Internet from Heaven
A new series about the promise and perils of starlink and planetary-scale internet service providers
A new year, a new brand! The Free-Range Technology is now Prof C Explains! I hope this description will better fit what this newsletter is all about!
Our tiny blue planet is quickly being encased in layers of fast-flying, low-earth orbiting satellites in an effort to provide Internet access to earth’s three billion unconnected and slowly connected inhabitants. These efforts are backed by billionaires, fueled by their egos, and shaped by their vision for humanity’s future. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos are leading the way in deploying constellations of internet-delivering satellites. At the same time, governments (Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia) have announced plans to follow suit.
While the Internet delivered by satellite is not new, it previously has been expensive, slow, and unable to support real-time applications. In the 90s, Motorola's Iridium network was the first commercial service to use constellations of fast-moving low-earth-orbit satellites to deliver voice and data services. The basic technology is sound, and today's mega constellations can provide high-speed, redundant connectivity even in the world's remotest places. These satellite constellations may eventually contain forty to fifty thousand satellites each. Soon hundreds of thousands of satellites may be flying over our heads, all competing to provide data services to the inhabitants of our little blue planet.
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And the world needs that access and needs it quickly. Pre-covid, the World Economic Forum estimated that a ten percent increase in basic internet access added 1.2 percentage points to a developing country's per capita GDP growth. Furthermore, a ten percent increase in broadband access was associated with a 1.4 percent increase in per capita GDP growth. In the modern world, both personal and national economic growth now depends on broadband access.
Covid certainly turned up the contrast on the digital divide. The difference between those who can Zoom and those who can't is the difference between those who can complete a degree and those who can't, those who can sell their services online and those who can't, and those who can access medical information and those who can't. Those on the wrong side of the digital divide may be forever locked out of the opportunity to improve their lot.
Broadband access is a requirement for economic development and education, and many can't wait until the land-based infrastructure is developed in their country. Even in the United States, where the internet was invented, not everyone has access to the internet or access to broadband. A study from the Pew Research Center found that in the US, about 80 percent of people in metro or suburbs have broadband access, compared with only two-thirds of people living in rural areas.
All the locations that are easy (and profitable) to connect to the internet have already been connected. Connecting the remaining households and communities will take enormous resources. Resources that most companies will be unwilling to expend to reach the last of the unconnected families. Unlike analog phone service, aka land lines, no regulatory framework in the US will ensure that everyone in the country has access to broadband.
And in the areas that are connected, more competition is needed. Many internet providers commonly charge "monopoly rents" when they are the only game in town. For example, one study found that Charter Communications provides 400Mbps service for $70/month on a street where Charter is the only broadband provider. But a few streets away, where there is competition, Charter's rates drop precipitously to $30/month for the same 400Mbps service. Internet-delivered by a satellite constellation can challenge service providers worldwide and bring down the costs for everyone.
Borderless, unfiltered broadband has the potential to lift all boats, turning on the Internet switch for billions, lowering costs, and delivering access to new opportunities and connections. The potential for planetary-scale ISPs to drive much-needed economic growth in the world's poorest countries is enormous, but these systems also introduce a new set of questions and challenges.
Planetary-scale ISPs are not just one more ISP competing for subscribers. They are something new: ISPs with worldwide coverage whose services area is not defined by national borders. The regulatory bodies and frameworks set up to deal with terrestrial internet access are not prepared to deal with issues of internet access, content moderation, and network neutrality on a global scale, yet these issues now have global consequences. The agencies overseeing satellite operators must prepare to deal with the implications of 60,000 or more satellites in low earth orbit (LEO). Technology is once again getting ahead of policy.
Once these networks are up and running—filling our skies with technology and delivering data to our screens—it will be hard, if not impossible, to make a new plan for implementing this technology.
The companies that can launch their systems and provide data services first may see enormous profits, while the rest of us may pay the price. That price might be an end to ground-based astronomy, or the lives of citizens in NATO countries under the threat of attack from Russia as a retaliation for the west providing this new type of internet access to Ukraine.
As with any new technology, there will undoubtedly be consequences (good and bad) that we can't anticipate, but enough is known already to take action. We must get this right as the future of humanity will be determined by how we operate on the internet and how we operate in space.
A Note About Starlink and Elon Musk
Throughout this series, I will reference technology and situations that involve SpaceX's Starlink service. I do so not because Starlink is a particularly good or bad service or has a lock on the technology involved in delivering high-speed services from low earth orbit. However, they are the first mover in developing the next generation of mega-constellations in LEO and the first Planetary ISP to market their data services to consumers around the globe. Starlink has over
2,600 3,000 3,500 satellites deployed and a launch cadence that will double that capacity in the next year. Over half a million people subscribe to the Starlink service. The completed Starlink network may involve anywhere from 12,000 to 42,000 satellites, depending on FCC approvals.
SpaceX's founder, Elon Musk, is also mentioned often1. Again, this is not only because of the situations in which he often finds himself or inserts himself but because he is the first to deal with the political and societal issues of owning a Planetary ISP.2 While Musk does seem to have a talent for providing the most extreme cases—a billionaire owner of a rocket company, a global satellite network, a car company with business interests throughout the globe, and most recently, the sole owner of a social media company—the conflicts and conditions could apply to any owner, business, or country.
Elon Musk’s Sprawling Business Interests
Elon Musk's business interests are a complex mixture of interests with large scale geopolitical and societal impact.
Neuralink: Neurotechnology company, developing implantable brain–computer interfaces and neuroprosthetics.
OpenAI: Artificial intelligence (AI) research organization with two-parts a for-profit corporation and a non-profit organization
Space X: Spacecraft maker providing commercial payload launching services for private companies and governmental agencies.
Starlink: A division of SpaceX that operates a networks of over 3,500 satellites in low earth orbit, which provides data services to consumers, businesses and governments.
The Boring Company: Tunnel construction company, largely dormant with one operational tunnel operating in the US.
Telsa: Electric car manufacturer with manufacturing and sells around the globe. For a time, was one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Twitter: Microblogging service acquired by Musk for $44 billion in the largest leveraged buyout in history.
Musk Foundation: Non-profit foundation to help with solar research, space exploration, and the development of artificial intelligence.
Musk’s current involvement in twitter shows some of the issues with having one person wield so much control over what people can access. For example, Twitter’s recent banning of a BBC documentary that was critical of Indian PM Modi.
The Posts Ahead
In next week’s post, we leave our mortal coil for the new horizons of space, looking at geosynchronous and low earth orbit satellites and the evolution of the LEO satellite constellations that can function as a global network. And then examines the technology and features of earth's first mega constellation, Starlink, and its applications. We'll look at some of the use cases besides internet access that Planetary ISPs provide.
Subsequent posts will cover
The issues arising from having tens of thousands of devices flying around the earth. Space is vast, and satellites are small, but you can't put thousands of them into orbit without issues, especially since these devices travel at ~17,000 miles per hour. They cover a lot of distance in a couple of seconds. These devices' physicality complicates space traffic, space debris, and the impact on ground-based astronomy/night sky viewing. The radio emissions from these devices create other problems as well.
How the dynamics of regulations and governance change when one private ISP operates globally. While the FCC, the International Telecommunication Union, and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs deal with many other space operations issues, neither is equipped to deal with ISP-related concerns such as network neutrality. This chapter will explain current satellite operations and internet issues, what regulations these global ISPs might be subject to, and the enormous gaps in governance for this new type of internet. Note: a list of the agency and technical abbreviations can be found in the footnotes.3
The geopolitical consequences of Planetary ISPs. Will these new connections get past the filtering and Internet kill switches installed by dictators since the Arab spring over a decade ago? Or get past the great firewall of China? And if so, what action will these governments take against Planetary ISPs or their countries of origin? SpaceX's CEO, Elon Musk, and investors are also heavily invested in Tesla, which has big plans in China and India, both of which restrict internet use. Will Starlink bow to the Internet filtering wishes of those governments so Tesla can sell its cars there?
I will wrap up this discussion about of this new technology with my observations, recommendations, opinions, and ideas about this new type of internet. I look at our possible futures as these systems develop and who should be in control of deciding out future in space and on the Internet.
Continue the Conversation
Please join the conversation in the Substack chat (linked below), by commenting, or simply replying to this email. I would love to hear your thoughts.
There are several book that profile Mr. Musk or describe the development of his companies. I would recommend starting with these three.
Elon Musk owns a majority stake in SpaceX but doesn't oversee the day-to-day operations. Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer (CEO), fills that role. Musk works on engineering at SpaceX ("chief designer" is his current title at SpaceX). Many have credited Shotwell with SpaceX's commercial success.
AOL: America OnLine
AI: Artificial Intelligence
CNSA: China National Space Administration
CSA: Canadian Space Agency
DNS: Domain Name Service
ESA: European Space Agency
EU: European Union
FAA: Federal Aviation Administration
FCC: Federal Communications Commission
GEO: Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit
IADC: Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee
ICANN: Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
ICT: Information and Communication Technologies
IP: Internet Protocol
ISP: Internet Service Provider
ISRO: Indian Space Research Organization
ISS: International Space Station
ITU: International Telecommunication Union
LEO: Low Earth Orbit
MEO: Medium Earth Orbit
NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NEPA: National Environmental Policy Act
NTIA: National Telecommunications and Information Administration
ODPO: Orbital Debris Program Office (part of NASA)
OSMA: Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (part of NASA)
POTS: Plain Old Telephone Service
ROSCOSMOS: Russian State Space Corporation
RV: Recreational Vehicle
SSAU: State Space Agency of Ukraine
TCP: Transmission Control Protocol
UNOOSA: United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs
UN: United Nations
US: United States
VTVL: Vertical Take-off, Vertical Landing