Can satellite internet break the splinternet?

A stack of SpaceX Starlink satellites awaits deployment in low-earth orbit.
A stack of SpaceX Starlink satellites awaits deployment in low-earth orbit.
Image: SpaceX
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the abstract, the internet is a zone of digital freedom. In practice, the messy physicality of the internet—all those cables and server farms and transceivers—give states plenty of control.

But what if the internet took to the stars? If the hardware behind all the bits was in orbit, it might be harder for governments to restrict its use. That is one of the most interesting potential consequences of next-generation space internet: That a US company might link prosecuted Uighurs in China to their global diaspora, or a Chinese satellite company might beam unrestricted TikToks into American homes.

If relations between world powers sour to Cold War levels, it’s possible to imagine free internet becoming the 21st century equivalent of Voice of America radio broadcasts into the Soviet Union.

But it’s far more likely that the dream of unfettered communication will go unrealized. Satellites don’t remove geopolitics from the equation, and satellite internet still depends on terrestrial technology.

“We are moving into a world where nationalism is becoming more prevalent and the rules around delivering telecom services into countries are becoming much more challenging,” explains Rupert Pearce, the CEO of Inmarsat, a major private satellite communications provider that works with businesses and governments in 200 different countries.

Image for article titled Can satellite internet break the splinternet?

The world is also currently entering a new age of global internet service providers. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched hundreds of satellites as it builds out a network called Starlink; OneWeb, another early entrant to this field, just emerged from bankruptcy backed by the UK government and an Indian conglomerate; Amazon is crafting a similar network called Kuiper. Rumors abound that China or one of its state-backed enterprises may launch such a network itself.

These efforts are different from past models of space internet, which used large satellites that remained fixed tens of thousands of miles above a region on Earth. This provided connectivity but at low bandwidth and high cost. The new architectures use many small satellites flying at high speeds just hundreds of miles above the planet, providing faster connections over a wider area, which is arguably a better business model.

Two things remain the same for all operators. The first are national laws that require anyone transmitting and receiving satellite signals to have the local government’s permission. These rules are generally designed to prevent interference and allow citizens to control the natural resource that is the airwaves. But they are also a lever governments can use to benefit domestic operators and secure concessions from foreign telecom operators. Ignoring these rules can bring costly penalties, and it’s rarely done by serious companies.

The second truth is that satellites need to plug into the rest of the internet, and fast-moving new satellites need to do so more often. The connections take place through ground stations that plug into terrestrial networks. For low-flying satellites to be useful over any fairly large geographic area, there needs to be sufficient ground stations for them to connect to.

Governments around the world will use these ground stations to regulate the internet access they provide. “Countries want to see data landed directly into gateways established locally,” Pearce says. “That’s about control, and policing, and making sure they can protect the interests of their citizens and the privacy of their citizens.”

As with any government policy, these requirements cut both ways. Demanding that global telecom companies maintain data storage locally can be a tool for enforcing measures akin to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which seek to offer citizens more control over their personal information.

Industry insiders also say these requirements can become a tool for authoritarian governments. Western satellite companies don’t typically seek to do business in China or Russia. But they do seek business in authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian countries like the Gulf States or Saudi Arabia, which restrict content that internet users can access and maintain intrusive state security services. These governments typically demand that foreign telecoms give them full access to everything anyone does on the network.

That means Western satellite companies operating in these countries make compromises that don’t necessarily match up with their domestic standards on civil liberties. They aren’t likely to troll governments that they hope to make lucrative deals with in the future—for example, don’t expect Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has no plans to operate Starlink in China, to do so as long as the Teslas are rolling out of a Shanghai factory.

At some point, however, the cost of excessive data storage and snooping requirements, or bespoke tools to allow governments to shut off their internet, may make doing business prohibitive and limit the number of providers. If satellite companies emerge as national champions, like OneWeb in the UK, other nations may be even more reluctant to grant them market access. Satellite operators are eager to portray themselves as integral to the 5G transition, and the fraught politics we’ve seen with Huawei could play out in orbit. Lawmakers may also begin to hold their own companies to higher standards abroad, with telecom laws equivalent to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the US law prohibiting bribery and corrupt practices by US firms operating abroad.

What else might loosen governments’ grip over space internet? If Elon Musk manages to incorporate laser communications links into all his satellites, as he dreams, it would dramatically reduce the need for ground stations and their restrictions. That would make the Voice of America, dissident-internet scenario more plausible.

The most likely benefits of space internet are more mundane: the promise of more competition among internet service providers and better access for people in remote places. The way things are shaping up, however, it’s likely that things will get worse before they get better. The rush to launch thousands of new satellites is placing stress on antiquated systems for managing traffic in orbit, and fears of spacecraft collisions are growing. If massive internet satellite networks truly are the wave of the future, governments are going to have to come up with mutual standards of behavior in space—or soon see space junk make the whole environment untenable for everybody.