Will Starlink Have a “Facebook Moment” (and not in a good way)?

sxIn 2017 Facebook discovered that bringing large populations online can lead to serious unexpected consequences. In that year it became clear that a sophisticated state actor had used Facebook to try to influence the 2016 presidential election. In 2017 it also became clear that Facebook had been used by malign forces in Myanmar to drive hate speech and violence against the Rohingya minority, forcing 700,000 to flee the country for safety in what has been called the first “social media genocide”. In 2017 the dimensions of the Cambridge Analytica scandal also became clear.

Facebook itself admits its 2017 awakening. Mark Zuckerberg said in April 2018, “We are an idealistic and optimistic company. For the first decade, we really focused on all the good that connecting people brings. But it’s clear now we didn’t do enough. We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm.”

Facebook’s global user base has grown to around two billion over the last 15 years. SpaceX Starlink has aspirations to provide broadband services to three billion people currently without internet, as well as many more in developed countries, all rolling out over the next several years.

It’s certain that providing broadband to billions of people currently without access will present unprecedented opportunities in education, health, finance, government services, and much more. (I recently wrote a book on this topic.) It is also certain that there will be prompt and complex challenges that Starlink will need to address. Facebook at this point requires a “State Department” level of policy expertise internally to deal with the complex societal issues that Facebook introduces. Starlink will too.

On the SpaceX careers page, it is interesting to note that almost all positions appear to be for technical and engineering roles. There don’t appear to be any that are focused on end users, developing market product development, local governments, policy issues, legal issues, partnerships, local security, training, event response, or other topics that will certainly emerge. (It is interesting to note that SpaceX competitor OneWeb lists a number of such jobs on its career page, as well as inviting feedback concerning future roles.)

SpaceX Starlink has the opportunity to reshape the planet, possibly even eliminate poverty. But if it repeats Facebook’s mistake of being driven just by engineering and optimism, it is in for a rude awakening.

Update on Project Kuiper

amazonAmazon has filed application documents with the FCC seeking permission to launch 3,236 satellites composing the Project Kuiper internet satellite network.

Amazon describes a satellite constellation at between 366 and 391 miles in altitude comprising 98 orbital planes of approximately 30 satellites per plane.

In addition to providing broadband services to over three billion people currently without internet, Amazon’s service also seeks to provide shopping, video streaming and Amazon Web Services access to existing and new customers.

Amazon claims that commercial services will begin once 578 satellites are in proper orbit (or about 18% of the full planned constellation).

Update from Loon

loonLoon, the internet balloon company that spun out from (Google) X, has announced two major updates.

First, a Loon balloon has set a new flight record with 223 days aloft. Loon has worked hard to extend the flight times of its balloons, which in turn lowers costs. Loon’s previous flight time record was 198 days.

Second, Loon appears close to providing commercial service in rural Kenya. It has now received permission from Kenyan authorities for commercial testing. If Loon is able to demonstrate its business model with Telkom Kenya, other service providers in Kenya and in the region can quickly adopt the service. Loon can launch and manage additional balloons relatively inexpensively, so scaling services should be possible.

Kenyans living in rural areas may soon have 4G access brought to them by stratospheric balloon.

SpaceX Launches First 60 Starlink Satellites

maxresdefaultSpaceX has successfully launched the first 60 Starlink satellites (following two initial test satellites last year). There is a lot of press covering this launch. The best review article I’ve seen is by Stephen Clark on SpaceflightNow.

Key points:

  • SpaceX has surprised the industry by launching 60 satellites. Most analysts were predicting a smaller number of satellites per launch. SpaceX is undoubtedly working to build even smaller, lighter, more powerful satellites, so the number of satellites per launch is likely to grow.
  • SpaceX reports it will launch between two and six more Starlink missions this year, depending on results from their initial launch. This suggests that hundreds more satellites could be in orbit by Christmas.
  • SpaceX claims an operational system requires 400 satellites, while a commercially viable system would require 800. SpaceX has the launch capability to meet those targets by 2020.
  • SpaceX used a booster that has flown twice previously (and has been paid for — twice — by other customers). The booster was recovered and will be assessed for future flights.
  • SpaceX landed the two fairing halves in the ocean and recovered them. The company appears to be exploring the reuse of fairings even if contaminated by sea water — which would allow SpaceX to drop efforts to catch fairings in a giant net.
  • OneWeb, SpaceX’s greatest competitor in satellite internet, is scheduled for up to 20 launches over the next two years. Each launch will carry up to 36 satellites.
  • Sixty satellites traversing the night sky prompted UFO alerts.
  • SpaceX launched a new Starlink website.

Satellite internet still has many technical, business and regulatory hurdles to overcome — but it just took a giant step closer to reality.

 

Satellite Internet Gets Serious

starlinkPlans to launch thousands of satellites to provide internet services across the globe haven’t gotten much attention in the past. The ideas sounded utopian. Past satellite internet efforts had failed. The leading firms (like OneWeb) were mostly unknown. Elon Musk has lots of detractors.

But three recent events have moved the topic of satellite internet from “speculative” to “probable” in many people’s minds.

First, OneWeb raised $1.25 billion in its current round of funding, a number hard to ignore. OneWeb has raised $3.4 billion to date.

Second, Amazon announced plans to launch a constellation of 3,236 internet satellites. Amazon has the technical acumen, resources, and (relatively soon) launch resources to be taken very seriously.

Finally, SpaceX announced that its first launch of Starlink Satellites will include 60 prototypes – a number two or three times higher than most anticipated for a single launch. The satellites are stacked on top of each other like cassettes (see photo above). Gwynne Shotwell, CEO of SpaceX, says that there will be up to six additional Starlink launches just this year.

There is a major race underway to essentially rebuild the internet in space. Most attention to this point is focused on the technology and economics of the race. But what will be the secondary and tertiary effects of a new internet reaching billions of people for the first time?

The Technocratic Oath

mdSilicon Valley moves fast. A major reason for the success of technology companies in the Valley is speed. The combination of talent, funding and experience found in the region gives many startups significant first-mover advantage as well as the ability to scale quickly.

And importantly, there is a pervasive obsession with speed. Companies launch “minimum viable products” that will “fail fast”. Facebook auspiciously encouraged staff to “move fast and break things”. The most important imperative is to get the product to market, receive feedback, fix bugs, and iterate.

This approach works great when you are launching, for example, software to link your phone to your car stereo.

But what about the major platforms that at current scale have major societal impact? What if “breaking things” represents major social disruption? It’s great if Facebook supports small businesses and enables photo sharing, but what if it also facilitates election tampering, hate speech, or in the case of Myanmar, genocide?

As Tom Wheeler describes in his latest book From Gutenberg to Google: The History of our Future, the greatest impact of new technologies generally isn’t their direct influence, but secondary and tertiary influences. Gutenberg knew that the printing press would facilitate communications, but didn’t know that it would facilitate the Protestant Reformation.

So how should technology companies, with their growing societal influence, think about their responsibilities?

Actually we know the answer: Primum non nocere.

Every medical student learns the Hippocratic Oath, an important part of which invokes “First, do no harm”. From day one students are taught that innovation in medicine needs to be coupled with responsibility for the well-being of the patient.

Thank goodness it is such. Could we imagine, for example, a major pharmaceutical company launching a new cancer drug that only worried about a “minimum viable product”? Aspired to “fail fast”? Sought to “move fast and break things”? It’s unthinkable. If a new ointment cures your rash but makes your skin fall off as a side effect, that isn’t good. Physicians understand that.

As such, medicine has both a culture and approach of considering secondary and tertiary effects of innovation at every step. Products are tested rigorously for side effects. The government spends billions monitoring drug safety. If problems are discovered, drugs or products are immediately recalled.

It is now apparent that technology innovation needs to be equally cautious. Sometimes the stakes are low: if my phone doesn’t link effectively to my car stereo, it’s not the end of the world. But when companies reach the scale and influence where they can facilitate crime, abet violence, or undermine democracy, the secondary and tertiary impact of their products absolutely need to be considered at every stage. This impact needs to be monitored. And just as with a rogue drug, dangerous technology innovations need to be recalled.

It’s time for the technology sector to take a page from medicine and agree to a “Technocratic Oath”.

What should it be?

For starters, it should include the words first penned twenty five centuries ago: “First do no harm.”

Loon Receives SoftBank Investment

hapsLoon, the internet balloon company, has received a $125 million investment from HAPSMobile, an affiliate of SoftBank. HAPSMobile is developing stratospheric drones to be used as internet platforms. The drones, with a wingspan of 78 meters, plan to fly at altitude of 20 kilometers for six months at a time.

HAPSMobile and Loon seek to use compatible (or identical) communications equipment on their respective platforms. They also plan to coordinate on ground system equipment, as well as joint policy efforts with governments to allow balloon and drone communications platforms.

The two companies may also coordinate with OneWeb, the low earth orbit satellite company. In theory satellites could communicate with balloons or drones, which in turn can communications directly with consumers, obviating the need for specialized consumer antennas. OneWeb is in part funded by SoftBank.

The Great Connecting: Introduction

great connectingHere is the Introduction from The Great Connecting. The full book (hardcover, paperback, e-book) is available for purchase on Amazon or any local bookseller.

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In February 2018, a rocket launched by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, placed a Spanish radar satellite called Paz into orbit. While the launch itself was uneventful, there were two significant stow- aways on board: a pair of small prototype satellites, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, to test new communications technologies. SpaceX plans to use information from these tests to build a network of communications satellites called Starlink to provide broadband services across the planet.

There are currently about eight hundred functioning communications satellites in orbit, providing services across the globe. SpaceX has Federal Communications Commission (FCC) permission to launch 11,943 Starlink satellites in the next few years. The constellation is scheduled to be completed by 2025.

Starlink is just one of several large projects involving a new generation of communications satellites that will provide broadband services across the planet over the next few years. Other nonsatellite technologies, such as high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones, are being developed by Google, Facebook, Airbus, and other major players to extend broadband to parts of the planet currently unreached by the internet.

In the twenty-five years since the World Wide Web appeared with the launch of the Mosaic browser, about half the population of the planet has gained access to the internet. In the next three to five years, the other half will be gaining access. That second half of the planet’s population, notably, is the “poor half,” with most of the three billion or so future internet consumers currently living on less than several dollars per day.

The impact of rapid internet extension in developing countries will be profound, since broadband will enable many previously unavailable services, such as information access, distance education, online banking, health services, and government programs. It will also, of course, bring many challenges, including fraud, misinformation, and hate speech.

The extension of the internet across the full planet, which I call The Great Connecting, is a momentous event in world history. Have there been any other global events that significantly affected billions of people over just a few years? Even considering wars, epidemics, famines, technologies, and religion, it is hard to think of any. The Great Connecting is doing just that, however, at this very moment.

Despite the fact that the connecting of the planet is so significant, it is, ironically, very hard to witness. It is happening in millions of simultaneous small steps, all essentially hiding in plain sight. It is happening in a kiosk in Harare, where a student is buying her first smartphone. It is happening in Redmond, where an engineer is designing new broad- band satellite antennas. It is happening in Cuzco, where a nonprofit is teaching farmers to use a new app. It is happening in New York, where global policy organizations are setting telecommunications standards. It is happening in Kigali, where international firms are laying fiber optic cable. All are contributing their little bit in this process of connecting the planet—and the combined effect is profound.

It is also happening fast. While traditional internet technologies involving cell towers and smartphones continue to expand in developing countries, the new technologies involving satellites, balloons, and drones represent a major and speedy leap forward.

I decided to write a book about The Great Connecting. It is an epic story that I wanted to investigate and better understand. So I took leave from my technology company in California to spend part of a year traveling to regions with no broadband, including some of the poorest, most remote areas that are likely last in line for connecting. I also sought to explore regions just getting broadband and to speak with those most affected. I met with engineers and scientists driving the innovation of communications at some of the largest and most sophisticated technology firms on the planet. I spoke with policymakers who are thinking about the rules and implications of expanding connectivity. I sought out the most knowledgeable and passionate folks I could find who are leading the expansion of broadband.

Two questions animated my explorations. First, what are the implications, both positive and negative, of The Great Connecting in develop- ing countries and for the planet overall? Second, and most important, what are the major players involved in connecting the planet doing to prepare, to best accentuate the positive and mitigate the negative effects of expanded connectivity? I entered the project with a hunch that many groups are sprinting toward wiring the planet, but few are thinking hard about the opportunities and challenges once that hap- pens not many years from now. The dog is chasing the car—but what happens when it catches it?

In this book, I navigate through the current state of broadband across the planet, including who has it, who doesn’t, and present trends. I explore the technologies that in the near future will have a tremendous impact on reaching billions of new people. I review many of the remarkable possibilities that global broadband will offer. I dive into a number of challenges of expansion—including some heart- rending stories that illustrate very real perils. I also propose a number of steps that governments, organizations, and individuals should be taking to best prepare for The Great Connecting. The pages contain narrative, travelogues, background primers, and policy recommendations, all in a mosaic that reflects the complexity of the global story under way.

Through my explorations, I came to view The Great Connecting as a complex relationship taking place: the population of half the planet is about to become closely connected to the other half for the first time. It is the story of a global union. Like any complex relationship, many aspects are at play: exploring what’s possible, investing in growth, over- coming challenges, and discovering the best path to partnership. Those are the stages I describe in the book. I’ve even organized chapters along the path of this emerging relationship.

And like any complex relationship, there are aspects that are wonderful, and there are aspects that are terrible. The relationship requires investment and effort and an optimistic sense of the future. It also requires a clear-eyed idea of what troubles might lie ahead.

As it so happens, the story of this relationship begins in a land very far away.

The Great Connecting: How to Get Involved

great connectingIn The Great Connecting is an appendix titled “How to Get Involved” which is reproduced here. In the comments section of this post feel free to add suggestions on this topic.

*****

We all can be observers of The Great Connecting. It is more rewarding, however, to participate, even a little bit. How can one contribute to this epic process of global connection?

Here are seven ideas that come to mind. If you have additional ideas, you can post a comment on the blog post with the title “How to Get Involved” at the Broadband Everywhere blog (http://www.broadbandeverywhere.org).

• Explore. Social media brings the world to our smartphones. It is possible to meet people, join conversations, and share photos, music, or ideas with individuals around the world in nearly every country. I was once, for example, looking into a project with my daughter involving Iran. It is astounding how many Iranians use Instagram.

• Travel. Taking a trip to a developing country greatly supports The Great Connecting. You will use online services to research, plan, schedule, and pay for your trip. You will use your phone to coordinate plans once you are in the country. You will spend money, rewarding those who are building the information infrastructure.

• Hire. The Great Connecting makes it possible to hire people directly in remote places. If you or your company needs to hire a designer, developer, data entry specialist, or other worker, you can use online services such as UpWork to find people. Language tutors are especially helpful. My family has had great luck hiring instructors in Mandarin, Spanish, and Portuguese for online lessons.”

• Volunteer. Many services allow you to volunteer online. You can tutor English, help with sister schools or sister cities programs, or be an international mentor.

• Study. Online education programs such as EdX and Udacity offer classes that are international. Any breakout groups you join are certain to have participants from all over the world.

• Donate. A number of large, credible organizations allow donations or loans to people in developing countries. GiveDirectly provides unconditional cash transfers to poor people in a number of countries in Africa. GlobalGiving supports grassroots charitable projects worldwide. Kiva provides microloans in eighty countries.

• Participate. New information about The Great Connecting is posted on the Broadband Everywhere blog (http://www.broadbandeverywhere.org). You can post and respond to comments there. Information will also be posted there about the best new information resources on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. We can use the hashtag #BroadbandEverywhere.

Also feel free to write me with ideas and comments: cashel@ForumOne.com.

 

Phones as Medical Devices

africaThe proliferation of cheap, connected smartphones in developing countries has the potential of transforming healthcare.

New users have access to information, such as through services such as MomConnect.  Phones can support telemedicine. Smartphones can even be used as medical devices themselves.

One recent example is the use of smartphones to support inexpensive ultrasound devices in Uganda. Doctors there, armed with a phone linked to a $2,000 handheld scanner, can diagnose pneumonia, infections, cancers, and other conditions. The devices are built to be durable for use in remote regions. Images can be sent to radiologists in other cities (or countries) for review. Many users are now seeing their first medical device ever — and it is the extension of a phone.