by Alan Boyle,
published by GeekWire, 11 March 2021
SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb say their satellite mega-constellations will make broadband internet goodness available to billions of people around the world who are unserved or underserved — but some say those promises have to be weighed against the potential perils.
These critics cite the risk of catastrophic satellite collisions, concerns about cybersecurity and worries about environmental and health impacts — including impacts on astronomical observations and the beauties of the night sky.
Such concerns are likely to intensify as SpaceX and OneWeb add to their current fleets of satellites in low Earth orbit, and as Amazon gets set to deploy more than 3,200 satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband network. If all the plans laid out for those ventures come to pass, tens of thousands of satellites could be put into orbit over the next decade.
Early today, SpaceX sent its latest batch of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, bringing the total number of satellites launched to 1,265.
The latest challenge to the mega-constellations was filed today with the Federal Communications Commission. A coalition of policy groups is calling on the FCC to put a 180-day hold on further approvals for broadband data satellite deployments, in order to conduct a more thoroughgoing assessment of the risks.
“One hundred and eighty days goes by in a flash, but it allows everybody to think through the risks and come up with a sensible policy and a set of rules and procedures,” Julian Gresser, a former consultant to the U.S. State Department who’s leading the regulatory challenge, told GeekWire.
This isn’t the first challenge mounted by the coalition — which includes the Healthy Heavens Trust Initiative, the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, Americans for Responsible Technology and the Safeguarding the Astronomical Sky Foundation.
Last year, the Healthy Heavens Trust Initiative laid out objections to SpaceX’s request for changes in the FCC license for its Starlink satellite constellation. SpaceX answered the volley with claims that the challenge came too late, and that concerns about such matters as radiation exposure were without merit.
Although last year’s objections haven’t yielded results, Gresser is hoping that things will be different this time around — largely due to this year’s change in the White House. “We are hopeful that we will have new blood, new thinking, and we’re trying to contribute to it. … The present situation is untenable, what was left by the previous administration,” he said.
So far, the evidence suggests that FCC policy won’t change dramatically in the Biden administration. In an interview with Bloomberg TV, acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said broadband access will remain a priority.
“Broadband is no longer a ‘nice to have,’” she said. “It’s ‘need to have,’ for everyone, everywhere. This pandemic has demonstrated that with painful clarity.”
Rosenworcel said satellite internet could be a key enabler.
“We need to start addressing these issues of the disconnected using new technologies,” she said. “It had always been that we only reached people with fiber facilities on the ground. I think we have to be open to new technologies like fixed wireless and low-Earth-orbiting satellites, because some of those new technologies coming on board can deliver really high speeds at lower latencies than in the past.”
In today’s filing with the FCC, the petitioners highlight optical fiber networks as their preferred route to broader broadband access. They’re not alone in expressing a fondness for fiber over satellites: Last month, the Fiber Broadband Association and NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association sent the FCC an analysis claiming that SpaceX wouldn’t be able to follow through on its commitments for $885.5 million in federal broadband subsidies.
During this week’s Bloomberg TV interview, Rosenworcel said the subsidy awards were “preliminary decisions that we’re taking a look at now.”
Will the FCC grant the coalition’s request for a 180-day pause in the satellite broadband revolution? That seems unlikely. So far, the wrangling in the regulatory battle has had more to do with the competing interests of Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb and more established players in the telecom industry, such as Viasat. And SpaceX has responded to astronomers’ concerns about night-sky interference.
But observers of the mega-constellation space race say there’s some validity to the coalition’s argument for slowing down the revolution’s pace, based on past filings.
“There are many cases in which policymaking needs to catch up,” ForumOne’s Jim Cashel, the author of a book on global broadband titled “The Great Connecting,” told GeekWire in an email. “That said, I personally don’t think it serves their purpose to lump together so many concerns, some of which to my eye are legitimate (‘potential collisions’) and others more puzzling (‘environmental impact on bees’).”
Larry Press, a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills, agreed.
“They seem to be opposed to a goofy collection of unrelated things — they overlooked vaccinations,” he said via email. “That being said, there are serious concerns. Collision avoidance seems to me to be the biggest (non-business) mega-constellation hurdle. Minimizing collisions will require global data sharing and collaboration among both civilian and military satellite operators, and I don’t see a path to that cooperation.”
Press said that might be a good topic of discussion for the space law community. “We have international laws and regulations regarding the seas,” he noted. “Are there hints there?”
If it were up to SpaceX, the prime directive for navigating the connectivity sea could well be “full speed ahead.” But in the years to come, the prime directive for the FCC and other regulatory agencies will be to watch out for the icebergs.
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