Satellite hopes meet internet reality
By Shira Ovide
I cringed a little at the last week of developments in satellite internet technology, a promising but overhyped way to deliver internet service via networks of relatively small satellites. Amazon, Boeing and a bunch of other companies may soon join Elon Musk’s SpaceX in beaming internet service from space.
Yes, it is cool. But the companies involved and people excited about satellite internet tend to overstate how much good it can realistically do. There are limits to the technology, and structural barriers to internet access cannot be solved by technology alone.
The pandemic has helped focus the attention of many people, companies and governments on making internet access an essential utility like electricity or clean water. That cannot happen unless everyone works together to improve government internet policies, reduce economic and social barriers to internet access, and take on all the other human challenges of bringing more of the world online.
I’m encouraged by satellite internet technology. But let me dig into both the limits of satellite internet services and the sometimes shortsighted focus on technology alone.
Nearly all policy experts and technologists whom I have spoken to about satellite internet services say the same thing: Satellite internet will not be realistic for most people and places.
The technology is a useful complement for parts of the world that conventional internet pipelines cannot easily or affordably reach, such as mountainous or remote areas.
But those who are enthralled by the idea tend to talk about the technology as a potential cure-all for global internet access problems. Satellite internet is not a magic bullet.
In a brief glimpse of realism, Musk said this summer that SpaceX’s satellite internet service, Starlink, aims to offer service to up to “5% of the world’s population where conventional fiber and wireless networks can’t reach.”
While 5% of the world is potentially hundreds of millions of people who might not otherwise be able to go online, it is a drop in the bucket compared with the several billion people who are not using the internet today.
Tech problems are also far from the only reasons so many people are not using the internet. It is about ineffective government policies, social and economic inequalities, entrenched corporate interests, and people who have more pressing needs than being online.
And yet satellite internet executives like Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos rarely talk about addressing those broader challenges, nor do they tend to portray themselves as a small piece of a collaborative mission to make the internet more accessible, affordable and relevant.
Musk has been tweeting in the last few days about his taxes and the return flight of astronauts inside a SpaceX capsule. He has not said a word that I could find about the U.S. infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion in fresh taxpayer funding to try to bring more Americans online (although, like many U.S. internet companies, Starlink gets a lot of government funding).
The bulk of the new taxpayer money will be grants for state and local governments to spend on small-scale projects that they believe are best to expand internet service. Some states, including Virginia and Minnesota, have a track record of backing effective projects to get more people online, said Anna Read, a senior officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Initiative.
Inch-by-inch improvement is a frustrating but probably necessary piece of expanding internet access. And it would help if the powerful people and companies behind satellite internet projects saw the bigger picture as part of their work, too.
What if Musk threw his support behind the teenagers in Baltimore who successfully campaigned for free internet service for their neighbors? What if Amazon’s satellite internet executives also drew attention to the high cost of mobile internet service in sub-Saharan Africa? What if Boeing used its lobbying power in Washington to compel lawmakers to say no to big internet providers that often stand in the way of effective online policies?
Everyone I just mentioned has the same stated goal: to knock down barriers to get more people online. It is the satellite executives, however, who tend to behave like they operate in an innovation vacuum separate from the realities of Earth.