It may not seem like as big a deal as when Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind nearly 50 years ago, but the implications could be even bigger for humanity. On Wednesday, two tiny satellites — Microsat 2a and Microsat 2b — will hitch a ride aboard a reused SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket when it launches Paz, a satellite developed for the Spanish Ministry of Defense, into space. The two satellites are experimental units designed and built by SpaceX to test the operation of the company’s proposed broadband satellite based internet network.
If they work as intended, the micro-satellites could be precursors to the Starlink network, a fleet of 4,500 satellites orbiting between 600 and 800 miles above the earth and bringing high speed broadband internet access to all the inhabitants of Earth. Further down the road, SpaceX has plans for an even larger fleet of 7,200 tiny satellites orbiting just 200 miles high.
Satellites in such low earth orbits cannot remain stationary above any one place on the planet and will need to be maneuvered around in the sky by controllers on the ground. Add in the thousands of other internet satellites proposed by Facebook, OneWeb, Telesat, SpaceNorway, and Boeing and the skies overhead could one day be as congested as the 405 freeway during morning rush hour.
Last week, the FCC gave its blessing to the Starlink plan. Chairman Ajit Pai said in a letter to his fellow commissioners, “Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agrees that satellite-based internet services are a good thing. “They will multiply the number of satellites in the skies, creating extraordinary new opportunities … The FCC should move quickly to facilitate these new services while underscoring our commitment to space safety,” she said.
In a letter to the FCC last December, Patricia Cooper, Vice President of government satellite affairs for SpaceX, said the Starlink network would provide “high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband services for consumers located throughout the US and around the world.” Once completed and operational, the network could create up to $30 billion a year in revenue for SpaceX.
“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” Marshall McLuhan told us decades ago. Global, low cost broadband will be a tool, one which could play an important part in uniting the people of the world in a concerted effort to slow down or even reverse global warming. Or it could become a means of sowing political discord and promoting the rise of totalitarian movements. People need to keep in mind that the internet is a two-way street. Jeff Bezos did not become the world’s wealthiest individual by selling stuff online. His wealth came from the data he was able to collect from all those customers.
To those who see global internet as a thing to be celebrated, remember the age-old rule — be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.