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

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