Thursday, January 29, 2015

Regulation of global satellite Internet service providers

Would global Internet service providers require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who hopes to orbit a constellation of Internet-access satellites, recently gave an invitation-only talk announcing the opening of a satellite-design office in Seattle. (An attendee recorded the talk and posted it on YouTube).

Many invitees were engineers and Musk was recruiting, saying "it's a difficult problem so we need the smartest engineers in the world." Then, he joked "and at the same time to make sure we don't create SkyNet."

The audience laughed, but he was, perhaps inadvertently, alluding to a serious issue. Issac Asimov wrote of Gaia, a sentient planet, and, while the Internet may be the embryonic nervous system of our planet, I am less worried about Musk creating SkyNet than creating Comcast on Steroids.

Two companies, Musk's SpaceX and Greg Wyler's OneWeb, are competing to provide Internet connectivity in locations that are now unconnected -- as Wyler puts it, to connect "the other three billion." If one or both succeed, we might have have a monopoly or oligopoly ISP serving half the Earth's population.

As a Time-Warner Cable Internet customer, that worries me. They would be able to charge monopoly-level prices and offer the same last-place customer satisfaction as American ISPs. They would be global companies with political power and the ability to control half the world's information -- a combination of the Koch brothers, Fox News and Comcast.

Do these potentially global service providers require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?

What might the regulation be? I can ask the question, but neither I nor anyone else knows The Answer; however, one suggestion is to keep both SpaceX and OneWeb out of the retail Internet service market -- restrict them to providing wholesale transport service on an equal basis to any would-be retail ISP. Even if only one of the two companies succeed, that would allow for retail competition and would help out with the monopoly price and crummy service issues.

A possible approach to avoiding political abuse would be to prohibit them from refusing service to any retail ISP in any nation.

Regardless of what we wish to do, who has the authority to create and enforce such regulations? Musk said SpaceX has the ITU's permission to launch the satellites and recognized that he will have to negotiate for the right to provide service on a country by country basis. SpaceX and OneWeb are both US corporations and therefore subject to US law, but is it right for global infrastructure to be regulated by a single nation?

Lest this sound too negative, I hope SpaceX and OneWeb both succeed in connecting the other three billion people on the planet -- the benefit to mankind will outweigh the difficulty of defining acceptable, effective policy.

Update 1/31/2015

Jason Koebler compares Elon Musk to the 19th century railroad barons, saying that being the first to develop technology to soft-land and reuse rockets will give him an unassailable first-mover advantage in space -- for imaging, communication and other applications.

Elon Musk with President Obama

Saturday, January 03, 2015

I'm on vacation

You will not see new posts on this blog before January 21.

CIS 471: Why I have not been posting on this blog lately: too busy with events in Cuba

Cuba has been in the news since President Obama announced changes in our Cuba policy and agreed to the prisoner exchange that freed Alan Gross, who was serving a 15 year sentence for bringing tech equipment into Cuba.

I've not posted anything on this blog for several weeks because I have been busy with recent events on another blog I maintain on the Internet in Cuba. The following are my recent posts concerning Alan Gross and the future of the Internet in Cuba. They are in chronological order, beginning with a November 11 post asking whether Gross was about to be freed:

(for background on the case -- what Gross brought into Cuba, its technical and propaganda importance, his incarceration, court cases, and negotiations for his release, click here.)

Alan Gross brought three of these kits into Cuba.

Alan Gross and his wife Judy just after his release from prison

Apple store vs. Microsoft store

Why is the Apple store jammed and the Microsoft store nearly empty?

On December 27, I went to the Microsoft store in the Century City mall in Los Angeles to take a look at low cost laptops I had heard reviewed favorably on a podcast, thinking I might get one to take on an upcoming trip.

The sales people were friendly and left me alone while I played with a variety of computers for around half an hour. This is what the store looked like:

It turned out the cheap laptops were too cheesy so I left and walked around the corner to the Apple store:

The store was noisy and jammed and there was a roped-off line of people waiting to be allowed in when others left.

The Microsoft store had ultrabooks with great keyboards, trackpads and touch screens and a variety of all-in-one computers. The product quality ranged from those cheesy laptops to very nice machines that were better deals than comparable Apple computers. You could walk right up and talk to a tech support or sales person in the Microsoft store, but needed an appointment to talk with one of the tech support "geniuses" in the Apple store.

How do you explain the difference? Is it all due to the iPhone?