The High-Stakes Race to Build More Ventilators

As he loaded the 3D printer into the back of his Jeep, Kevin Zagorski figured he wouldn’t be back in his office for a while. It was Friday night, March 20, and Virgin Orbit, the satellite launch company that spun out of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic a few years back, had limited work at its Long Beach, California, operation to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. The engineer drove home, thinking he’d spend some time experimenting with 3D-printed attachments to let his colleagues open doors without touching the handles. But that first weekend at home, his manager called with a new assignment.

Before Monday rolled around, Zagorski was working with a group of doctors to design a new low-cost, scalable ventilator to keep air in the lungs of the sickest Americans suffering from Covid-19. By mid-week, he and about a dozen fellow engineers had produced a prototype of a mechanized bag valve mask, also called an Ambu bag, the handheld device EMTs use to pump air into a patient’s lungs. Now they’re on their third generation, which they think they can start mass producing in coming days, pending regulatory approval.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

In the battle against coronavirus, which can inhibit a person’s ability to breathe, ventilators are a crucial tool in short supply. Estimates range, but the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects the US could need roughly 55,000 ventilators in mid-April, assuming that social distancing measures stay in place through May. On Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that New York could run out of the devices in six days. That surging demand has overwhelmed an industry that makes a few thousand of the machines a year. And so companies whose normal businesses have been sidelined—Ford, General Motors, Tesla, Dyson, and others—have rallied to fill the gap.

While smaller outfits like Virgin Orbit, vacuum maker Dyson, a group of MIT researchers, and others are designing new kinds of ventilators, America’s major manufacturers are sticking with proven technology. Ford and General Electric have licensed a design from Airon, a small Florida outfit that typically builds two or three ventilators a day. The two giants say they’ll produce 50,000 in the next 100 days, and 30,000 a month thereafter. Much of that work will happen at Ford’s Rawsonville components facility in Detroit, with 500 United Auto Workers members covering three shifts. General Motors is planning to bring in 1,200 UAW workers to build 10,000 Ventec Life Systems ventilators a month at its plant in Kokomo, Indiana.

Virgin Orbit engineers have created a new kind of ventilator by mechanizing the traditional Ambu bag, using off-the-shelf parts and some 3D printing.

Courtesy of Virgin Orbit

Those workers and plants are much needed, but the automakers’ biggest contributions are their huge breadth of manufacturing and logistical savvy. Ford’s payroll includes supply chain maestros, product designers, industrial engineers, and facilities experts, all of them trained to work on products that need thousands of parts from all over the world, with minimal room for error. “We’re able to pull together a huge amount of talent very quickly,” says Adrian Price, Ford’s head of global core engineering.


To enable a 500-fold increase in production, a Ford team spent a weekend disassembling a ventilator that Airon had shipped overnight from Florida. They 3D-scanned more than 250 parts and tore down and rebuilt sub-assemblies. They filmed each step of production to ease worker training. They mapped out how many workstations they’d need to hit the faster pace, along with the required tooling and equipment. Then they reached out to suppliers to get it all in place.

GM is doing similar work, sending a team to Seattle to see how Ventec builds its ventilators, what components it needs, and which suppliers can meet the demand. Breaking bottlenecks requires digging through the proverbial parts bin to find automotive supplies that roughly match what they now need. GM won’t use a radiator hose in lieu of a ventilator hose, says manufacturing chief Gerald Johnson, but it gave one supplier the criteria and specifications for a ventilator hose, along with a picture of the part. That company then went to work getting the tooling in place to meet the new demand. GM is doing similar things with DC motors, circuit boards, wiring bundles, and more.

Meanwhile, the automaker is hustling to convert its Kokomo plant into a ventilator factory, tearing out existing equipment, dismantling walls, and installing new workstations and conveyor lines. The automakers’ partners will help ensure the products are built to their exacting standards and properly tested before they’re sent to hospitals.

The US Food and Drug Administration will have to approve Ford’s and GM’s new setups—the agency oversees not just products, but the facilities in which they’re made. But this kind of unconventional, high-speed ramp up raises questions about quality control. “Any time you start rushing to get something out, you’re bound to have problems,” says Alan Schwartz, the executive vice president of MDI Consultants, a former FDA official who has advised device makers since the 1970s. Making medical equipment requires tracking every part and product, collecting vast amounts of data, and documenting numerous details so that any problems can be sniffed out and squashed, stat. The necessary quality control, Schwartz says, is “an enormous task.”

The automakers have the advantage of working with established suppliers on certified products—GM is technically a contractor for Ventec, in an odd inversion of how it usually works. Virgin Orbit took the tougher tack of designing a new machine. Rather than the boxy devices traditionally used in hospitals, they turned the Ambu bag into a device that doesn’t need human hands to keep human lungs going. Instead, it uses a motor to rotate a potato-shaped cam, pressing a patch of metal onto the bag. “It’s a very simple machine,” says Zagorski, who leads Virgin Orbit’s advanced manufacturing work.

Along the way, Zagorski and his colleagues took direction from the Bridge Ventilator Consortium, an ad hoc group of doctors and engineers based at UC Irvine and the University of Texas Austin. The consortium coined the term “bridge ventilator,” for a simple device with fewer capabilities than the more complex machines typically used in hospitals, but good enough for many patients with relatively mild issues, including some Covid-19 patients. “Not everyone needs the Cadillac,” says Govind Rajan, an anesthesiologist at the UC Irvine Medical Center. Ventilator shortages were common when he worked in India, he says, and he’d sometimes teach family members to use an Ambu bag to keep their loved ones breathing for a day or even two. So he says it was natural to ask for a mechanized version of the device, to bridge the gap between ventilator supply and demand.

“It’s a very simple machine,” says Kevin Zagorski, of Virgin Orbit’s new ventilator.

Courtesy of Virgin Orbit


Focused on scale and speed, the Virgin engineers followed “an absolutely ruthless approach to the simplicity and manufacturability of the design,” Zagorski says. “We’d go through every single part in the assembly, every nut, every washer,” making sure it was both necessary and up to the task.

That meant minimizing the amount of programming needed. The goal was to control three key variables: breaths per minute; tidal volume, which is how much air comes out of the bag; and the inspiratory-expiratory profile, which the time spent breathing in versus breathing out. The first is a function of motor speed, adjusted with a dial. The others can be adjusted by swapping out parts. To change tidal volume, a user can hook up a smaller or larger version of the piece that pushes on the bag. The shape of the rotating cam (think of a lumpy potato versus a round one) defines how much of the time the bag is being compressed, and thus the inspiratory-expiratory rate.

To put the ventilators in the field, Virgin Orbit began seeking approval from the FDA. “We are essentially ready to move into production the moment that that happens and start delivering these to hospitals,” says head of special projects Will Pomerantz. Rajan says early conversations with the regulators have gone well, and he expects approval soon. The FDA didn’t respond to questions about its talks with the company.

The Virgin Orbit engineers are well suited to this work. Their regular jobs involve designing new sorts of rocket-based satellite launch systems, and they spend much of their time spinning up new mechanical and electrical designs. They have access to clean rooms, 3D printers, and other manufacturing devices. To make this new kind of ventilator, they needed to write new instructions for metal-fabricating machines and their operators, but not much more. “They’re just building things of a slightly different shape for a slightly different purpose,” Pomerantz says.

Some question the usefulness of such a system. Standard ventilators allow for adjusting many variables, including oxygen content. “There’s a reason why these things have so many knobs and buttons,” says Barry Belmont, a biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan. Further, it’s critical to consider how a new kind of ventilator would fit into the constrained space of a crowded hospital. It can’t interfere with other medical tools, physically or electronically. It must withstand cleaning with hospital grade disinfectants, or the extreme heat and pressure of an autoclave. And health care workers must be trained to use it, at a time when they’re already pushed to their limits.

Ventilators may be mechanically simple, but they typically cost around $10,000 because they have to work nearly perfectly in a specific and demanding environment. The coronavirus sweeping the country and the planet leaves less room for error than ever, but also the need for a bigger swing.

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At least 170,000 lose jobs as film industry grinds to a halt due to coronavirus

Around 120,000 people are out of work in Hollywood, while in the UK it is estimated that 50,000 freelancers will lose their jobs

About 120,000 film industry workers have already lost their jobs in Hollywood as a result of the coronavirus shutdown, according to the US entertainment industry union IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees).

The estimate emerged in a newsletter sent out by the ICG (International Cinematographers Guild) to its members, which said: The IATSE reports that the pandemic shutdown has resulted in the loss of 120,000 jobs held by its 150,000 members. It is critical that our industry be included in pending federal relief package.

The film and TV industry worldwide has experienced a near-total cessation of activity, with thousands of largely freelance crew laid off at short notice with little or no financial compensation. Scores of productions, ranging from studio shoots such as the Avatar sequels and Fantastic Beasts 3 to independent films such as Paul Schraders The Card Counter, have been halted.

The ICG, which has nearly 9,000 members, added: Although some of our members are being paid for up to two weeks after their shows shut down, based upon the reality of the healthcare crisis we now face, it is highly unlikely that productions will resume after so short a period of time This problem is likely to continue for months, not weeks.

In the UK, the situation for below the line crew appears equally catastrophic. Bectu (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union) estimates around 50,000 industry freelancers will have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. The unions head, Philippa Childs, said: Nearly all film and TV production has ground to a halt in the UK The [countrys] world-class film and TV sector is at risk of a whole generation of talent being financially ruined by this crisis. A survey conducted by the union suggested that 71% of freelancers about 35,000 people in the industry will struggle to survive financially as a result of the shutdown.

Directors UK, the trade guild representing British screen directors, sent a letter to chancellor Rishi Sunak calling for further measures to support freelance and self-employed film industry personnel. Directors UK CEO Andrew Chowns wrote: There is now a critical need for similar emergency support measures to be introduced for self-employed workers who are worried, not just about losing their current work, but at the prospect of facing months without income as productions are suspended longer term and, for some smaller productions, indefinitely. Chowns called for the introduction of proportional income support and sick pay to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

The Guardians callout for insight into how the shutdown has affected film industry workers has revealed scores of anecdotes about the impact of coronavirus. A selection will be published in the near future.

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Not enough pork in the world to deal with Chinas demand for meat

With hundreds of millions of pigs dead from swine fever, exporters are scrambling to fill the gap. But prices are soaring

The cost of living in China has outstripped the 3% government target for the first time in a decade, and a big part of the problem is the soaring price of pork, which is being driven up by a widespread outbreak of African swine fever (ASF).

Pork is a big deal in China. The average Chinese person gets through about 30kg of pork a year (by comparison, people in US eat about 26kg of beef a year and UK consumers about 18kg). Since August 2018, when China notified the World Organisation for Animal Health that ASF was in the country, the disease has spread with extraordinary speed.

Some 40% of Chinese pigs hundreds of millions of animals have now been lost, and the result has been a chronic shortage of pork and rocketing prices. The Chinese government has been forced to dig into its gigantic emergency reserves of frozen meat.

The producer price has risen 125% since July, said Rupert Claxton of international food consultancy Girafood. That increase has helped drive up Chinas inflation rate, which in October broke through the government target of 3% to hit 3.8%.

Zhu Zhenchun, a restaurateur in Shenzhen, south-east China, told the Observer: Were spending about 10,000 yuan more a month just because of the price increase. [That is the equivalent of monthly salaries for two restaurant employees.] Everyone knows this is a problem now. Everyone is hoping the price will come down either before or just after Chinese New Year. If it doesnt, that could make some people think differently about their businesses.

A supermarket meat counter in Beijing. High pork prices pushed Chinas inflation rate to 3.8% last month. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA

Pork imports into China have also rocketed. In September last year 94 million kg were shipped in, but the ASF crisis has pushed imports to 161 million kg this year and officials are now rushing to certify farms in Brazil, Ireland and several other countries for export at an unprecedented rate to satisfy demand. Two weeks ago, they lifted a ban on imports from Canada.

As a result pork prices are rising outside China too. Europe has seen a jump of at least 35% since the beginning of the year. The problem is that total global pork exports in 2018 were 8 million tonnes, and China is short 24 million, said Claxton. There just isnt enough pork in the world to fill the gap.

African swine fever is a highly contagious virus which is fatal to pigs. It is extremely hardy, can survive being cooked and processed, and will endure in frozen meat for a number of years. It is transmitted directly between animals, or by the feeding of infected meat, and there have also been cases of infected animal feed.

ASF has been circulating in Europe for a number of years, but it began to spread at a more rapid rate last year. It is now reported in more than 40 countries, and earlier this week was discovered to have leapt 300km across Poland from its easternmost provinces to farms near its western border.

Alistair Driver of UK monthly magazine Pig World said this was extremely concerning. That is just 70km from the German border, and Germany is one of the largest pork exporters in the world.

In China, and neighbouring Vietnam, the disease has spread with shocking rapidity, thanks partly to local buying habits: live pigs are regularly transported to supply the markets and butchers where most consumers buy their pork (there is still some distrust of the chilled meat in plastic packages that western consumers prefer). And despite recent government plans to modernise, the Chinese pig industry is also still dominated by small backyard farmers.

The fact that there is very little compensation available for farmers whose pigs contract ASF has raised suspicions that some infected pigs are taken straight to market and sold into the supply chain. This is one of the reasons why western governments compensate farmers, said Claxton.

The rest of the world is waiting anxiously to see where ASF will hit next. The US is currently passing legislation to increase the number of border inspectors, while Denmark and Germany are building sturdy fences in a bid to keep out wild boar.

In the UK it is now more a case of being prepared for it to arrive than trying to shut it out, said Zoe Davies of the National Pig Association. She worries about the large number of smallholders in the UK who arent taking this seriously, who believe that pigs are there to recycle kitchen scraps. Just one pet pig [with the virus] and thats the UK shut down.

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Richard Branson: Aviation can be carbon neutral sooner than we realise

The relentlessly upbeat entrepreneur believes efficiency and electricity could stop airlines worsening the climate crisis

Life has been quite a trip for Sir Richard Branson so far, and this weekend will be no exception as he flies to the US from Tel Aviv via London with space rockets on his mind.

He is heading to Wall Street to ring the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange as his spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, becomes a listed company tomorrow.

Speaking to the Observer on board Virgin Atlantics inaugural flight from London to Tel Aviv last week, Branson revisited his long-delayed promise: Next year I hope to be floating in space.

There is a certain urgency. It is 35 years since he launched his airline, Virgin Atlantic, and Branson is contemplating his 70th birthday next year. While apparently he hasnt tired of hamming it up for the cameras, there is perhaps a little less spring in his step. But he remains Virgins rock-star draw on the Tel Aviv trip.

Brexit is a particular source of sadness. It must have become apparent to most people in the last three-and-a-half years just what a mistake it was, Branson says. In my ideal world there should be another referendum. If a soft Brexit happens, it wont bankrupt the country but it will be very sad for young people, who wont be able to live or work in these beautiful countries.

He attributes Thomas Cooks demise directly to the Brexit vote, Monarchs likewise, and Flybe we picked up for a pound. A hard Brexit would do irreparable damage to Britain, he says, but those airlines had already suffered too much from the 20% drop in the value of the pound. All their costs would have been in dollars maintenance, leasing, fuel and less people could travel overseas.

Virgin Atlantic is another airline failing to make a profit, but it is not in danger, Branson says. We are survivors. And its got the advantage of other Virgin companies: if the worst comes to the worst we can help it out, occasionally.

The airline is now backed (or controlled, rivals say) by US giant Delta. No question, Delta have been fantastic partners, says Branson, whose sale of his majority stake to Air France-KLM has yet to get full regulatory approval.

Expansion to new routes has been off the agenda until recently, but now Virgin is planning on growth: back to Mumbai, adding So Paulo in Brazil, as well as the new Israel route. Sensitivities are such that cabin crew were sent for cultural awareness training among the Jewish community in Golders Green, north London. Last year, the airline took Palestinian couscous off the inflight menu. Branson says he wasnt aware of the couscous controversy, but if it was done for political reasons, I would say it was a mistake.

Domestically, he remains animated by Virgin Atlantics push to engage the old enemy, British Airways, at Heathrow. Branson and Virgin have informally aligned with the airports management against BA to build the third runway and get more slots.

Our team punch above its weight out of Heathrow but BA should have a competitor that has 35-40% [of slots] at least Were going to fight our corner.

A Virgin Galactic test flight in the Mojave desert last year. Photograph: Virgin Galactic/PA

Meanwhile, the climate emergency has enveloped aviation. BA recently pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and Branson says Virgin will do the same: We have said were going to go net zero by 2050, weve been very clear, and I think we should try to make it less than that. (Virgin Atlantics chief executive, Shai Weiss, is more coy: Weve kind of said it.)

In Bransons view, realistically, people are not going to stop flying the most avid of marchers are going to fly. Whats critical is that we enable them to fly as environmentally friendly as possible.

He says there is a whole list of things that Virgin is doing. Im lobbying to get government to impose the equivalent of a carbon tax on all companies in Britain, to have the companies invest 100% of that money directly into green energy investment. He has championed LanzaTech, a wonderful company that turn waste from aluminium and steel [processing] into aviation fuel. They need billions to build more factories. More modern planes are cutting Virgins fuel burn by 25-30%. And, he adds, by the time we get those slots at Heathrow, hopefully some short-haul planes will be completely battery-driven.

Is this wishful thinking? They are not hypotheticals, its just getting the quantity. We need to make sure we get the trillions and trillions needed to speed up the processes of all these things.

He remains resolutely positive: Some people think that every other problem apart from aviation in the world will be ticked, and aviation will never be ticked. I disagree: I think aviation can also be carbon neutral, and sooner than people realise.

Meanwhile, fresh adventures remain on planet Earth. Next month Branson will join the sea trials off Marseille of Virgins first cruise ship, pitching his lone vessel to once again disrupt a market dominated by two or three big players.

And his optimism remains undimmed. Next time you are in the US, he says, dont just hop over to the Mojave desert to see the Galactic set-up stunning, beautiful rockets but also go and see Hyperloop One the magnetically propelled high-speed transport system being developed with the aim of moving people and things at airline speeds on the ground. Its test track in Nevada could be followed by a full-scale project in India, pending approval: Weve got the first track were building soon, between Mumbai to Pune.

Its definitely going to work.

Bransons businesses

Virgin Atlantic
Launched in 1984, the airline was successful for many years but has struggled recently. Branson cashed in by selling 49% to Singapore Airways for 600m in 1999 and in 2017 he agreed to sell 31% to Air France-KLM.

Virgin Records
The young Branson founded his record label in the early 70s. Its first release was Mike Oldfields global hit LP Tubular Bells. It then signed the Sex Pistols and 80s names such as Culture Club before being sold in 1992 for a reported $1bn.

Virgin Trains
Virgin received more than 300m in dividends during its 22-year operation of the London-Glasgow line. In April, Branson protested when the government refused to approve its partner, Stagecoach, for rail franchise bids. Now the name will vanish from UK rail.

Virgin Money
Branson bought the remnants of Northern Rock in 2011 for 747m and merged it with his financial firm. It was sold last year to the owner of Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks for 1.7bn but will pay to use the Virgin brand.

Virgin Brides
Launched in 1996 with a shot of Branson in a wedding dress, the one-stop marriage shop was the idea of a member of Virgin Atlantics cabin crew. It closed in 2007. Maybe it was the picture that put people off, he said.

Virgin Cola
Branson rammed a tank into a wall of Coke cans in New York in 1998 to launch this venture in the US. But Virgins version offered nothing new and Coke applied pressure to distributors. Branson concluded: Declaring a soft drink war on Coke was madness.

Virgin Vie
In 1997 Branson predicted his cosmetics line would be in 100 high street stores within five years. The venture never took off and in 2009 Virgin paid 8.8m and wrote off 21m of debt for new owners to take over.

Virgin America
Branson launched his domestic US airline in 2007 because flying in the US was awful. It was sold to Alaska Airlines in 2016 for $2.6bn against his wishes. Still, he received about 550m from the sale.

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Elizabeth Warren Unveils a Plan to Expand Broadband Access

Despite decades of work by government agencies and nonprofits, the digital divide remains wide. About 26 percent of Americans in rural areas have no access to home broadband internet, according to a report released by the Federal Communications Commission last May. But broadband is probably even scarcer in rural areas than the reports suggests. The FCC has traditionally considered an entire census block, which can include hundreds or thousands of people, to be served by a broadband provider if that provider offers service to a single home in the block—even if it would cost thousands of dollars for a customer to connect. The agency only changed its reporting requirements this month.

Even where broadband is available, many people can't afford it. According to a Pew Research Center report, 19 percent of people who don't use the internet cited the cost of internet service or the expense of owning a computer as the reason they aren't online.

Wednesday, presidential candidate and senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) unveiled a plan to spend $85 billion to bring internet service to unserved and underserved areas, along with proposals to restore net neutrality and crack down on what she calls "sneaky maneuvers" by broadband providers to increase prices and decrease competition. "I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford," Warren said in a statement. Warren also detailed several other proposals to invest in rural America.

Warren is among the first presidential candidates to inject telecom policy into the campaign. She has issued unusually detailed proposals on other topics, including a plan to break up big tech companies under antitrust laws.

Although Warren calls her plan a "Public Option for Internet," she doesn't propose that the federal government deliver internet access itself. Instead, she wants to provide grants to broadband providers to connect underserved areas. The FCC has already spent billions on programs such as the Connect America Fund and the Universal Service Fund that provide grants to internet providers to offer service in underserved areas. But Warren isn't satisfied with the results of those programs, which often give money to for-profit corporations she says only do the minimum required to receive funds.

Warren would exclude such companies from her grants, which she says will be limited to “electricity and telephone cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, tribes, cities, [and] counties.” A growing number of communities, from small towns like Sandy, Oregon to cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, have built their own publicly owned networks.

Many states have laws that ban or limit municipal broadband services, for example by restricting a municipality's ability to serve other nearby communities. Warren says she will attempt to preempt these sorts of state laws.

Warren proposes creating an Office of Broadband Access within the Department of Economic Development to run the program, and would set aside $5 billion of the $85 billion specifically for tribal nations and expand the FCC's Office of Native Affairs and Policy to provide additional training and funding.

In addition to funding public and nonprofit networks, Warren wants to make the broadband market more competitive. Smaller broadband companies have complained for years that entrenched telcos make it too hard for competitors to string cable along utility poles. To that end, Warren proposes giving cities, rather than individual telcos, control over utility poles, and mandating "dig once" policies that would ensure that broadband conduits are installed as part of all road and highway construction projects. The current Republican-controlled FCC has floated similar ideas.

As for net neutrality, Warren says she will appoint FCC commissioners who will restore the Obama-era regulations banning broadband providers from blocking or otherwise discriminating against lawful content on their networks.

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The $26.5B T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Moves a Big Step Forward

The Justice Department Friday cleared T-Mobile’s long-delayed $26.5 billion merger with Sprint, a deal that critics say will reduce competition for wireless service and lead to higher prices. To win approval, the companies agreed to sell assets to Dish intended to help the company, which now provides satellite TV service, launch a new wireless carrier. The Justice Department blessing clears a major hurdle, but the deal still faces an antitrust suit from 13 states and the District of Columbia that could mean further delays.

If completed, the deal would strengthen T-Mobile’s position as the nation’s third-largest wireless carrier, with almost 114 million subscribers, after accounting for the 9 million Sprint customers that will be transferred to Dish. AT&T is the largest wireless carrier, with 156 million customers, and Verizon is second with 118 million, according to the companies’ most recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Justice Department officials said they approved the deal after they were convinced that the sale of Sprint’s so-called prepaid business, which includes the Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile brands, and portions of Sprint’s wireless spectrum, would help Dish create a viable network. Dish will be required to build a network using wireless spectrum it previously licensed but has not used; it will also get access to at least 20,000 cell sites and “robust” access to T-Mobile’s network for seven years. “We are expanding output significantly by ensuring that large amounts of currently unused or underused spectrum are made available to American consumers in the form of high-quality 5G networks,” Makan Delrahim, head of the department’s antitrust division, said in a statement.

In an earlier agreement with the Federal Communications Commission, T-Mobile and Sprint pledged not to raise prices for three years and to expand rural coverage by building a 5G wireless network that will cover 97 percent of the US population within three years and 99 percent of the country within six years.

But critics said those agreements wouldn’t offset the harm of further consolidation in wireless service. “Allowing T-Mobile to acquire Sprint, and thus reduce the number of nationwide facilities-based wireless competitors from four to three, will result in higher prices for consumers and the reduced ability of consumers travelling through rural areas to access mobile wireless service,” the Rural Wireless Association, a trade group of small rural carriers, said in a statement. Expecting Dish to build a credible rival to the three big wireless carriers “spells disaster for American consumers.”

In a statement, former FCC attorney Gigi Sohn, who testified against the deal before Congress, said the merger conditions are weak and unenforceable. "The state AGs who sued to block the merger shouldn’t be fooled by this weak attempt to maintain competition in the mobile wireless market," she said.

Those state attorneys general argue that any benefits created by the merger would be offset by reduced competition. In announcing the lawsuit last month, New York attorney general Letitia James called the deal “exactly the sort of consumer-harming, job-killing megamerger our antitrust laws were designed to prevent."

Under the deal, Dish would buy Sprint's prepaid brands for $1.4 billion and pay $3.6 billion for some of T-Mobile and Sprint's wireless spectrum licenses. The prepaid brands primarily resell access to other companies’ networks.

Dish has long promised to build a mobile network of its own using the spectrum it already controls, but it hasn’t done so. The deal with T-Mobile and Sprint would provide Dish with licenses for parts of the "low-band" range of the wireless spectrum, where signals are able to travel long distances, making it easier to blanket large areas with wireless coverage. The company already owns licenses for spectrum in the "mid-band" spectrum that carriers say will be crucial for next-generation 5G networks.

The Obama-era FCC blocked an earlier attempt by the two companies to merge in 2014, but the carriers found more sympathy from both major political parties this time around. The companies announced the new deal in April 2018. Earlier this year, seven congressional Democrats and six Republicans sent a letter to the FCC and the Justice Department supporting the merger, arguing that the combined company would be able to deploy 5G more quickly than the two companies could independently. T-Mobile also hired former FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, to advise the company on the deal.

If the merger is completed, T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom will own 42 percent of the new company, and T-Mobile CEO John Legere will serve as CEO. SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate that acquired Sprint in 2013, will own 27 percent, and the remaining 31 percent will be held by the public.

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Prime Day: activists protest against Amazon in cities across US

Immigrants and workers say e-commerce giant should cut ties with federal deportation agencies and improve working conditions

Activists, immigrants and Amazon employees demonstrated against the e-commerce giant on its annual Prime Day, protesting against its labor practices and its involvement with US authorities deportation efforts.

The protests on Monday began in seven US cities, coinciding with the yearly sale that made the company more than $4bn in 2018.

Activists say Amazon should not be profiting off the yearly sale event while its workers struggle for better work conditions and its technology is being used to deport immigrants.

Protesters deliveredto Jeff Bezoss home in Manhattan on Monday 250,000 petitions calling on Amazon to cut ties with government agencies responsible for deportation. Protests will also take place in Seattle and San Francisco.

Amazon Web Services hosts Department of Homeland Security databases that allow the department and its agencies to track and apprehend immigrants. The company is also in talks to expand a partnership to host new DHS biometric databases that store more extensive data, including eye color, tattoos and other identifiers.

A spokesman from Amazon Web Services told the Guardian the company has offered legislative suggestions regarding responsible use of artificial intelligence and requested more clarity surrounding its potential misuse. In February 2019, Amazon proposed guidelines for facial recognition technology.

As weve said many times and continue to believe strongly, companies and government organizations need to use existing and new technology responsibly and lawfully, he said.

Manoli Figetakis (@MFigetakis)

Reporting live from the Amazon protest.

July 15, 2019

Prime Day launched in 2015 to celebrate the companys 20th anniversary and has grown into an increasingly profitable two-day event as Amazons reach expanded. Amazon is now worth more than $1tn and its founder, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world with a net worth of more than $120bn.

The expanding power of Amazon has led to increased scrutiny of worker conditions, as fulfillment center employees complain of long hours with few bathroom breaks and unpaid labor. Amazon increased its minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018, but workers say the company should provide more resources and ease production quotas.

In addition to the immigration-related protests against Amazon, warehouse workers plan to walk out of the companys fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, for six hours on Monday to demand better working conditions.

White-collar tech workers at Amazon traveled to Minnesota in solidarity with the warehouse workers, a number of employees who organize as part of a working group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice said.

Lending our support to our co-workers in [Minnesota] is a natural part of our climate justice priorities, the group said. We cannot create a sustainable, long-term approach to addressing the climate crisis without addressing the structural, racial and economic inequities that are part of our system of extraction of energy, material, and human labor that has caused the crisis.

On Thursday, hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the annual Amazon Web Services summit in New York , demanding the tech firm cut ties with government agencies that take part in immigrant deportations.

Boycotting Amazon is not enough we must demand this corporation change the ways in which it is functioning in our country and in the world, said Maritza Silva-Farrell, the executive director at New York City-based labor and social justice organization Align, adding that the actions are especially important as Amazon faces federal antitrust action, testifying in Congress about whether its size and power prevents fair competition in the technology industry. Consumers have a very important role to play here.

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Are Rare Earths the Next Pawn in the US-China Trade War?

Since the Trump administration blocked sales by US companies to Chinese telecom giant Huawei last month, the world has waited for Beijing to retaliate.

Previously, the trade conflict between the US and China centered on escalating tariffs. While tariffs make things more expensive; they don't cut off supplies entirely. But when the US Department of Commerce effectively forbade US companies from providing US-made technologies, including chips and crucial software like the Google Play app store, to Huawei, it was a major blow to one of China's highest-profile companies.

One possible arena for retaliation, in the minds of analysts: rare earth elements. China is the leading producer and processor of rare earths, with about 37 percent of the world's reserves, according to a US Geological Survey report. The substances are used in a wide range of products including smartphones, airplanes, and medical devices, as well as military gear such as stealth technologies, radar, and night vision goggles. Neodymium, for example, is used to make magnets found in smartphone speakers and haptic feedback devices, while terbium is used to make solid state hard drives.

There’s not a lot of money in the rare earth trade. The Geologic Survey report put the value of US imports at $160 million in 2018. But their key role in many products means China could strike a blow against the US without great harm to its own economy. "From a purely dollar standpoint, these exports don't generate a lot of revenue, so Beijing might be calculating that they could do some harm to the US economy," says Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow at the think tank Center for a New American Security.

To drive home the possibility, Chinese President Xi Jinping last month toured a rare earth processing facility. A few days later, the People’s Daily, the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, floated the idea of an export ban. Such a ban “would cause significant economic pain [to the US], and be an acute national security threat as well," Rasser says. A Commerce Department report earlier this month included rare earths on a list of materials considered critical to the US economy and national security.

It's possible that China wouldn’t go so far as to cut off supplies entirely. "China would lose revenue, and their reputation as a global supplier would be severely tarnished," Rasser adds. But as the trade conflict wears on, the possibility for more drastic retaliation from Beijing increases.

The US has a limited supply of rare earths, about 1 percent of the world's reserves, according to the Geologic Survey. There is a rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, California, in the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas. There also are mines in Australia, Burundi, and Myanmar. Brazil, India, Russia, and Vietnam all have large reserves.

But nearly all the rare earths used in products that reach the US are processed in China, including ore mined in Mountain Pass. So while US companies might be able to diversify their sources of rare earths in the long term, in the short run the US will remain dependent on China.

Ores containing these rare earths typically contain radioactive material like thorium. To be useful for industrial purposes, rare earths must be isolated from raw ore through a complex chemical process that leaves behind radioactive waste. "Other countries have been fairly happy to let China take on all that processing," Rasser says. "It's a dirty business."

One of the few rare earth processing facilities outside of China is the Australian owned Lynas Advanced Materials Plant in Malaysia. The facility has long been controversial, though the Malaysian government recently said it will renew Lynas' license to operate. A prior processing facility shuttered in 1992 due to health and environmental concerns.

The US has been preparing for the possibility of a rare earth export ban since at least 2010, when China reduced rare earth exports. China eased restrictions in 2012, after the World Trade Organization agreed to hear a complaint filed by the US. China dropped export limits for rare earths in 2015.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2017 instructing federal agencies to ensure the availability of critical minerals such as rare earth elements. This month’s Commerce Department report suggested a few ways to do that, including recycling rare earths and other materials, developing alternatives, diversifying supply chains, and increasing mining on federal lands. Rasser believes developing synthetic substitutes would, if possible, be the best way to go.

But independence from China remains years away. Mountain Pass plans to open its own processing plant next year, but it won't be close to fulfilling US needs for quite some time. Any other new plant, such as one proposed by Lynas in Texas, would also take years to prepare.

That's a problem even though America has stockpiles of some critical minerals. "If an export ban lasted long enough, you'd get to the point where you'd have to decide to stop production of certain items," Rasser says. "Pretty soon the US government would have to start making some decisions about how to distribute these materials to be able to produce certain things."

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How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through ‘charitable giving’

The Mobil Foundation funded universities and civic groups in the 90s, documents reveal, but largesse was not disinterested

A two-foot-wide pipe connecting the Mobil oil companys Idoho offshore platform to a terminal near Nigerias eastern border ruptured in January 1998, spewing crude oil directly into the Atlantic Ocean.

Dr David Page visited Nigeria after the spill and offered his views of its impact to the New York Times, which were published in special report dated 20 September that year. Pages arrival on the scene was anticipated years earlier in Mobils plans, internal Mobil Foundation documents newly obtained by the Guardian reveal.

Between Mother Nature and Mobils highly effective and targeted response, the shoreline was spared what could have been a very serious environmental event, Page, described as a Bowdoin College professor and an American oil spill expert, told the New York Times.

Im not an attorney, Page continued, but its fair to say that because so little oil got ashore, Id be very surprised if fishermens livelihoods were cut off.

Others found the spill far more significant, however. It proved to be one of the largest in Nigerian history by the gallon, one-sixth the size of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe. Roughly 1 million people lived in areas Human Rights Watch later listed as the worst hit by the spill. Crude reached as far as Lagos harbor, over 500 miles away.

Mobil collected oil-clogged nets from fishermen and burned them, offering in exchange sums locals said were a fraction of replacement costs. Legal battles, protests and unrest continued for two decades.

Five years before the spill, the Mobil Foundation, run by top Mobil executives, had named Page in its decision to continue funding Bowdoin Colleges Marine Research Laboratory writing that a proposed $10,000 grant for the lab could help assure rapid response to any possible Mobil spill events.

Drs [Edward] Gilfillan and Page are our most valuable marine pollution contacts outside the industry, Mobil Foundation wrote in the documents, adding that the lab had already received $132,000 from Mobil from 1986 to 1993, and that the lab maintained a healthy attitude toward the oil industrys requirements for transportation and storage of petroleum on the worlds waters.

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The foundation had listed Nigeria as one of four areas worldwide where Pages work on mangrove swamps could prove useful, especially when it came to litigation concerning environmental damage.

In an email response to the Guardians questions about Mobil Foundation funding for Bowdoin, Page said: At no time was there an expectation of a quid pro quo in any form. It was a philanthropic activity in an area of interest to Mobil.

He said the grants went towards funding summer research student placements.

In the case of the 1998 IDOHO spill, Mobil asked us to work with a group of Nigerian academic and non-academic professionals to share our experience and help them conduct a post-spill impact study that would meet international standards, he wrote.

Shaping regulations

Nigeria was not the only place Mobil reaped benefits its tax-exempt foundation sought to claim from its charitable giving, according to previously undisclosed internal documents from the early 1990s.

The Mobil Foundation also sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, the documents show.

Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.

Benefits for Mobil included in the foundations words funding a counterpoint to so-called public interest groups, helping Mobil obtain early access to scientific research, and offering the oil giants executives a forum to challenge EPA behind-the-scenes.

The documents, which include research, engineering and environmental affairs grant recommendations for 1994, cover over 120 proposals worth about $1.2m roughly 10% of the foundations total budget that year and list more than 700 grants from prior years.

Dozens of the single-page grant recommendations include full paragraphs on the benefits to Mobil that Mobil executives predicted the company could cull from the foundations gifts.

Each recommendation offers an unprecedented window into Mobils internal reasoning.

One page lists $100,000 in grants from 1990-1993 for the HarvardSchool of Public Healths Center for Risk Analysis. The centers director, John Graham, has been effective in pointing out the safety risks associated with excessively stringent fuel economy standards, Mobil Foundation wrote as it proposed more funding. Graham had previously published a 1992 report titled The Safety Risks of Proposed Fuel Economy Legislation which made no mention of Mobils funding for the Harvard-based center.

Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999, creating the worlds largest publicly traded oil company. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

Another page reveals the former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assistant administrator John Moore sought out grants from Mobil and at least seven other large corporations for the Institute for Evaluating Health Risks, where Moore served as president and chief executive officer.

Mobil gave $40,000 to help the newly formed institute staff up and demonstrate its effectiveness. Mobil Foundation recommended more for 1994, writing that Moores work offered a way ultimately to influence the development of more cost-effective [environmental, health and safety] regulations.

A third page reveals Mobil Foundations efforts to expand its audience inside environmental circles via a grant for the Environmental Law Institute, a half-century-old organization offering environmental law research and education to lawyers and judges.

Institute publications are widely read in the environmental community and are helpful in communicating industrys concerns to such organizations, the entry says. Mobil Foundation grants will enhance environmental organizations views of Mobil, enable us to reach through ELI activities many groups that we do not communicate with, and enable Mobil to participate in their dialogue groups.

A wake-up call

The documents also show Mobil Foundation closely examining the work of individual researchers at dozens of colleges and universities as they made their funding decisions, listing ways that foundation grants would help shape research interests to benefit Mobil, help the company recruit future employees, or help combat environmental and safety regulations that Mobil considered costly.

It should be a wake-up call for university leaders, because what it says is that fossil fuel funding is not free, said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT.

When you take it, you pay with your universitys social license, Supran said. You pay by helping facilitate these companies political and public relations tactics.

In some cases, the foundation described how volunteer-staffed not-for-profits had saved Mobil money by doing work that would have otherwise been performed by Mobils paid staff, like cleaning birds coated in oil following a Mobil spill.

In 1987, the International Bird Rescue Research Centers rapid response and assistance to Mobils West Coast pipeline at a spill in Lebec, CA not only defused a potential public relations problem, Mobil Foundation said, but saved substantial costs by not requiring our department to fly cross country to respond.

If Mobil classified donations as charitable contributions but it actually received valuable services as a result of its gifts, that could raise concerns about illegal self-dealing, tax experts told the Guardian.

The benefits to Mobil paragraphs struck Marcus Owens, a Loeb & Loeb attorney who served for 10 years as the director of the exempt organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service, as out of the ordinary.

Ive looked at all kinds of grant files in my career, both wearing an IRS hat and in my private practice, he said, and Ive never seen that. The reason is because, even if it isnt an act of self-dealing, it sure smells like it.

Its like a red flag, he added, a blinking red siren light.

The IRS had little institutional capacity to investigate self-dealing by private foundations, Owens said, citing a lack of IRS enforcement staff focused on not-for-profits.

The IRS today, he added, has less ability to investigate than it did in the 1990s, when there were at times special audit programs looking at foundations.

An IRS representative declined to comment on the bureaus investigation capacity.

Tax benefits

Mobil might have been able to claim similar tax benefits by signing contracts for services with some of the not-for-profits they funded and listing the expense as a business deduction, tax experts told the Guardian but not-for-profits on the other side of those deals might have faced their own ethical, tax or legal questions if they took payment for the services Mobil sought.

In addition, by offering funding through the Mobil Foundation, Mobil created the impression that the grants were made at arms length and explicitly not for the companys private benefit.

Publicly available disclosures shed little light on Mobils motives for funding and outwardly similar grants could appear very different from inside the foundation.

The Mobil Foundations tax filings for 1994 the only information Mobil would generally have been required to make public list a $25,000 civic grant for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

The newly uncovered documents reveal the foundation had separately considered two distinct donations to the academy.

One $10,000 grant was for environmental research and science education programs, listing special employee nights at the museum among the Benefits to Mobil Foundation, Inc.

A second $15,000 grant was directed at the Academys Environmental Associates Program, founded by a pioneering scientist, Dr Ruth Patrick, who got her start at the academy in 1933, taught generations of scientists during three decades at the University of Pennsylvania, and helped to draft the Clean Water Act.

Based on the contacts of the Academy, the Mobil Foundation wrote as it recommended that larger grant, the Environmental Associates Program has the potential to challenge the EPA behind-the-scenes on the effectiveness of a regulation for the environment and whether sound science supports the proposed law.

Another $15,000 grant for the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is listed under Health Agencies in the Mobil Foundations 1994 tax filing. Mobil Foundations internal documents reveal concern over regulation motivated its grant-makers.

ACSH promotes rational understanding of the relative minor risks from most industrial chemicals compared with those accepted as normal from natural causes, the Mobil Foundation wrote as it recommended a $15,000 grant for 1994, adding that the proposed grant had the support of Mobils medical and public relations departments.

One of the major benefits is due to the Executive Director, Dr Elizabeth Whelan, an articulate spokesperson who often appears as a counterpoint to so-called public interest groups.

The statute of limitations for any tax code violations from the 1980s and 90s is probably long expired, tax experts said. The IRS approved Mobil Foundations merger into the ExxonMobil Foundation in 2001, after Mobil Corp joined with Exxon to form the worlds largest publicly traded oil company.

ExxonMobil is currently facing investigations or lawsuits by multiple state attorneys general, related to claims the oil giant failed to communicate known climate change-related risks to investors and the public.

Mobil and climate change

While much attention has focused on what Exxon knew about climate change before the two companies merged, the records reveal Mobils growing alarm about climate change in the early 1990s.

From 1991 to 1993, Mobil gave $75,000 to Columbia Universitys Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, famed for its climate change research, and recommended an additional $25,000 for 1994 so employees could develop personal relationships with some of the key experts on what Mobil predicted would be the key international environmental issue of the 1990s.

While there currently are no regulations limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, such regulations are a real possibility within the next five years, the grant recommendation adds. Technical information and understanding will be key to Mobils ability to participate in the debate on these regulations.

A Mobil vice-president named John J Wise signed the approvals for that recommendation, along with about $1.2m in other grants for the year.

Within roughly five years, Wise counted himself both a member of the board of trustees at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (recipient of listed donations totalling over $200,000 from Mobil) and a part of UN efforts to study climate change.

Wise ultimately co-authored two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, serving as a lead author on one. One report chapter Wise co-authored prominently recommended, among other things, burning natural gas (an ExxonMobil product) instead of coal as a way to combat climate change.

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Avengers: Endgame breaks global box-office record in opening weekend

Disneys film is on track to overtake Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time

Disneys latest Avengers film has smashed box-office records on its opening weekend taking $1.2bn (1bn) and is on track to overtake Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time.

Avengers: Endgame took a record $350m in the worlds biggest movie market, North America, smashed records for a foreign film in China, and grossed more than any other film on its opening weekend globally.

The star-studded film is the first to take more than $1bn on its debut. Avatar, released in 2009, currently holds the record for highest-grossing film with $2.79bn worldwide. At the very least, Avengers: Endgame will almost certainly surpass Titanic, the 1997 blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, which ranks as the second biggest film of all time, taking $2.19bn globally.

The success of the film is a timely reminder that Disneys upcoming streaming service, Disney+, has the content firepower to challenge global market leader Netflix despite its late entry. Avengers: Endgame is one of many golden properties that will debut exclusively on the service, which launches later this year, before being released elsewhere. Disney has already pulled all of its content from Netflix in the US, ahead of a likely global pullout, costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing revenue in order to make its service a must-buy. In the US, subscriptions to Disney+ will be priced at $6.99 a month, just over half the monthly cost of Netflix, with a global rollout beginning next year.

The success of Avengers: Endgame is the culmination of 21 films in the Marvel superhero universe that started with Robert Downey Jrs Iron Man in 2008. Disney acquired Marvel in 2009 for $4bn, an acquisition criticised at the time as too highly priced, given that Marvel had licensed off a number of its then-major franchises, such as Spider-Man and X-Men, when the company was cash-strapped in the 1990s.

The success of the film is a reminder that movie-going remains hugely important, even in the much-hyped on-demand era, with the UK last year enjoying its best cinema attendance since 1971.

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