de·moc·ra·ti·za·tion

noun /dəˌmäkrədəˈzāSH(ə)n/

▶︎ the introduction of a democratic system or democratic principles;

▶︎ the action of making something accessible to everyone, as in
▶︎“the democratization of information through technology.”

The democratization
of internet connectivity

Serial inventor, engineer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002. He had already sold his software company (Zip2) to Compaq and founded an online banking company (X.com) that evolved into PayPal. A multimillionaire, Musk joined Tesla Motors in 2004 (the year it was founded) as product architect, and in four years became CEO. But even before founding SpaceX, Musk imagined landing an experimental greenhouse on Mars and started an international search for the right rocket at the right price before deciding that he could build a better one himself. So from the inception of SpaceX, almost two decades ago, Musk envisioned the dual goals of exploring space and creating a successful rocket launch company. Within 15 years of its launch, SpaceX had more than $12 billion in contracts and over 8,000 employees. 

From Musk’s vision of technology and manufacturing capability that could enable the colonization of Mars emerged a company that developed the world’s leading space launch and satellite communication vehicles, including the Starlink satellite network. By 2010, SpaceX's achievements included its Falcon series rockets and becoming the first private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft. Two years later, a Dragon Spacecraft transported astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The Falcon evolved into the first reusable orbital rocket and the first rocket to make vertical landings. In January 2020, with the third launch of the Starlink project, SpaceX became the largest commercial satellite constellation operator in the world.

What then is Starlink? It will be a constellation consisting of thousands of small satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) connected to ground receivers to provide ubiquitous broadband Internet access. First launched in May 2019, SpaceX is launching about 60 satellites at a time to orbit at an altitude of 340 miles or less. Eventually more than 40,000 Starlink satellites will have the capacity to support broadband Internet services for at least half of Earth’s population. A sister company of SpaceX, SpaceX Services, has been licensed to develop as many as a million fixed earth stations that can communicate with orbiting Starlink satellites. SpaceX has received a license to provide high-speed Internet services in Canada, another step in its plan to provide competitively priced satellite Internet connectivity in both developed and underserved parts of the planet, including in the U.S. In fact, in a filing with the FCC earlier this year, SpaceX stated its intention “to provide low-latency broadband to unserved and underserved Americans that is on par with service previously only available in urban areas.”

 

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The impact of a universally accessible network as envisioned by Starlink cannot be overstated. Up to this point, the main limit to accessibility has been tied to infrastructure, which in the U.S. the private sector has been completely responsible for. This makes consumers completely dependent on companies such as Charter, Cox, AT&T, etc., who on their end have to make decisions answerable to their shareholders and owners. Attempts to address these conflicting needs have ranged from city-level public ISP projects (such as those recently passed in Chicago and Denver) to national policy (e.g.: the great recurring net-neutrality debate). A vast infrastructure that is available to all regardless of population density could solve many of these problems all at once.

 

The amazing SpaceX story becomes even more audacious when looking at the company’s global technology partners, such as Microsoft and its Azure Space cloud computing platform. Microsoft no doubt derived some inspiration from Musk and SpaceX when it created a business unit called Azure Space to propel its cloud-computing Azure platform into space-sector services. Together SpaceX and Azure Space will provide global satellite networking capabilities for their own companies and through expanding partnerships. Already there are many examples of SpaceX and Azure Space jointly and separately providing space connectivity for virtually every industry on the planet, including agriculture, energy, telecommunications, and governments, as well as military services.  

 

The amount of innovation being spawned by these businesses in orbit and on the ground is staggering. But what is not being talked about much by space companies (except occasionally in media interviews) is the potential roles of their multiplying space ventures in the global democratization of Internet connectivity in ways that significantly support and promote economic and social equality. Already planet Earth has a global network of over 160,000 miles of subsea, terrestrial, and metro optical fiber, and yet we are still lacking any sort of systematic analysis and planning to harness our existing bandwidth, networking capabilities, and vast data archives to meet the world’s economic, healthcare, educational, and other human needs.

 

Microsoft’s new partnership with SpaceX’s Starlink provides the perfect opportunity for a commitment to deploy high-speed, low-latency satellite broadband in ways that enable comprehensive national and community planning solutions together with cloud-enabled satellite connectivity anywhere in the world. Implementation could include bringing self-contained Microsoft Azure Modular Datacenters (MDC) to every participating region and community. Microsoft designed its MDC to support high-intensity, secure computing in challenging environments, including those where power and building infrastructure are unreliable. The MDC provides communities and their planning organizations with the capability to deploy what amounts to a complete datacenter in a trailer truck, even in remote locations where it can operate with satellite connectivity or no connectivity at all.

 

Commercial and government space organizations are developing thousands of interconnected satellite constellations that require precise planning and sophisticated AI-driven systems. One of the capabilities being developed is simulations that utilize AI algorithms and satellite networking to generate real-time projections of alternative plans for projects on earth or in space. Microsoft’s Azure Orbital Emulator, for example, can create  computer emulated environments to test satellite constellation operations through every phase of development pre-launch. As an invaluable tool for regional and community planning, SpaceX–Microsoft Azure could enable simulations of plans for economic development, telecommunications, healthcare/telemedicine, environments and climate change, transportation, financial services and education systems at all levels that optimize the use of every physical and other resource to promote post-pandemic economic and social well-being and democratization. 

 

In a relatively short time, the terrible onslaught of COVID-19 already is driving unprecedented changes in the way that communities and people plan for the future. But these changes in plans, policies and behaviors are mostly happening in a random way. Talk of “reopening” countries and their communities is mostly rhetoric without planning substance. No one has yet seized on the coronavirus disaster as an unprecedented opportunity to engage SpaceX, Microsoft, Google and the world’s other leading technology companies to leverage their internet connectivity and other assets in ways that foster democratization and benefit every demographic segment on planet earth. In other words—making the world a better and more connected place.

We at the St. James Faith Lab will keep you informed, and let us know your thoughts about the democratization of internet connectivity, and what it can mean as we plan for the future.

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees

Executive Director

St. James Faith Lab

St. James Faith Lab collaborates with St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California.

St. James Faith Lab 3419 Via Lido, Box 354 Newport Beach, CA 92663-3908 info@stjamesfaithlab.org

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