In an address to US Senate on May 3rd 2017, SpaceX proposed their newest enterprise, a business with the potential to offer global internet access through a sting of inter-connected Low Orbit Satellites. According to their proposed timeline, SpaceX hopes to have the initial service up and running sometime in 2019, but expects the final project to be completed sometime around the summer of 2024. Once completed, the internet will theoretically exist everywhere on the planet to all “peoples” of the planet at once.
However, considering that SpaceX is an extremely “niche” business who’s existence is predicated on active missile launches, something that the US bans other countries/Governments around the world from doing, SpaceX can only accomplish such a feat if the United States Government first approves of it. This is exactly what SpaceX is attempting to do right now, persuade the US Government to allow their enterprise to go forward. The process for this really just began this week, you can read their statements to US Senate below.
STATEMENT OF PATRICIA COOPER VICE PRESIDENT, SATELLITE GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS SPACE EXPLORATION TECHNOLOGIES CORP. (SPACEX) BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY UNITED STATES SENATE: https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/6c08b6c2-fe74-4500-ae1d-a801f53fd279/655C5CBED75A50881172C1E9069D91E6.testimony-patricia-cooper—broadband-infrastructure-hearing.pdf
To understand why this is important news, if successful, all anyone would need to access the internet anywhere in the future is a “device” with an internet uplink connection. This would mean that theoretically, you could get the same quality of internet coverage in the middle of a jungle in the Democratic Republic of The Congo, that you would get in the middle of New York City. Just think about how revolutionary that would be for humanity.
To achieve this, SpaceX has proposed launching 4,425 satellites between the years of 2018 and 2024. Then, depending on how successful the project winds up becoming, SpaceX says they could end up launching as many as 10,000 satellites by 2027. To put some perspective on these figures, there are only a little over 1,000 satellites in existence orbiting the Earth right now in 2017. SpaceX is essentially proposing to increase the global satellite market by 3-10x its present day level, but by themselves and in a matter of just the next half decade.
As reported by Ars Technica on May 4th 2017, “There were an estimated 1,459 operating satellites orbiting Earth at the end of 2016, and the 4,425 satellites in SpaceX’s planned initial launch would be three times that many.” Adding that on top of this, though there is no specific timeline for its development, “SpaceX has also proposed an additional 7,500 satellites operating even closer to the ground, saying that this will boost capacity and reduce latency in heavily populated areas.”
For those of you whom might be unfamiliar with SpaceX, they are a privately owned “non-Government Organization” which has, among other things, gone on to invent the worlds first re-usable rockets – drastically cutting the cost of space travel in the process. In 2017 the company actively contracts future launches for organizations like NASA and has already shipped supplies to the International Space Station.
As for the political angle of the news, I think do not SpaceX’s announcement this week and the repealing of net neutrality laws last week is any “coincidence.” The repealing of these laws was meant to allow new tech companies to compete in the open marketplace, particularly in regards to “the internet.” With Republicans actively changing US Laws, I think SpaceX sees their opening and are trying to take advantage of it
The Zuckerberg Angle
I bring up Mark Zuckerberge for two reasons, (1) he personally lost millions of dollars trying to launch internet satellites for sub-Sahara Africa in 2016 and (2), Mark Zuckerberg has also been the victim of strict net neutrality laws in 2015. Studying Mark Zuckerberg’s previous failures/attempts at similar ventures past, actually provides a great deal of insight into SpaceX’s actions today.
In 2016 Mark Zuckerberg was funding a venture to bring internet access to sub-Sahara Africa, where internet access is extremely scarce and privileged. To accomplish this, Zuckberg was going to pay SpaceX to deliver a payload of satellites into orbit and use then to sell internet service to countries throughout Africa. However, as was widely chronicled at the time, the missile carrying these satellites to go into space exploded on the runway and the entire venture was lost.
One of the other “ventures” Mark Zuckerberg undertook over the years was an attempt to supply free internet access to impoverished areas in India. However, for as “charitable” as his actions might have been, Facebook’s free internet service was actually declared illegal by international courts. The courts claimed that by offering people free internet service, Zuckerberg essentially established himself as a “monopoly” and thus violated net neutrality laws in the process. Shortly after this, France also ruled free internet service illegal along the same grounds.
Any “laws” that shutdown free internet service to impoverished people/countries must be condemned, this is ultimately why I have always rejected net neutrality laws. Though I would ultimately like to see SpaceX’s venture become a success, I question if the world is really ready for global internet access. Regardless if humanity is ready for it, would Governments around the world even accept it? Whether it be Turkey, Ethiopia, Egypt, China or Russia, many Governments around the world actively censor internet access, never-mind open it up to the entire world. It will be interesting to see where SpaceX’s venture goes from here, as well as whether or not the US Government will even allow it to get off the ground to begin with – pun intended.