The issue of inequality is what convinced me it was time to write something about retail LEO satellite constellations. As things currently stand, there are only two retail, direct-to-consumer LEO constellations: Starlink and Project Kuiper (a similar project funded by Jeff Bezos). Project Kuiper is at a much earlier stage but it has the same aspirations. It is surely no coincidence that these two projects are funded by the 2nd and 3rd wealthiest people on the planet. These retail constellations represent the end-game of globalisation and capitalism. It is a global internet service provider that invests as little as possible in the countries it operates in. When you connect that Starlink dish, it is not just data beaming up into the sky, it is cold hard cash. SpaceX executives have made it clear that they see Starlink as a cash cow to fund missions to Mars. You can think of every Starlink terminal as beaming dollars up into the sky and down into Elon Musk’s pocket. That is perhaps a slightly hyperbolic description. Starlink customers do have to pay national goods and service taxes on their internet service but the point stands that Starlink invests as little as possible in the countries they operate in.
More and more economists are calling for strategies that create thriving local economies with strong local, circular flows of goods and services. Starlink is almost the antithesis of this. This takes us back to Kentaro Toyama's quotation in part I of this piece about the way that technology can amplify inequality. Let us imagine a rural town in which existing inequalities dictate that there are only 10-20 people out of a few thousand people with enough resources to pay for a Starlink terminal and its monthly fee. As Starlink becomes available, they eagerly sign up, readily paying any additional shipping fees or surcharges. As happy Starlink customers, they may or may not share access with others in the town but whatever sharing there is will be limited by WiFi access. You may think, well, that’s still a net positive. Starlink has provided access to some. But here’s the rub. Starlink has also effectively silenced those who might be the loudest voices agitating for the government to extend high-speed broadband infrastructure to their entire community As a global retail ISP, Starlink celebrates individualism and libertarianism.
In Rwanda, the government announced that they would offer Starlink connections to 50 schools. Mozambique has gone a step further in announcing Starlink connections for 300 schools. By targeting only schools, they miss the opportunity to address connectivity holistically for communities. It is a curious fact that 97% of the Rwandan population live within 25km of a fibre optic point of presence. By extending fibre optic infrastructure into the communities in which these schools are located, the government could leverage existing infrastructure and build a more sustainable, inclusive, longer term solution.
The impact of Starlink is worse than just celebrating individualism. To understand why, I turn to Tony Atkinson, an economist and pioneer in the study of inequality and poverty. In his book, Inequality — What can be done?, he makes 15 proposals to address inequality. His very first proposal addresses the issue of technological change. He says:
Proposal 1: The direction of technological change should be an explicit concern of policy-makers, encouraging innovation in a form that increases the employability of workers and emphasises the human dimension of service provision.
–Tony Atkinson, 15 Proposals
Technologies can work to make peoples’ lives better or they can work to undermine people by enabling the concentration of power and wealth. We have choices when it comes to technology and need to think about the “how” as well as the “what” when it comes to internet technologies. Outside an internet connection, Starlink creates no local value. Starlink terminals are designed to be plug-and-play requiring no technical assistance to set up. At first glance, this seems like a wonderful feature. However, consider the employment lost to equipment installers and also the stepping stone that being an installer might be to more challenging jobs. Similarly, the Starlink terminal is a black box. There are absolutely no user serviceable parts, thus no local repair industry. The internet should not be a black box. Internet technologies should be easy to use but should also offer the ability to pry back the lid and understand how they work. They should fit into a complementary ecosystem of access technologies and feed skills development and complementary economics.
We can contrast this with fibre optic technology which has unlocked several companion industries from civil works companies that dig trenches to technicians who splice fibre in the field, to the actual manufacture of fibre optic cable on the continent. There is a whole ecosystem of complementary businesses that work together to create local employment and wealth. Starlink by contrast is the ultimate extractive technology. It is technological colonialism at its worst.
What About National Sovereignty?
Last but not least, we can wonder at the fact that Starlink is allowed to fill the heavens with orbiting satellites that pass over every country on Earth, without those countries having any input into the process. There are now more Starlink satellites in orbit than all other satellites put together. In the absence of any kind of effective regulatory framework, it is a first-come, first-served environment in space. Starlink clearly hopes to create a de facto regulatory framework just by being there, in the spirit that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
In the world of radio spectrum management, every country is sovereign when it comes to the airwaves in the skies above their countries. As members of the International Telecommunications Union, a treaty organisation that brokers agreements among countries on radio spectrum use, countries typically don’t act unilaterally when it comes to radio spectrum but they can. The airwaves belong to them.
National sovereignty and space is not a new issue. In 1976, a number of equatorial states attempted to assert sovereignty over the geostationary orbits of satellites over their countries. The Bogotá Declaration, as it is known, asserted the right of “peoples and of nations to permanent sovereignty over their wealth and natural resources” and that they considered “geostationary orbit to be an integral part of their sovereign territory”. The Bogota Declaration was a response to the Outer Space Treaty developed nearly a decade earlier which declared that space should be freely explored and used by all nations. Ultimately the declaration was not successful but it brought to light the complex issue of equitable access to and use of space. Currently only 10 countries and one intergovernmental organisation have the capacity to launch rockets into space. This is a significant qualifier to the notion that space should be free to all. As a scarce resource, the limited number of orbital slots has been dominated by those with first-mover advantage.
Fast forward to today and a similar situation is emerging for LEO satellites. While there are no allocated slots for LEO constellations, “heavy use of certain orbital regions might also result in a de facto exclusion of other actors from them, violating the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.”
Massive retail LEO constellations may simply not be viable. They need thousands and thousands of satellites in their constellations to be able to deliver broadband to individual customers and to keep the cost of their satellite terminals low. The cost of maintaining such large constellations requires vast amounts of capital and it is not clear that the retail markets for this service are large enough to sustain one, let alone two massive global retail LEO constellations.
Even if they are sustainable, they are simply not desirable. They will selectively provide service in remote areas, taking the pressure off governments to provide truly pervasive broadband solutions in remote areas.
These megaconstellations are likely to create de facto exclusion for all but the wealthiest countries to participate in broadband satellite constellations.
They are economically lopsided, extracting value without contributing to local economies. Starlink will not even invest in ground stations in countries where they don’t see enough revenue, which undermines the much vaunted low-latency advantage.
We need to talk about space and its regulation. The 1960s saw a time of internationalisation in space, a view of it as a shared resource for all. We can still get back there but not if Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos establish de facto rules simply by occupying that territory.
I am grateful to Carlos Rey-Moreno, Peter Bloom, Adriana Labardini, and Katherine Barrett for invaluable feedback on the original draft. All errors and underlying assumptions remain my own. This article presents my personal perspective and does not represent the views of Mozilla or APC.
Image: Starlink by Adam Zolyak via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)