Starlink is coming – and the world isn’t ready

Which sector has had the biggest impact on our lives over the last few decades?

The answer is communications.

Perhaps that is a bit broad, but when you think about it, the advancements in communications have created the world as we live in it today.

Before they became mass-communication devices, people thought of computers as nothing more than clever calculators.

Today, the tiny calculator-sized computer you keep in your pocket is your window to the world.

But it’s more than a window. You only look through a window. Your smartphone allows you to interact with the world.

Without a connection to the communication networks your smartphone goes back to being not much more than an advanced calculator.

The same goes for your laptop, tablet and desktop computer – if you still own one.

It’s the ability to communicate, to transfer massive amounts of information all over the world, instantly, that has shaped how we live our lives.

Why am I banging on about communication so much? Because the way the world’s communication networks function is about to change, in a big way, starting next year.

Starlink will launch its first satellites in 2019

Starlink is a project by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. It’s creating a network of thousands of satellites in order to change how the internet works.

These satellites will be in low Earth orbit (LEO). This means the signals from them reach Earth much faster. And if one of them breaks it will fall back to Earth and burn up, rather than staying up in space, creating a hazard for other satellites.

The interesting thing about this project is not so much the technology itself, it’s what it will mean for our lives.

And by “our” lives, I mean the lives of every person, anywhere on the planet.

Starlink aims to provide super-fast, cheap internet to any location in the world.

For us in the UK, it would be great to have a significantly faster, cheaper internet connection. But for countries with poor or no internet, it will change everything.

In fact, it even in the UK around 5% of areas are not covered by broadband. And only 3.82% are covered by “full fibre”.

However, there is a major issue I can see with the Starlink programme. How will it deal with government censorship?

How will China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and the like react to an internet they have no control over?

China’s great firewall won’t be able to do anything to a Starlink internet, unless Starlink makes some shady deals, a la Google and its censored search engine.

Although I imagine Starlink will be much less willing to make deals with North Korea and Russia.

The simple solution to for these countries would be to ban devices that can connect to Starlink’s internet. But seems like a near-impossible task. I mean, prisons can’t even keep mobile phones out. How could a whole country?

The control aspect will be an interesting story to follow as it plays out.

Starlink will kill every other internet service provider out there today – for better or worse

And that brings us to another question – will people be comfortable with one private company being in charge of most of the world’s internet?

If Starlink succeeds, it will essentially wipe out all the other providers out there. Why would you stay with Virgin, when Starlink will be faster, cheaper, more convenient – and usable all over the world?

I’m surprised I haven’t read more about this idea yet. I mean, it is going to be a major disruption to some of the biggest companies in the world.

Telecom companies are huge.

AT&T is the 20th biggest company on the planet. It brings in over $160 billion per year.

Verizon is 37th and brings in $126 billion.

They are not just big on a global scale, but on an individual country scale as well. In the UK, BT is ranked 21st on the FTSE 100. The same is true of telecommunications giants in most countries around the world.

What is going to happen when, almost overnight, these companies become obsolete?

I guess the only option will be for them to make deals with Starlink. But what if Starlink doesn’t want to do that?

After all, Elon Musk always likes to talk about making the world a better place. Well, telecoms companies are some of the most hated businesses out there.

In the US, Verizon and AT&T employ many underhand tactics to squeeze their customers and crush competitions.

What if Musk decides to simply shut these companies out?

And, this is not some far-off scenario I’m talking about here. Starlink plans to be up and running by 2024.

Perhaps it will be a great thing if Starlink provides a better, fairer service to customers than the current ones do.

But it still seems risky to have one private company with so much power over the world. And I don’t mean in a wild conspiracy theorist way. I simply mean, what if it gets compromised in some way – by hackers, or by a “rogue state”.

I guess that’s why monopoly regulations were invented. And I’m sure as time goes on Starlink will be subject to a fair few.

To be clear, I am massively in favour of Starlink and can’t wait till it’s operational. And I’m sure Starlink and Musk have thought about all these questions ad infinitum and will have good procedures in place.

But I think it’s strange no media outlets have run pieces asking these questions.

I really don’t know why the mainstream media hasn’t put two and two together and realised just how much disruption Starlink will bring.

This could be the single biggest world-changing technology we have seen since the internet first emerged. It’s just people don’t seem to realise it yet.

Perhaps most people thing this will just be similar to the slow and patchy satellite internet available today. But rest assured, this will be nothing like it. It will basically be like having fibre broadband available anywhere on the planet.

One person who does see the potential is Mark Zuckerberg. And going from Facebook’s past actions, that’s a pretty terrifying thought.

Facebook is developing its own rival satellite internet

Trusting Mars man Elon Musk with your data is one thing.

He genuinely seems to just want to move people into space, and everything he does is a means to that end. Even this Starlink programme is merely a stepping-stone to setting up a similar network of satellites around Mars.

I know he is a divisive figure. But he really does seem like an eccentric genius doing his best to further humanity. At the very least he is coming up with some fantastic ideas and following through with them.

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg on the other hand…

Everything Facebook does seems to be about gathering more and more data on people in order to manipulate and make money from them.

So when I heard Facebook is developing its own satellite internet system, I was immediately sceptical.

What better way to accumulate data on people than by having them use your network. If you were so inclined – and as Facebook most definitely is – you’d be able to collect data on anything and everything about their lives.

From Wired this July:

According to emails obtained from the Federal Communications Commission in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by WIRED, and confirmation from the company itself, Facebook is officially one of them [a company developing LEO satellite internet].

The emails show that the social network wants to launch Athena, its very own internet satellite, in early 2019. The new device is designed to “efficiently provide broadband access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the world,” according to an application the social network appears to have filed with the FCC under the name PointView Tech LLC.

With the filing, Facebook joins Elon Musk’s   and Softbank-backed OneWeb, two well-funded organizations working on similar projects.

Over the last year the tide of public opinion has really turned on Facebook. In a matter of weeks it went from being a platform everyone complained about, but secretly quite liked, to one that people genuinely despise.

Unless it can somehow change how people feel about it, Facebook internet is going to be a hard sell.

Although, I guess an easy way around that problem is simply to re-brand its internet service company to something else. Most people would be none the wiser until an inevitable scandal some years down the line.

What do you think about the future of satellite internet and how it will affect the world? Let me know: harry@southbankresearch.com.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

PS If you’re interested to know more about how LEO satellite internet works, you can read the article I wrote about it back in March: LEOS and the internet of the future.

Category: Technology

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