

“The ad exploits the fact that saying “Hey, Siri” while your iPhone is plugged in will activate Apple’s digital assistant. The commercial proceeds to turn the digital helper against you by ordering it to put your phone into Airplane Mode, which not only keeps you from using it but also deactivates Siri so that you can’t override the lockout with your own voice. This is a really clever idea, but it’s easy to imagine how some drivers may not see the humor or practicality. It’s possible they’ll just pick up their phones to return them to normal manually, which is exactly the sort of thing that this campaign is trying to prevent.”

12) UK to develop Quantum ‘universal’ satellite

Novel satellite designs are somewhat topical but this headline threw me for a loop. Fortunately, the Quantum in Quantum satellite is just a name and has nothing to do with how it operates. The idea is to make a software reconfigurable satellite, which is probably a good approach. Instead of making custom electronics and antenna, these use a common platform and therefore should benefit from economies of scale during manufacture. It is unlikely this will make it easy to change the mission after launch, however the “parking space” is going to determine a lot of what can be done regardless of programmability. Nevertheless, and ability to tweak coverage patterns once aloft could allow flexibility as usage patterns change.

“The development of a completely novel type of telecommunications satellite has been approved. To be called Quantum and built in the UK, the 3.5-tonne spacecraft will break new ground by being totally reconfigurable in orbit. Normally, the major mission parameters on satellites – such as their ground coverage pattern and their operating frequencies – are fixed before launch. Quantum is a European Space Agency telecoms project.”

13) 101 US Cities Have Pledged to Build Their Own Gigabit Networks

US telecommunications policy is almost as much a mess as Canada’s is, but at least the FCC has been making some effort to improve it. Whether those changes will survive the next administration remains to be seen. One part of the mess is due to the fact that numerous states passed laws which essentially prohibited alternatives to entrenched players, regardless of how uncompetitive they were. Although some local governments had also restricted things like provision of cable services, others have recognized the importance of a modern broadband infrastructure to the health of their communities. The FCC eventually overruled state laws restricting cities from offering their own broadband services and now there is a rush to modernize broadband in many cities. Of course, it remains to be seen how many such projects will actually go ahead.

“The US has a big and rather complicated internet speed problem. Its broadband infrastructure is woefully behind in speed and price compared to a broad swath of other countries, and much of this has to do with its tenacious commitment to maintaining the status quo: that is, giving big telecommunications companies a lot of our money without being able to demand a fair amount in return. But here’s a change: 101 cities are have agreed to band together to bring their residents gigabit-speed internet connections, even if they have to build it themselves. They’re part of the Next Century Cities coalition, which promises to help cities make sense of how to tackle the mess of making all this possible. The coalition took shape last October with an inaugural 32 members after the FCC decided that cities can build their own broadband networks despite some states’ efforts to ban or restrict municipal internet services.”

14) New BBC Micro:bit Is Free for Preteens in the UK

I am a big believer in teaching people about electronics but I admit I would be a little confused if I were a UK resident and saw my tax money or TV fees going towards such a project. There are lots of reasons this won’t achieve the desired result: all kids will get the units for free but only a small portion will have the interest, environment, or tools, needed to make it work so they’ll be discarded or sold. Furthermore, there are a number of inexpensive open platforms richly supported by maker communities which would offer the same functionality, probably at a lower cost, while BBC will somehow have to foster and maintain a development package, software libraries, etc., all of which take time. The article at least looks at this effort with a degree of skepticism.

“Earlier today the BBC announced the final design of its Micro:bit. Intended to allow children to get creative with technology, the Micro:bit is one of the cornerstones of the BBC’s “Make it Digital” campaign, the corporation’s most ambitious educational initiative for 35 years. A lot of us cut our teeth on BASIC programming back in the late 70’s and early 80’s — we owned a Tandy TRS-80, an Apple II, or a BBC Micro — and spent hours in front of glowing phosphor screens hacking away, writing our own version of Space Invaders. The BBC Micro was a familiar sight in British schools, and it has left a lasting legacy which still looms over how computing is taught here in the UK.”

15) Taste the new green. Philips delivers tailored light growth recipes to produce, fresh food locally, indoors

I had this idea a number of years ago: since plants only absorb a small amount of the spectrum and since LEDs have a highly customizable spectrum, you could design LEDs which only emit the light the plants need, rather than wasting power producing the wavelengths they don’t need. This would make for far greater energy efficiency in artificially lit greenhouses. I rather doubt this would make food production in greenhouses cost effective compared to natural rearing, but it would save a lot of money “starting” plants, which is often done indoors prior to the growing season. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“Royal Philips, the global leader in lighting, has opened its state-of-the-art GrowWise Center at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Research being conducted by Philips will provide tailor-made LED light growth recipes making it possible for producers to increase their yields and grow tasty and healthy food indoors, all year round. The new 234m² facility, one of the world’s largest, will concentrate its research to optimize growth recipes for leafy vegetables, strawberries and herbs. Other areas of research will find ways to grow more carbohydrate-rich crops, like wheat and potatoes indoors.”

16) Inside an MRI, a Non-Metallic Robot Performs Prostate Surgery

The idea here is to use continuous imaging to guide the needle or knife during surgery. MRIs provide a high quality three dimensional image without exposing the patient or medical staff to dangerous ionizing radiation. The tricky bit is the fact MRI do this using massive magnetic fields so the choice of materials for the instrument is very important as any magnetic metal would become a projectile near the MRI. Calling this a robot is a bit of an overstatement as it is more of a positioning frame than an interactive system. Nevertheless it is probably a sign of things to come.

“One of the holy grails of robotic surgery is the ability to perform minimally invasive procedures guided by real-time scans from a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machine. The problem is the space inside MRI scanners is tight for a person, let alone a person and a robot. What’s more, these machines use very strong magnetic fields, so metal is not a good thing to place inside of them, a restriction that is certainly a problem for robots. Now researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are developing a MRI-compatible robotic surgery tool that can overcome those limitations. Their system isn’t made of metal, but instead has plastic parts and ceramic piezoelectric motors that allow it to work safely inside an MRI.”

17) 3D printing for Aerospace: “Additive manufacturing will change the game forever”

Most, but not all, of the hype and hysteria associated with 3D printing has died down and high profile stocks like Stratasys are well off (75%) their recent highs. This does not mean that 3D printing is no longer a thing and I continue to believe it will be an important technology in the future, though much less in the home than in industrial and medical applications. This article looks at some real world examples of applications in the aerospace sector. It is worth noting that aerospace is a low volume, high value manufacturing sector and thereby is probably uniquely positioned for 3D printing applications.

“The aerospace industry has provided some major headline grabbing developments over the last few years and that’s been even more evident in just the last few months. Talk to anyone about 3D printing and chances are they’ve heard one of the more famous examples like the one about the plane that’s being flown with 1,000 3D printed parts or the one with the huge 3D printed turbine. The radical fact about aerospace is we’re not just talking about prototypes but real functional parts that are being used in aircraft, some of which have been on commercial vehicles for the last year without the need for a huge parade and ceremony to back them up. Airbus was the name behind the recent sexy “1,000 3D printed parts on board an aircraft” story that saw Stratasys FDM 3D Production Systems used in place of traditionally manufactured metal parts.”

18) Top Security Experts Say Government Limits On Encryption Present Risks

I had to look around to find an article covering this research which did not include No S*** in the title (since some subscriber’s spam filters block the vernacular). Long story short, a system with a back door cannot be a secure system. Its a bit like telling people they have to tell the government where they hid the spare key, just in case the police show up – if the crooks know you are hiding a spare key, they’ll find it. Unfortunately, lawmakers are more influenced by the police and their security services than they are by researchers or by common sense and you can rest assured that “legal” security products will be required to have a back door and only criminals and terrorists who will use systems without back doors, will be secure.

“A group of top cybersecurity experts reported today that giving law enforcement special access to encrypted data for investigations would pose “major security risks.” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab report included input from cryptography expert Bruce Schneier and researchers from MIT, Stanford University, Columbia University, Cambridge University, Johns Hopkins University, Microsoft Research, SRI International and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Since October, U.S. law enforcement officials have called for a special door that would allow government agencies to access encrypted data that could help them in investigations. The report tells us that a backdoor for the government and law enforcement also provides an opening that could be exploited by hackers. The experts argue such special access points “pose far more grave security risks, imperil innovation on which the world’s economies depend, and raise more thorny policy issues than we could have imagined when the Internet was in its infancy.””

19) The Internet of NO Things – Demos Helsinki founder Roope Mokka’s speech at Almedalen Week

This is a rather interesting speech / essay by a futurist. I can see what he is getting at: we don’t think of calculators as technology, just things. However, it is easy to get carried away with idea that bits are replacing atoms: this is only true in the cloistered, white collar world of urban academics and futurists. Also, one has to be cautious when ascribing value creation to the likes of Uber or any other high tech flavor of the week. The market is rarely efficient and often wrong.

“The global average of looking at your phone is six minutes. It means that we disrupt ourselves every sixth minute. And off we go, there’s a red dot in Facebook, someone commented on something, then email, then Snapchat, then a bit of Instagram, then check Twitter. A bit of Facebook again and finally close it all off with a look on Reddit. And start again in six minutes. Life as a gerbil. Back again in six minutes. This is obviously crazy. But not as crazy as it may sound to claim that soon we’ll never look at our phones again. Let me explain how this happens and why it’s only logical that it will happen. The reasons behind the internet of NO things are simple. The strongest long-term trend in technology has been the drop in its size and price, along with the convergence of different technologies into one. Things have got smaller and smaller and cheaper and cheaper. And technology now includes more and more functionalities.”

20) High prices are sparking a wireless black market in Canada

Canada’s telecommunications policies have been disastrous for consumers and businesses, though in some parts of the country less disastrous than others. As a consequence there is wide variability in the cost of services, even from the same provider. Oddly enough, given carrier whining about Canada being an expensive place to run services due to low population density, sparsely populated areas like Manitoba actually have lower rates than more densely populated areas due to competitive pressures (i.e. actual competition rather than collusion). This has opened up arbitrage opportunities. I am keen to see whether T-Mobile’s “Mobile without borders” ( plan opens up further arbitrage.

“You know wireless pricing in Canada is messed up when there’s a black market emerging to provide people with better deals. Take a fellow who identifies as “Tony,” for example. Tony is selling monthly plans with Koodo on Kijiji for $48. His fee for setting up the plan, which features unlimited nationwide calling and 5 gigabytes of data, is $100. He ships customers a SIM card for their phone, and off they go. For the majority of Canadians, 5 GB of data and unlimited calling for $48 a month is an absolute steal. In most parts of the country, such a plan costs at least $90. Anyone taking Tony up on his offer will see his fee pay off in just two months of service. Tony is cagey about answering questions texted to him, probably because he knows that what he’s doing isn’t exactly above board. What he’s doing, according to a source familiar with the situation, is setting up Koodo plans in Manitoba – where $48 does indeed get unlimited calling and 5 GB data – and then exporting them to the rest of the country.”

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