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Satellite Internet Services

Arrays of reduced altitude, low-latency satellites imparting broadband internet services to broad sections of the earth are an emergent challenge to the data dominance instated by the planet’s autocratic countries. Elon Musk’s Starlink is one such service that immediately comes to mind. Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and the UK funded OneWeb are other instances of such technologies that are on the cusp of deployment. They have the capacity of providing comparatively affordable web access which is external to State control – this is troubling for autocratic states and a big opportunity for democratic nations. 

Russia is already contemplating legislation to criminalize accessing satellite services like these. China is not only intending to start a competing service, it has Elon Musk worried about his sats being destroyed by them. North Korea which has an all out ban on the internet in place, and is widely known for it autocratic despotism, a global enemy of democracy, is yet to provide its opinions on these services. Going by the general atmosphere prevalent in the region, the regime is not likely to be impressed by such technologies. 

What exactly are low altitude, low latency sats and why are these autocratic states so worried? The issue for them, and the potential democracies see in the tech are the systems capability to impart broadband internet throughout the globe, with no new equipment required on land other than a small terminal. As these satellites orbit at a few hundred kilometers as opposed to 35,000km for telecom sats in geostationary orbit, their terminals on land can be of reduced size, customers can swiftly overcome regional restrictions on the internet and data access, and in addition, interact in phone calls external to state systems – such as through VoIP, Skype, or Zoom. Freedom of data access and communications has autocratic states all over the world very worried, and in addition it imparts an opportunity for their counterparts, democracies, to balance their inherent inequal distributions with regards to data. 

In what some academics have defined as democracy’s dilemma, states that are dependent on comparatively free and democratic information flows are susceptible to having that very democracy turned against them by the enemies. Just look back at the Russian influence on Brexit, the 2016 U.S.A. elections and COVID-19 infodemic. What these new-fangled satellite-based frameworks provide is an opportunity to revitalize the dictator’s dilemma – the anxiety that autocratic leaders have of external narratives getting to their citizens, or their citizens interacting in non-state approved channels and mediums. 

Just how deeply ingrained is this anxiety, maybe even fear? Moscow has more negative reactions to critique and threats to its data control that it has to NATO exercises. For several years, Russian national media have collaborated in deflecting these critiques of Russia’s censorship onto nations with which Moscow is in turmoil with, targeting nation states such as Georgia, Ukraine, and the United States of America. 

China’s leadership has an approximately similar perspective, and they fear the American ideals of freedom, democracy, and human rights influencing the citizens of China and Hong Kong. They are even more worried of these philosophies proliferating the citizens psyches than they are of overt military or economical challenges. This is now new to Beijing, the term Great Firewall of China was detailed in a Wired article way back, 24 years ago. Beijing’s controls have undergone expansion after that time, with a humongous censorship and billions of dollars of expenditure on information and societal control, which includes the very privacy compromising social credit systems. 

North Korea is an even more obvious example, and has been under fire from all sections for long. North Korean specialists highlight Pyongyang’s dependence on regional data control to retain the authority of the Kim family. The levels of control might impress some, but in reality, it is a weakness with the pretense of strength. 

The wish for data control is indicative of both the dictator’s dilemma and the democracy’s opportunity. Moscow, Pyongyang, and Beijing, and also Tehran are obviously worried about the threat presented by data access sans supervision. Washington, contrarily, are championing the cause of more democratic internet accessibility, combined with an obvious mention of the new satellite services, would swiftly demand attention and set up an interesting narrative (and underlying threat). Combining this message with the fact that the West is capable to challenge data controls by, for instance, smuggling bulky typewriters, printing presses, and Xerox machines into Eastern Europe four decades ago, which enhanced the proliferation of unsupervised, uncensored data, would increase the credibility of the threat – if autocratic nation states perceived typewriters as an obstacle to their supremacy, infiltration of an “internet box” or hundreds of thousands of them presents an even more tangible risk. The risk of infiltrated devices in conjunction with a narrative espousing freedom of information access imparts to the West an innovative, data-based tool for leverages with regards to foreign policy. A tool, based on threats, deceiving citizens, or providing them misinformation, but merely based on data access. 

By providing a data-based response to a data-based attack, this utility provides a fresh, calibrated response option. China’s cyber espionage or latest attacks on Hong Kong’s civil liberties, Russian efforts to influence Brexit or U.S. elections (or the latest SolarWinds hack), North Korean assaults on Sony or South Korea’s ATM framework, are all actions asking for a response. After this tool is efficiently demonstrated with regards to fostering the dictator’s dilemma, democracy’s reaction, and deterrence kits, for both digital and influence tasks, expands. 

Critically, the usefulness of this data is not restricted merely to enabling external information flow, it also enables data to flow out (particularly relevant with regards to North Korea). Most vitally, it imparts another utility to avert state surveillance and monitoring within an autocratic state. When coupled with mesh networks of the variety utilized, within demonstrations taking place in Hong Kong, it even further amplifies the opportunity for democratic information flow that autocratic states perceive as a threat and a challenge to their supremacy. 

This utility does not supplant other foreign policy tools – military, diplomatic, and economic utilities stay as potential options, what is proposed merely adds a new data-based capacity. The tool slots into the historical context of Western data activities and provides a fascinating public narrative – combating autocratic censorship. The infrastructure expenditure connected to it is comparatively low, and is mainly taken up by the organizations who are launching the technology, and they are becoming realities whether governments want them to or not. Lastly, by rebalancing democracy’s dilemma via reinforcing of the dictator’s dilemma, this utility provides a data response to data/electronic/influence attacks, leveraging a strategy that obviously targets the susceptibilities and loopholes of autocratic adversaries.  

The technological paradigm shift is underway. Autocratic states are in the process of passing legislation and responding to this new threat. Democratic nation states can opt to leverage these tools, or pay no heed to them. 

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