Covid has turned up the contrast on the digital divide. Those who zoom and those who can’t. Personal and national economic growth now depends on broadband access. Pre-covid, the World Economic Forum estimated that a 10 percent increase in broadband is associated with a 1.4 percent increase in GDP growth. Broadband access may impact which businesses survive and which students are left behind post-covid.
As of today consumers all around the world will have a new ISP from which to choose in 2021. High-speed, low-latency broadband via low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites is now rolling out from private companies such as Starlink (part of SpaceX), OneWeb, Telesat, and others. This week Starlink is started accepting initial orders in the US: https://www.starlink.com/
With already over 1000 satellites in orbit and a launch cadence that will put at least another ~1500 in orbit this year, it is easy to see these shinny cans of high speed internet in the sky at any given moment.
Borderless, unfiltered broadband has the potential to lift all boats, turning on the Internet switch for billions, delivering access to new opportunities and connections. But it will also bring automation, gig-work, screen-addiction, monopoly e-commerce platforms, and access to “menace-economy” platforms such as Facebook.
The west struggles to cope with the Internet we have (content moderation, de-platforming political figures, deep-web black markets, accelerating job-destruction, the list goes on and on). On-boarding a billion people to the Internet of 2021 will not make it easier to deal with these issues. Instead it will fuel a new “attention” grab by big companies hoping to assimilate the world into their platforms, be it Facebook, Tencent QQ or WeChat.
Can these new connections get past the great firewall of China or the filtering and Internet kill switches installed by dictators since the Arab spring a decade ago? Russia has already made a preemptive strike, threatening fines of up to 30,000 rubles for individuals caught using Starlink, one million rubles for businesses.
Borderless interest is a real threat to such governments, and they may prove surprisingly able to prevent access by their populations: since these services are two-way, it would not be hard to identify those buildings with a transmitter installed. Will LEO-based internet services bend to pressure and “turn off” over countries when requested?
And no government has really stopped to think about how the dynamics of Internet infrastructure and regulation change when one ISP company is globally ubiquitous. Are we about to put billions of people into yet another “walled garden” or echo chamber? It is just another step in the balkanization of the Internet as we know it?
Right now, no one is talking about these issues, but just assuming that Internet via LEOs is just a new way to get the same thing. I think it is a much different thing and we need to start looking at these shinny new objects in the sky as a harbinger of changes to come.