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Space is a junkyard but we still have no quality broadband

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Elon Musk is reportedly planning on sending tens of thousands more Starlink satellites into space (Screenshot via YouTube)

Companies such as Starlink are cluttering space with inferior satellites with little concern for increasing the quality of their services, writes Laurie Patton.

LAST WEEK, the U.S. authority overseeing the country’s broadband rollout, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), rejected a billion-dollar subsidy request from a satellite internet network owned by billionaire Elon Musk.

The FCC said Starlink had failed to demonstrate that it could deliver the promised service levels. A quick look at its Facebook users group confirms that many U.S. customers have already found that to be the case. Subscribers here in Australia are also discovering that Starlink is not all they’d hoped it would be. 

While this funding rejection might not stop the project, it will arguably cause more people to ask if it’s a good idea. Starlink is one of a number of companies planning to deploy tens of thousands of low earth orbiting satellites – or LEOs as they are known – in order to provide broadband to remote areas around the world. They are relatively inexpensive and hundreds can be launched at one time.

Right now, there’s a global campaign to clean up our oceans that have been massively polluted with discarded plastic. Chances are we’ll be doing much the same in space decades from now.

Sixty years ago, the Antarctic Treaty was created to reduce the risk of environmental damage and to establish a multinational governance regime. Australia was a key signatory. It looks like a similar arrangement is long overdue when it comes to the increasing commercial exploitation of space. We need to ensure that private companies placing objects in space don’t create another environmental disaster.

There are varying reports, but as many as 42,000 LEOs are said to be Starlink’s ultimate goal. It’s claimed that most of these LEOs will burn up on re-entry when they have reached their use-by date. But others say too many will make it back to Earth. In any case, when one comes down, another will go up to replace it. They are about the size of a small car, by the way.

Astronomers warn of the effect LEOs will have on stargazing. For traditional astronomy, one issue is that satellites reflect light from the sun, which affects visual sighting. For radio astronomers, satellites can interfere with the detection of the electromagnetic spectrum used to identify objects in space.

According to Australia’s “astronomer-at-large” Fred Watson, the proliferation of LEOs presents a potential risk with somewhere between serious and extreme consequences. Watson is optimistic that astronomers will eventually find ways to reduce the interference by satellite constellations. “In fact, that’s happening already,” he tells me. Others are not so confident.

The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office records show there are around 7,600 large satellites in space today. Only about 4,700 of these are still active but their owners have no plans to retrieve their “dead birds”.

You can’t blame people for being initially attracted to Starlink, or one of its competitors, given the state of our National Broadband Network.

Ironically, the NBN itself relies on satellites for its Sky Muster service to remote subscribers. However, critics claim satellites are being used to avoid deploying more complex and costly fixed-line connections. 

Under the Coalition’s much criticised revised business plan, premises that would have originally received fibre were moved to satellite after being classified as difficult builds. Not only does this deliver an inferior product compared to fixed wireless or fibre cabling, the more customers who are simultaneously using a satellite service, the worse it will perform. Unsurprisingly, the same issue seems to have arisen with Starlink.

Long-term lobbying by the Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR) group has resulted in what it maintains are “some great advancements” with Sky Muster. It notes that Starlink “is not always available or affordable for many regional consumers at this point”.

Several years ago, one of NBN Co’s engineers privately confirmed his view that they’d need a third satellite to meet increasing demand. It seems that rather than three large satellites, we might end up with thousands of small ones in the skies over Australia.

According to a former senior NBN executive, the long-term plan right from the start was to extend the fixed line and wireless coverage areas once the initial rollout was completed, thereby reducing the number of customers reliant on satellite.

Recognising there were competitive threats to the NBN, the previous Federal Government and NBN Co together allocated $750 million in funding to improve the fixed wireless services. Labor is continuing with a broad strategy to improve the NBN. It also involves extending the fibre rollout.

Faced with a potential loss of customers and much-needed revenue, NBN Co has argued Starlink should pay a $7.10 a month per customer fee as other non-NBN broadband providers are required to do.

University of Southern Queensland academics Brad Carter and Mark Rigby conclude that ‘we will eventually have to clean up our space neighbourhood’.

At the very least, we need a comprehensive global regulatory regime, just as was created to protect Antarctica. Or perhaps something akin to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

We need to ensure that private companies placing objects in space don’t create another environmental disaster like the plastic pollution in our oceans. And they must have effective means of disposing of these things as they reach their end-life. History tells us that without government intervention, some businesses will inevitably fail to do the right thing.

Laurie Patton is a former journalist and executive in charge of news and current affairs at the Seven Network. He is also a former CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia.

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