During the late 1950s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union each began launching satellites as an attempt to spy on the potential enemy. This thankfully deescalated the rising tensions between both countries. It wasn’t long before Canada launched its first satellite in 1962 – the Alouette I – and became the third country worldwide to do so.
Fast forward sixty years. The success of these space flights brought in a new age of satellite launches that continues today. The satellites we launch today, of course, are capable of a lot more than just intercepting communications. They could potentially diminish the digital divide forever.
SpaceX has recently commenced a new project called Starlink, which involves launching satellites into space “that can beam a broadband connection to internet terminals“, which then provide internet to any devices in the area.
Feedback from the program, especially on the consistent speeds available, has been overwhelmingly positive so far. The focus of Starlink is on rural communities that either have slow internet speeds or no available packages at all. In a world where education and work are widely done remotely, the current lack of available internet is unacceptable.
That said, only 120 satellites have been launched at the moment. In order to achieve global coverage, satellite constellations (systems of numerous satellites) will be required. SpaceX has received permission to launch 12,000 satellites into orbit; they’ve already sought permission for another 30,000.
With more engineering, testing, bureaucracy, and orbital trajectories required, it may be some time before those in rural communities obtain the same powerful and affordable internet urban centres have access to.
Risks and Concerns
If we look back to the first satellite launches, they were used as an attempt to spy on the Soviet Union and the U.S. during a tense period in history called the Cold War. While the satellites Elon Musk plans to launch likely won’t be equipped with technology capable of intercepting cell phone calls, they may secretly monitor the data of anyone using them for internet.
Imagine if every internet search you make, website you visit, document you create, and picture you take were transmitted and sold to government agencies – even files you don’t upload online. Today, we already face major data privacy concerns with tech giants like Google and Facebook. This issue could be amplified even further to include everything we do online, whether we’re aware that we’re connected or not.
Normally, we trust that internet service providers will keep all of this information private. If the idea of satellite coverage is to potentially reach any area of the world, there would likely be a lot more pressure on SpaceX from foreign government agencies to sell the data they collect from us.
Related to the issue of privacy is the fact that SpaceX plans to launch satellites globally. At the moment, it’s safe to say that Musk will hold a monopoly over internet satellite technology for at least a few years. He’s attempting to launch these satellites worldwide, yet his interests are mostly exclusive to the places he has citizenship in: Canada, the U.S., and South Africa. What about the rest of the world? Can we trust a billionaire with their data?
One other concern with these satellites is congestion due to too many simultaneous users. With tens of thousands of satellites, covering billions of people worldwide is just not possible. SpaceX also hasn’t clarified whether networks will suffer from heavy speed slowdowns during peak hours of access (e.g., weekday evenings).
Ultimately, there are some legitimate questions and concerns about foreign policies, data privacy, and a lack of resources in rural communities relating to satellite internet. What we do know is that diminishing the digital divide is finally possible thanks to advances in satellite technology.
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