Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Apr 14, 2021
Commoditisation of broadband connectivity: A call to action This article is part of the series—Raisina Edit 2021

The impending commoditisation of broadband connectivity is a major disruptive phenomenon that will impact the status quo and existing markets, cause loss of investments, lead to narrowing of supply chains, and bring about the potential obsolescence of national broadband regulatory activities. This could result in the loss of lucrative licencing income, which could threaten the sovereignty of many nations, particularly across the global south. However, these disruptions seem set to benefit end-users/consumers, spur widespread broadband adoption and associated dependencies, and drive a revolution in products, services, and opportunities, while possibly breaking the strangle hold of government inefficiency which will spark a myriad of unforeseen social changes.

The evolving situation as projected by Survivability News consists of the following:

  1. US-based SpaceX’s Starlink (Elon Musk), Amazon’s Project Kuiper (Jeff Bezos), and UK-based OneWeb are set to disrupt global broadband provisioning.
    1. Starlink already has 1,200 micro-satellites above earth, and has set an initial goal of having 12,000 units up by 2023 and 30,000 satellites after 2023, and reports having over 10,000 customers, in North America.
    2. Starlink currently provides its customers with 100 mbps bandwidth, with less than 31 milliseconds of latency, for US $99/ month (US $0.99 per mbps/ month) or US $11.88/ mbps/ annum. By 2023, it expects to provide 10gbps (10,000 mbps) connectivity anywhere across the globe for US $99/ month or US $0.0012/ mbps/ annum.
    3. By comparison, African providers currently offer 1 mbps bandwidth for between US $263.85 (2,221 percent more) to US $17,604.03 (148,182 percent above Starlink)/ annum. In addition, many domestic broadband providers have high contention ratios, i.e., several clients sharing the data capacity on a given line, which dilutes the capacity.
  2. Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper (envisaged fleet of 3,236) and the UK’s OneWeb (planned fleet of 648), are set, over the next 12- 24 months. Such disruptions have implications for:
  3. The business models of existing broadband providers who have paid millions of dollars in licensing fees and billions in infrastructure investment.
  4. Sovereignty, national security, and privacy will be impacted because our nations will have little control over an American company that answers to its shareholders and the USA Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and in effect, by-pass our national regulators.
  5. Countries across the global south have launched expensive full “spectrum” communications satellites, intent on providing ubiquitous broadband capacity. These satellites are more sophisticated and offer additional communications services beyond those offered by the low-cost microsatellite platforms. However, the largest—and primary—market segment, is the provisioning of broadband, and the microsatellites provide access to broadband at rates that make the larger satellites uncompetitive and effectively obsolete, as no end-user will pay 2,000 to 150,000 percent and more for the same service.

Way forward

We need to carry out thorough analyses, engage in robust discussions, and articulate requisite strategies to address the commoditisation broadband connectivity. The following need to be addressed:

  1. Operational, regulatory, and security communities need to understand what is in the offing and the ramifications. What impact will this impending disruption have on our sovereignty should we be unable to regulate and protect our citizens from their impact? If “Data is the New Oil” then our individual data has intrinsic value and, thus, the monetisation of the collective data of millions of our citizens is the proverbial gold mine, as Google and Facebook have demonstrated.
  2. What are the implications for individual and society-wide privacy as the data of our citizens are likely to be collected by space-based broadband providers? In 2020, data breaches involving the exposure of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of over three hundred million people worldwide, subjected the victims to ongoing risks of fraud like identity theft by cybercriminals.
  3. Whose privacy policies’ will be followed, and who has primary jurisdiction? Will it be regulators of the country consuming the broadband service? Regulators that we have minimal control over like a possible global regulator. Regulators of a nation like the USA where such global initiatives are based? Or a private sector player as exemplified by the experience several nations have had with Facebook whose primary responsibility is expectedly to their shareholders?
  4. What new extensions of strategic geopolitical influence and power will this conjure for the US and UK to expand their spheres of influence and “hegemony” into the 21st century? What is at stake for Russia, China, and India; how will they respond? And how ready are nations of the global south to respond?
  5. What will be the impact on and mitigation strategies of existing service providers, who have invested millions, and collectively billions of dollars, for operating licenses from national regulators and in infrastructure. These service providers must now compete against microsatellite firms who may not have made any local payments. What does this mean for the licencing income of national regulators and impact on national budgets?
  6. The US $886 million subsidy by the US to Starlink to support broadband penetration in “rural” and “underserved” areas in the US could conceivably metamorphose into a requirement for those space-based providers to subsequently adhere to international US policies and mores, which may not align with other national perspectives, even when couched as promoting “freedom” and “democracy.”
  7. Can, and how will, nations exert their territorial integrity over “outer-space” ning beyond their sovereign and physical jurisdictions? Furthermore, how will they defend their sovereign “outer-space”? Is there even a sovereign “outer-space”? Furthermore, what defence strategies can we follow?
  8. Will the United Nations, through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), be able to manage the space segment assignment and allied processes that ensure reasonable stability in the utilisation of outer-space-based assets? Will the ITU will need to be restructured along with the UN?
  9. Will all the proposed micro satellites be autonomous and self-managing to avoid collisions? We are unaware if SpaceX has released any simulation of the operations of the satellites to show that their operations will not impact the operations of other satellites in neighbouring orbits. Without such simulations the prospect of serious systemic vulnerabilities arises. The potential for these satellite fleets to interfere with the operations of other satellite operators may provide cause to take legal action in US courts and to hold these firms to account when such fleets can be found meaningfully liable.

Our strategic decisions makers need to be aware that these disruptions are imminent. They must engage with citizens in robust national conversations, supported by timely empirical research-based assessments of the likely impacts, and provide leadership in seeking ways to moderate the negative aspects while preparing our societies to exploit the opportunities.

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