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SpaceX Starlink Is Coming to Low-Income Nations

I expect that many Starlink customers in low-income nations will be organizations in which connections are shared.

The introduction of the Internet into a community will have unanticipated side-effects on the community and the individuals in it.

Early Indian VSAT terminal

Beta testers in the US and Canada paid $500 for a terminal and are paying $99 per month for the service. The beta tests began in high-income countries, but SpaceX is beginning to roll Starlink out and will include low-income nations, for example, India.

Last September, SpaceX responded to a request for consultation on a roadmap to promote broadband connectivity and enhanced broadband speed from TRAI, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India. In response, SpaceX made several recommendations that would enable them to quickly begin service in India. The talks between SpaceX and TRAI must be going well because, on November 2, Elon Musk tweeted that they would be operating in India “As soon as we get regulatory approval. Hopefully, around the middle of next year”.

Musk is famously optimistic, but let’s assume they are authorized by TRAI—will rural Indian consumers be able to afford the price SpaceX is charging in the US? For now, the price of Starlink service will be the same in every nation, but that may change if they find they have excess capacity after more satellites are launched.

Loading Pikangikum terminals (from 5-minute video)

Regardless, many Starlink customers in low-income nations will be organizations in which connections are shared rather than individual homes. We already see such examples among the current beta testers. One beta site is the Pikangikum First Nation, a 3,000-person indigenous community in remote Northwestern Ontario, Canada where Starlink is serving community buildings and businesses as well as residences. Other Starlink beta testers are Allen Township, outside of Marysville, Ohio, and the Ector County, Texas, and Wise County, Virginia school districts which are installing Starlink terminals in student homes.

I expect that many Indian installations will be like these—serving community organizations, clinics, schools, businesses, telecenters, etc. rather than consumers in their homes. Of necessity, low-income nations have a long history of shared Internet resources and India is no exception. My colleagues and I found Internet kiosks and telecenters in India in the early days of the Internet, click here and here, and in other low-income nations. For a richly illustrated global tour of early telecenters and their applications and impact, click here. (Jim Cashel has suggested that SpaceX should focus on schools).

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has quipped that setting up a Starlink connection is as simple as pointing the terminal at the sky and plugging it in and that seems to have been close to true for the Pikangikum community. The Pikangikum installation was spearheaded by FSET Information Technology. FSET delivered the terminals and installed the first 15 then community members took over and installed 45 more.

But what about more difficult installations? A casual perusal of the Starlink discussion on Reddit shows that some users have to build creative mounts to connect in wooded or otherwise obstructed areas. Skill is needed for installations in areas where there is no clear view of the sky or some local networking is used to share satellite terminals.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore at Netday96 (Source)

Again, of necessity, technical improvisation by citizens is common in low-income nations. Think of community “street nets” which may be small like this one in Gaspar, Cuba, or large like SNET in Havana. Building networks like these requires technical skill, tools, and supplies, and there may not be an FSET around to help. SpaceX and other constellation operators will need to support rural communities by providing online and in-person training and a marketplace for tools and supplies. The Sun Microsystems Netday initiative for installing local area networks in schools provides an early, successful example of this sort of vendor support of community networking.

Of course installing terminals is just the tip of the iceberg. A community or organization network must be financed and users trained. Again, the constellation operator should play a supporting role. Note that the Musk Foundation has just made a “significant” contribution to Giga in furtherance of their goal of connecting every school to the Internet. I don’t know anything about the terms of the grant—whether it is cash or subsidy—but since terminals are expensive and SpaceX is selling them at a loss, perhaps the schools will receive free service. That would cost SpaceX essentially nothing as long as the school was at a location with unused capacity and it could be phased out over time—something like the National Science Foundation phasing out university connections in the early days of the Internet.

Since Teledesic in the 1990s, prospective constellation operators have promised that Internet connectivity would improve the health, education, and economy of unserved regions and entertain the residents as well, but we are no longer naive and have learned that there may be negative social and personal side effects. For example, in 2011 only 1% of individuals in Myanmar were Internet users. Myanmar privatized mobile connectivity in 2013 and the first international link was activated in March 2014. In June 2014 Aljazeera was asking whether Facebook was amplifying hate speech against the Rohinga.

On a lighter note, I’d hate to see all the Pikangikum teenagers hooked on video games. The introduction of the Internet will have unanticipated side-effects on the community and the individuals in it. It’s an opportunity for a 21st-century Margaret Mead to live among the Pikangikum and other communities to observe the changes.

Update Feb 17, 2021:

I used India as an example in this post, but SpaceX is active in several other low-income nations. They have either opened an affiliate office, applied for or received authorization to offer service, or begun negotiations in the following nations: South Africa, Nigeria, The Philippines, Chile, Columbia, and Mexico. A Teslarati article also mentions Brazil and the Caribbean. One of their affiliate offices, SpaceX Netherlands B.V., has subsidiaries in several European nations, and that may be the case with the Caribbean office that Teslarati mentions. It is a long shot, but I hope one of the Caribbean nations Starlink is talking to is Cuba. (More on that in another post).

Update Feb 18, 2021:

National and local governments, non-governmental organizations, foundations, etc. will also subsidize broadband service from SpaceX and other LEO satellite providers. For example, SpaceX has tentatively been granted $885 million to subsidize rural connectivity in the US and Telesat has been awarded C$85 million for rural connectivity in Canada. One can envision arrangements in which a government or foundation pays for the purchase and installation of equipment and the satellite operator provides free or discounted service. As mentioned above, this would cost the service provider nothing as long as they had excess capacity in the region being served.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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