The Fantasy of Internet for All

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S1: So. But that’s. That’s the kind of eruption this winter.

S2: A massive underwater volcano erupted near the Pacific island nation of Tonga. In this cell phone video from Fiji, people are staring at clouds and ash and then a shockwave hits. The volcano was massive. It killed at least four people and triggered a tsunami. And on January 15th, when the eruption reached its climax, it also disconnected Tonga from the outside world.

S3: The volcano erupted and almost immediately severed the only Internet cable that connects the archipelago of Tonga to the global Internet.

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S2: That’s Megan Tobin, a reporter for the website Rest of World.

S3: There is a cable that connects the nation to the wider World Wide Web, and there’s also a cable inside the nation that connects a couple of island groups. Both of them were severed by the eruption. And then the country spent about a week with no Internet whatsoever.

S2: On January 21st. Elon Musk tweeted, Could people from Tonga let us know if it is important for SpaceX to send over StarLink terminals? StarLink is his satellite Internet service. The company ended up sending 50 terminals, a narrative spread on social media that Elon Musk had swooped in to save the day.

S3: There were many tweets shared about how there were StarLink technicians in the neighboring nation of Fiji working hard to get ground stations set up so that they could get service to Tonga.

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S2: But Megan says the reality on the islands was more complicated. By the time Musk got involved, an international consortium and the state cable company were already working to reconnect the archipelago.

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S3: It actually took longer for StarLink to arrive in the country than it took for the state backed cable company to fix the repair.

S2: It feels like a bit of a pattern for StarLink of bold ambition, but only modest success.

S3: The head of the state telecom group told me that he was not really able to find any use for the terminals himself, so they already have other solutions in place.

S2: Today on the show, can StarLink ever fulfil its promise of connecting the world, especially places left behind by traditional Internet? Or will it be just another toy for the rich? I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to What Next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us. StarLink is an offshoot of Elon Musk’s rocket company, Space X, that provides Internet via satellite. The satellites are grouped in constellations that operate at a lower orbit than traditional ones used for internet communication.

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S3: The innovation of StarLink is that the satellites are much closer to earth, so the speed at which people can connect to the Internet is a lot faster. In theory, in practice, one of the limitations of this technology is that a lot of people cannot use it all at the same time. And it’s kind of an inherent limitation to the physics of how low-Earth orbit satellites work. So the only way to be able to get more people connected at the speed that low Earth orbit satellites offer is to get more satellites up there.

S2: Megan says StarLink has under 2000 satellites in operation, though the current constellation is authorized for more than 4000. The company wants to launch as many as 30,000 and it’s not alone in its low-Earth orbit goals. Jeff Bezos, his company, Project Kuiper, wants to launch a similar kind of small satellite to deliver Internet access, as does a company called Oneweb that’s backed by SoftBank. But right now, StarLink is the undisputed leader. It seems like something that would be perfect for the parts of the world where there isn’t a lot of underground cable or undersea cable.

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S3: In theory, yeah, it definitely solves a lot of issues of traditional Internet infrastructure. You basically sign up and you get sent a piece of equipment. Fondly referred to in many Reddit forums as dishy. You receive your you receive your dish here and you know, it’s cute.

S2: It’s like a little baby satellite dish.

S3: It is cute. It is super cute. And, you know, you program in your location and, you know, dish, you basically does the rest for you. You don’t have to be near any like major fiber. You don’t have to be connected through a major telecom company. You know, you don’t have to pay enormous Verizon bills. So for a certain segment of the population and for people who live in certain places, this is a really appealing idea.

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S2: About a year ago, Elon Musk said that StarLink would be a re-imagining of the Internet and get to the parts of the world that are hard to reach. And he he was being interviewed at the Mobile World Congress and he said they should have global connectivity everywhere except the Poles. And I think he made the promise that that would happen by August of 2021. At the time. How was that promise received?

S3: People were really excited about it. I mean, this was seen as a revolution in connectivity. It was going to finally solve issues of Internet access all over the world. And it also made it has competitors really nervous. And so there was a big push to get more of these satellites launched and get more funding into this type of technology as fast as possible. But like a lot of things that Elon boasts about, it’s not quite as easily executed in practice.

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S2: Yeah, here we are, not quite a year out from that speech. Where would you say the connectivity is now? Does that global promise? I don’t know. Was it delivered on?

S3: I think we can say as of now, it absolutely hasn’t been. A recent data from Cloudflare and also self-reported data to Reddit show that 98% of StarLink users are located in the West. So they’re in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. And there are some notable exceptions. Service was made available in Chile, but for the most part, users are overwhelmingly in Canada and the United States and Europe. And that’s not to say that there aren’t people in rural parts of these countries that really need Internet access, and StarLink is definitely solving a problem for those people. But in terms of delivering on the promise of connecting the entire globe, that’s absolutely not happening. And that was one of the things that I was really interested in, in my reporting to talk to people in India who had been on the wait list and expected to receive StarLink technology this month.

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S2: Megan talked to one entrepreneur in India’s Assam state who preordered StarLink thinking it might revolutionize his business. He runs an adventure tourism startup and imagined that the satellite Internet would allow him to attract digital nomads who could work from the area. He and his business partner also thought they could give their neighbors a boost.

S3: They were expecting that they could use their StarLink terminal to provide connectivity for the area that they’re in. So they didn’t just want it for their own business or their own customers. They also figured like, Hey, kids in the neighborhood can come by and use the Internet. I spoke with someone who runs an Internet service provider in Kenya and he said, you know, he thought if he could get StarLink connected in the areas where he provides service, they might be able to get up to 100 people connected to one dish.

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S2: But so far, it hasn’t worked out in India. Regulators have yet to license StarLink, and in January they ordered the company to refund anyone who had already paid for the service, which costs about $600 to set up and 110 per month. It’s also worth noting that India’s largest telecom company has a direct stake in Oneweb, one of Starlink’s competitors. But StarLink has faced delays in other places to the expected service date in South Africa was pushed from 2022 to 2023 with no explanation. And the company is also contending with the global semiconductor shortage.

S3: In concept, it seems like StarLink is really or SpaceX is really the right company to execute on this. Internet beamed from space idea. You know, they have a great track record of getting objects into space, but it’s not actually as simple as that. On the ground, there are a lot of challenges from governments and lobbyists and entrenched interests and supply chains that are a lot harder to control.

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S2: I feel like we should note that StarLink has had one incredibly high profile good experience in Ukraine. I wonder if you could tell that story.

S3: Absolutely. So right after the Russians invaded Ukraine, the country’s minister of information technology tweeted, you know, Yuan, can you send in StarLink? Russia is here and we’re worried about our Internet communications. And within days, a delivery of StarLink terminals to the country and StarLink service was running, I think it was within four days. So, you know, on the surface, that really seems like an incredibly quick turnaround time, incredible success. And it really has been extremely helpful to a number of people and kind of essential, essential services in the country. A lot of hospitals and energy infrastructure, energy companies have received StarLink equipment. But the back story is actually that StarLink was working behind the scenes for, I think, six weeks before the Russian invasion to already try and get service to the country. So it was kind of already next on their list of the place to start offering service, and it was already in the works. So once Fedorov tweeted, Hey, Iran, you know, we really need StarLink in the country, they were basically able to just like flip a switch. And make it happen. The Washington Post has reported that there are about 5000 terminals, Starlink terminals that have been delivered to Ukraine, and that close to 1500 of them were paid for by USAID. So it also was not entirely the goodness of Iran’s heart donating all of these terminals for free. Some of that connectivity has been directly funded by the American government.

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S2: When we come back, who’s actually going to pay for Starlink? One aspect of this that I find particularly interesting is who the customer is. The goal of connecting people in remote places seems so worthy, but I can’t get my head around the idea, number one, that the price point is accessible. But number two, that Starlink is going to make money for space X at at some sort of, you know, scale that makes it worth their while this way.

S3: Iwan has said from the beginning that StarLink is going to be a commercial revenue generator for Space X, but it’s going to be such a widespread success that it’s going to fund additional rocket launches. And it’s really difficult to see, you know, in the case of a place like Tonga, how they’re going to fund that scale of revenue from a country of 100,000 people scattered across the Pacific. So I think it’s really challenging to imagine that a lot of these markets are actually going to generate the scale of revenue that StarLink would need to be a major profit stream for Space X about. And you know, it’s kind of obvious that they’re doubling down on serving markets where people can already afford to pay for it.

S2: I don’t want to make everything into a story about Elon Musk. And I know it’s tempting with a product that he’s in charge of. Do you read this as a story of his big promises that have fallen short? Or is it more complicated? Is it about kind of the market and the cost of of providing Internet service?

S3: That was definitely the main starting point for this story. You know, we were reporting on kind of the play by play of getting the Internet reconnected in Tonga. And it was really interesting to see how many Western media outlets had reported that, you know, StarLink was delivering service there. And really they had all said Starlink has sent terminals, but no one had actually said people are using StarLink for the Internet in this place. And I think that discrepancy is really important. It is a lot about can StarLink fulfill the promise of getting technology to people all over the world? And I think so far, it really hasn’t delivered on that.

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S2: Meaghan Tobin, thank you so much.

S3: Thank you so much for having me.

S2: Megan Tobin is a reporter for Rest of world. That is it for the show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks where edited by Tori Bosch. Duane Levine is the executive producer for what next? Alisha Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts. TBD is part of the larger What Next Family, and it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I want to take a minute and recommend that you listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next? It’s about why students with disabilities are not getting the educations they are legally entitled to. We’ll be back next week with more episodes. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.