How to Break Orbit: Out of This World Ideas to Bridge the Digital Divide
The 2018 census reported that 15 percent of Americans still lacked access to a broadband internet subscription. The digital divide remains significant, with approximately 14.5 million people in the United States living in areas without access to broadband. But companies are innovating new technologies to connect areas where traditional fiber lines cannot go, either due to geography or cost. Several new technologies seek to upend our conventional understanding of broadband, which could bring service to millions currently unserved.
One innovative approach to bridging the digital divide involves low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites. These small satellites typically orbit the earth below 2,000 KM, moving in sync with the earth. Coverage is limited due to their short range, so a dense network of satellites is needed to ensure that users can always be covered by at least one satellite. By removing our dependence on hard wired fiber optics, LEO satellites can bring broadband to areas that were previously unserviceable. In an extreme use case, SpaceX was able to deploy terminals to war-torn Ukraine to help those in besieged areas remain connected. These networks require a large upfront cost to set up the necessary terminals to connect users to the satellites, but as the technology evolves and competition develops in the market, prices will drop and coverage will improve.
SpaceX is currently leading the race for LEO satellite broadband, with 2,547 satellites already in orbit and a plan to release another 30,000 satellites. This is five times the number of objects currently in orbit around Earth. The astronomic community raised a number of concerns about the overall scope of the project, citing worries about the impact on orbit tracking (estimating where satellites are in earth’s orbit); light pollution; interference with other satellites; and degraded images from the Hubble telescope. NASA also raised concerns about the potential impact on spaceflight missions and the risk of collisions.
But with such a massive constellation, there is a significant concern over growing space debris as our upper atmosphere becomes littered with countless satellites that may be hard to bring back down from orbit. Currently the European Space Agency (ESA) estimates the total mass of all space objects in Earth orbit weigh more than 9,600 tons. The ESA estimates that roughly 13,320 satellites have been launched into space, with about 6,000 currently functioning.
Competition is critical to the connected space race, with a number of players including Amazon and OneWeb working to deploy their own satellite constellations. OneWeb is even using SpaceX rockets to deploy its satellites. Amazon has secured a number of launches to deploy its constellation of approximately 3,000 satellites and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently reviewing the application for the second-generation SpaceX constellation. For satellite broadband to be successful, it is imperative that there is robust competition in the marketplace. Having multiple entities offering satellite broadband gives consumers options and lowers costs. The FCC needs to ensure that future deployments are authorized with a fair approach that gives new entrants equal opportunities to compete for orbital paths and spectrum. Allowing one provider to crowd our orbit with a massive constellation could make it harder for other carriers to compete in this emerging space. The FCC should not be in the business of picking winners and losers.
Competing LEO satellite providers have suggested a compromise path for the FCC to address SpaceX’s request to deploy its second-generation constellation. If Starlink is unable to reduce the number of satellites in the constellation, they could consider licensing a subset of these satellites or take a more piecemeal approach and deploy their constellation in smaller waves to ensure that they do not generate interference or orbital debris concerns. With the massive increase in orbital bodies, both astronomers and spacefarers will face new obstacles to see beyond the earth and to safely escape our own orbit.
SpaceX, however, does not believe that a piecemeal authorization would provide the flexibility necessary to meet “evolving consumer needs.” In order to ensure that new networks do not interfere with future deployments from competitors, either by creating interference or making future launches impossible, the FCC should seek the least restrictive means to promote competition in the satellite space by promoting a competitive framework that enables more providers the opportunity to launch. Satellite broadband has the potential to revolutionize our world. But regulators must work to foster the development of a real market that promotes consumer choice and innovation. Today’s policy decisions at the FCC will shape the market for satellite services for years to come.
Image credit: Benedek Alpar