by Thas Ampalavanapillai Nirmalathas for The Conversation
Melbourne, Australia (SPX) Jun 22, 2015
The race is on to get billions of people connected to the internet via a global network of satellites. Europe's Airbus announced this week that it is to design and build up to 900 satellites for the privately owned OneWeb Ltd, which includes Richard Branson as a board member.
A statement from OneWeb said the plan was to begin launches in 2018 to bring "affordable internet access for everyone" by providing approximately 10 terabits per second of low-latency, high-speed broadband. That estimate of 10 terabits per second may be misleading, though. The broadband access rates experienced by customers are more likely to be in the range of 2 to 50 megabits per second (Mb/s).
It is an ambitious move and follows reports that the entrepreneur Elon Musk's company SpaceX is seeking US government approval of a network of 4,000 satellites to provide similar internet access. Accessing the internet via satellite is nothing new. Our own NBN Co plans to launch a satellite this September to help bring people in regional areas to its high-speed network.
But what makes OneWeb and SpaceX's ventures interesting is their plan to connect people anywhere on the planet, similar to Google's plan revealed last year.
Facebook's internet.org is another project that aims to make it easier for more people anywhere to connect to the internet.
A truly world wide web
It makes business sense for large internet companies such as Facebook and Google to increase access in the developing world. Having benefited from the huge uptake of internet connectivity among developed countries, these companies see an as-yet-untapped market opportunity among those who do not currently have internet access.
If other large technology companies hungry for users want to increase affordable internet access, then governments should take advantage of these opportunities. Connecting the unconnected to the internet has many positive advantages for the community.
The internet supports development by transforming a younger generation's ability to acquire knowledge and skills and contribute productively to national growth. It can also help an ageing population to remain active and access cost-effective health care.
Connectivity is transforming transport, manufacturing, logistics and environment management. All forms of government can achieve greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness through their citizens being online and connected.
Access to digital connectivity is essential in the networked society and it is imperative that there is equitable and universal access throughout the world.
Access needs to be affordable
Its latest Affordability Report says only 5% of the population of the world's 49 most underdeveloped countries are online. But for the two billion people living on less than US$2 per day, basic broadband access can exceed 40% of their monthly income.
The low income of many regions does not create the necessary demand to drive investment in affordable internet access options. This leaves these communities in a vicious cycle, which is widening the gap between the connected and non-connected.
A global satellite network may be one solution to providing such access.
But how will it work?
A large constellation of satellites requires agile and cost-effective backhaul technology to provide interconnections between the satellites to form an extension to the internet. Backhaul refers to the links or network required between satellites and the internet to provide customers with internet access.
This can be achieved with laser beams or microwave beams operating at millimetre-wave frequencies. They will also require self-aligning systems to pin-point other satellites and maintain links despite fluctuations in their relative positions.
Alternatively, the satellites could form the necessary backhaul by connecting to ground stations suitably connected close to major internet gateways. Either way, satellite networks also need ground stations and internet gateways, which adds to the cost and the complexity of deploying and managing the network.
With a large constellation of satellites, we can expect a portion of satellites to be dysfunctional at times. The operators need to factor that into the operation and also account for potential impacts and risks of losing satellites. That is why the OneWeb/Airbus deal is for 900 satellites but a plan to launch only 700.
The current cost of satellite-based broadband access may only be within the reach of those living in rural communities of developed countries and for emergency communications. The key question remains whether operators can reduce the cost further by leveraging these early markets to deliver affordable access to the remaining two billion people earning US$2 a day.
The world needs connectivity and it is now needed in places where it has been nearly impossible. Micro-satellites could offer real potential that needs to be explored and may fuel a space race once more among the internet companies.
Who really benefits from the 'internet space race'?
The Seasteading Institute, for example, seeks to create floating cities far enough from land as to be outside of any regulatory jurisdiction. There, farseers such as the likes of Google CEO Larry Page might be able to innovate, untethered by regulations. At Google's annual developers' conference in 2013, Page said: "I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out."
The seas of Earth appeal to some while the dry seas of Mars attract others: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is at the forefront of commercial space travel for the ultra-rich. At a cost of US$36 billion he hopes his company SpaceX can start a Mars colony. Space tourist tickets come in at a mere US$500,000. He also plans to provide planet-wide internet access, beamed from 4,000 satellites.
Facebook and Google have shelved similar plans for satellite internet access for those it has yet to reach. Instead, Facebook has opted for a less lofty approach, targeting not space but the stratosphere: its Connectivity Lab is tasked with bringing about an internet-saturated planet. To do this, they have invested in solar-powered drones capable of providing internet to underserved and disconnected areas. Google on the other hand, through its secretive X lab, devised Project Loon to provide internet via high-flying balloons.
Why are some of the world's most powerful technologists so focused on providing internet access by hook, crook, drones, balloon or satellite?
Above the Facebook flag at Facebook HQ flies another, bearing the symbol of Facebook's non-profit organisation, Internet.org. The internet-dispersing drones under development are designed to bring about the objectives of Internet.org - connecting up the next three billion people yet to join the internet.
But it isn't the "internet" as we know it today, instead, Internet.org allows users to access only Facebook and select other sites, not the entire internet. In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 65 organisations from 31 countries criticised the project, claiming it violated the principle of network neutrality, that no site should be favoured over others. Security, privacy, censorship, and freedom of expression were among the other concerns voiced over Facebook's growing control.
It may seem axiomatic to those in the West, but what if people don't want access to the internet - of the type provided by Facebook, Google and SpaceX, or any other? There are well over a billion people living in states under governments that resist Western-style internet connectivity in order to preserve that country's status quo.
Technical approaches towards national internet sovereignty including IP address blocking, domain names, key words, and packet filtering. Non-technical forms of censorship include laws, regulations, threats, bribes, and arrests of publishers, ISPs, and authors. Reporters without Borders identifies 19 countries - including the US and the UK - along with Cuba, China, Iran, and North Korea, all of which use one or several of these tactics to create a distinct national internet.
Certainly, what governments want for their people and what the people want for themselves frequently diverge. But while we may agree that internet censorship by authoritarian dictatorships is an affront to free communication, can we really put our faith in Facebook's drones? It is possible to overthrow a government and depose a dictator but it is nearly impossible to revolt against corporate drones and extraterritorial CEOs.
With solar powered balloons raining internet down where it wasn't before, from inaccessible places such as high in the atmosphere or beyond, is resistance to the internet even an option? As US president Ronald Reagan knew when he initiated his Star Wars defence programme in the 1980s, space is the ultimate high ground. In the stratosphere and in space, the techno-liberal social engineering ideal - that the internet is inherently good - meets the desire to be above the fray of terrestrial, democratic regulation.
In the dramatic conclusion of Elysium, Max Da Costa (played by Matt Damon) flies a pod of illegal immigrants from Earth and crash-lands it into the luxurious orbiting utopia, rebooting the computer that keeps the citizens of Earth and Elysium in inequality. Those who do not want the internet may need a similar radical approach, because when the ultra-rich take to the skies it becomes nearly impossible to protest their decisions.
Satellite-based Internet technologies
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