Regulators Are Ignoring How Low Orbit Satellite Broadband Is Trashing The Night Sky
from the blinded-by-science dept
As previously noted, Space X, Amazon, and others are pushing harder than ever into the low-orbit satellite broadband game. The industry, pockmarked by a long road of failures, involves firing thousands of smaller, cheaper, lower orbit satellite constellations into space to help supplement existing broadband services. The lower orbit means that LO satellite service will offer lower-latency broadband than traditional satellite offerings, which for 15 years or so have been widely maligned as expensive, slow, “laggy,” with annoying monthly caps.
And while these services should absolutely help bring some additional options to rural Americans, nautical ventures, and those out of range of traditional service, folks shouldn’t get their hopes up in terms of broader disruption of the uncompetitive U.S. telecom market. The physics involved in satellite transmission means there will always be limited capacity and odd throttling and network management restrictions, meaning it won’t really make much headway in highly monopolized major metro areas. In short, the tech is absolutely a positive advancement, but it’s not going to be the game changer many think.
And there’s another growing problem with low orbit satellite technology. As we launch thousands of these micro-satellite constellations into space, the LO satellites are annoying professional and amateur astronomers, who say they’re interfering with space observation and important scientific data collection (especially at wide-field observatories). During the recent monitoring of the NEOWISE comet, for example, photographer Daniel Lopez showed what Starlink “photobombing” looks like in practice for those trying to track these sort of events in the night sky:
Not great. And it’s going to get notably worse. Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation, for example, will eventually consist of 3,236 satellites, more than the 2,600 satellites currently in orbit. Space X’s Starlink project, in contrast, could ultimately consist of as many as 12,000 satellites all told. In some instances this is an even worse problem for slightly higher altitude LO satellites. And keep in mind this is just the testing phase… we haven’t even gotten close to broader commercial deployment yet.
While Space X says it’s taking steps to minimize the glare and “photo bombing” capabilities of these satellites (such as anti-reflective coating on the most problematic parts of the satellites), regulators at the FCC and elsewhere appear to be asleep at the wheel in terms of the broader impact on science and astronomy:
“We don’t yet have any kind of industrywide guidelines,” said Michele Bannister, a planetary astronomer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “We don’t have an industry body that’s producing good corporate citizenship on the part of all of these enthusiastic companies that want to launch, and we don’t have any regulatory setup in place that’s providing clear guidelines back to the industry.”
She added, “To me, honestly, it feels like putting a bunch of planes up and then not having air traffic control.”
No guidelines. Not just patchy or undeveloped guidelines. But none.
It won’t get mentioned by the Times, but part of the problem are regulators who base their decisions on ideology and not data. In telecom, folks on the “deregulate everything and free market magic springs forth from the sidewalk” side of the policy aisle have long tried to paint emerging broadband alternatives as near-mystical panaceas to justify deregulation. As in, “we don’t need regulation of telecom monopolies or consumer protection because this new technology X will create competition and fix everything.” It never works because the U.S. telecom industry is painfully monopolized and broken, yet that never seems to matter.
This performative policy happened most notably years back with broadband over powerline (BPL), which former FCC boss turned cable’s top lobbyist Mike Powell hyped as the “great broadband hope.” Powell routinely hyped the tech to justify his massive deregulation of telecom in the aughts, but willfully ignored the fact the technology was an interference prone mess causing massive problems for radio transmissions nearby. BPL failed, and you only need to look at U.S. broadband prices, rankings, or Comcast’s customer support to see how this worked out for everybody.
Low orbit satellite is far more useful and solid than BPL ever was, but I’m expecting to see it used in much the same way by the Pai FCC. As in: Pai’s crew will quickly rubber stamp Amazon and Space X’s ambition, hopeful that the added competition will help them retroactively justify their complete demolition of U.S. telecom consumer protections at the telecom lobby’s behest. As in, we didn’t need pesky oversight of monopolies because free market competition saved the day. But by Musk’s own admission Starlink won’t truly disrupt U.S. telecom because it can’t serve dense urban or suburban markets, meaning companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast won’t be meaningfully disrupted, and reality and aspirational policy once again won’t line up.
When your top priorities are the maximizing of corporate revenues or the retroactive justification of bad policy based exclusively on ideology, the end result usually tends to lack… nuance. And in this case, this regulatory myopia could in many ways have unintended harm that goes well beyond the telecom sector and into the night sky itself.