The promises and perils of satellite internet

16 Nov 2020 18:20h - 19:20h

Event report

We are only six weeks away from what would otherwise have been a historical milestone in the quest for universal Internet access. The promise of SDG 9.c in providing universal and affordable access in least developed countries by 2020 will not materialise in time.

Yet, the efforts to connect the unconnected continue at a steady pace. As session moderator Mr Peter Micek (General Counsel, Access Now) explained, we are seeing many private investors funding the launch of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites with the promise of bringing Internet access to unconnected populations. Will LEOs herald a new solution, and what are the perils?

Setting the scene, Ms Felicia Anthonio (campaigner for Access Now’s #KeepItOn initiative), reflected on how COVID-19 led us to increasingly rely on the Internet for work, education, and many other aspects of our lives. However, there are 3.8 billion people worldwide who are yet to get online. Many others are struggling to stay connected due to expensive data plans.

In addition to cost barriers, government shutdowns are also on the rise. In 2019, for instance, Access Now recorded over 200 incidents of country-wide Internet shutdowns. Some of the shutdowns initiated in 2019 have continued through to 2020. These shutdowns carry serious implications on human rights and other aspects of people’s lives. As an enabler of other rights, the Internet must be at the centre of combatting this pandemic; access to the Internet must not be stifled.

One way of understanding the advantages and challenges of LEOs is by comparing them to geostationary satellites. Mr Larry Press (Professor Emeritus of Information Systems, California State University) explained how geostationary satellites typically orbit at 22 000 miles (approximately 35 400 kilometres), which provides them with a large footprint, since they observe a large portion of Earth at any one time. The cost of a terminal is relatively low. On the downside, latency (that is, the time it takes for data to travel) is significantly longer. In comparison, LEOs are faster, but their footprint is small. Companies charge higher amounts for terminals, making cost one of the main barriers for LEOs.

Beyond technical aspects, there is a geopolitical element, in that many companies launching satellites are based in either the USA or China. Press believes that the UN should take on a leading role, and that the constellations of satellites should be considered global infrastructure. We need global collaboration, law, and standards, similarly to how the high seas are regulated. ‘We’ve managed to do it for the high seas, hopefully we’ll pull it off in space as well,’ Press said.

Ms Jennifer Stein (Special Advisor for Internet Freedom and Business and Human Rights, US Department of State) spoke of the recent measures by the US State Department to reassure companies that their technologies are not misused. In particular, the guidelines ensure that these technologies are not used by government actors to violate or abuse human rights. Among other aspects, the guidelines contain due diligence measures, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the OECD guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. For instance, Internet companies are advised to carry out in-depth due diligence on local laws and regulations, and other aspects related to data requests.

Comparing satellites to submarine cables is another useful way of understanding how to deal with the technology of satellite Internet. Mr Felix Blanc (Head of Institutions and Public Policy Desk, Internet Without Borders) explained that space cannot be considered global commons, since open space provides industry with opportunities for profit. There are also quite a few differences from environmental and financial perspectives.

More importantly, there are issues related to technical capacity and users’ rights. For instance, Blanc asked whether satellite Internet has the capacity to cover everyone’s needs in terms of connectivity, compared to submarine cables. Given that only five or so states have the capacity to launch satellites, there are questions whether community networks and circumvention tools will be able to provide the same safeguards against surveillance we have experienced with the submarine cable system.

In terms of practical applications of satellite Internet, Mr Ahmad Ahmadian (Business Development Manager, NetFreedom Pioneers) explained how Knapsack, a service for file-casting content through satellite, has been delivering content mainly to users in Iran and East Asia. Since satellites can be used to broadcast content to anyone in the world, his company teamed up with activists to deliver content that is blocked in a number of countries. By converting the content into a video stream and broadcasting it on TV screens at home, users can record the channel as if they are recording their favourite show to watch it later.

Ahmadian said that users are able to access content without having access to Internet infrastructure, hence lauding the benefits of satellite Internet as being able to narrow the digital divide.