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Starlink Satellite Constellation UPSC NOTE

 


Starlink Satellite Constellation

  • Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by American aerospace company SpaceX, providing satellite Internet access coverage to over 60 countries. 

  • It also aims for global mobile phone service after 2023.

  • SpaceX started launching Starlink satellites in 2019. 

  • As of May 2023, Starlink consists of over 4,000 mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), which communicate with designated ground transceivers. 

The importance of Starlink

  • For most of the last three decades, satellite internet ranked pretty high on the list of possible, but largely impractical, technology – somewhere between jetpacks and hover cars.

  • The governments or companies would send up small satellites into space that would beam high-speed Internet to users with the help of ground stations or terminals back on earth.

  • In the 1990s and 2000s, most of the companies that sent up such satellites ended up failing, either due to high costs or technical difficulties.

  • It didn’t help that the actual product at the time was bad and that the business opportunity was limited.

  • A lot of this changed fArom 2019, in large part due to Elon Musk. 

  • Better satellites, placed closer to earth, and in a connected constellation could bring satellite internet access on par with the average broadband experience.

  • Today, Musk’s Starlink service is the undisputed king of the section of space called low-earth orbit (LEO).

  • Of the roughly 7,500 active satellites that orbit Earth today, more than half are Starlink satellites.

  • There are a handful of competitors, some backed by governments: Viasat, OneWeb, Avanti, SES, Immarsat, and Iridium. 

  • But none of them come close to offering the convenience, speed or affordability of Starlink.

Importance of Starlink in conflict-stricken regions

  • For most of the world, Starlink’s importance in Ukraine has hammered in how high-speed satellite Internet access is quickly becoming the most valuable strategic resource in a conflict or war-stricken region. 

  • After the Russia-Ukraine war broke out in 2022, fibre network lines and cell towers were the first pieces of infrastructure to be destroyed, rendering Starlink as the lifeblood of Ukraine’s communication network. 

  • It also made them beholden to Musk’s mercurial personality.

  • When Internet connectivity is deployed in a region, the nature of the technology is such that its operations aren’t controlled by the user, but by the company. 

  • So when the Ukrainian government wanted to switch on/off access in a particular area – for example, if a piece of territory had fallen into Russian hands and a few Starlink dishes or terminals had been lost – it had to call up Starlink each and every time. 

  • Imagine an Ukrainian army officer needing connectivity, only to find out that it’s 4 am in California and his contact at SpaceX won’t wake up for another three hours.

  • Musk could argue that he doesn’t want to give up control but the flipside is that he can also choose to turn the service off whenever he wishes. 

  • This is why Taiwan, in desperate need of a back-up in the event China snaps its undersea cables, suggested Starlink operate in its country through a joint venture that would have a local company own 51% of the entity. Musk refused, and talks petered out.

Concerns about the concentration of power and control in the hands of one tech CEO

  • Traditional infrastructure works on a public-utility principle. 

  • Telecom companies don’t get to decide whether a particular region deserves no internet access because its inhabitants might use it for unsavoury purposes. 

  • Yet satellite internet companies get to insert themselves in key debates because of how the technology works and the lack of regulation.

  • After the September 2022 protests in Iran, the government shut off internet access in large parts of the country. 

  • Musk quickly stepped in to turn on Starlink connectivity. 

  • Activists and protestors smuggled in satellite dishes, and to date over 100 Starlink terminals are active in Iran, although the government there has declared it illegal. 

  • Short of shooting down Starlink’s satellites, Iran’s government can’t do anything.

  • There aren’t many that would oppose giving non-violent and democratic protestors the right to safely communicate. 

  • But it’s when the other side of the penny drops that the problem of Starlink’s monopoly becomes clear.

  • The New York Times reports that Musk refused Ukraine’s request in 2022 to provide Starlink connectivity near Crimea. 

  • The Ukrainian army wanted to send an explosive-filled maritime drone into Russian ships. 

  • It was only months later that Musk said that he wouldn’t allow Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.

  • Starlink sits outside the realm of a typical government-to-government defence deal, yet these decisions get to be taken not by a government but a handful of tech company employees.

Reasons for Starlink’s monopoly

  • Starlink’s monopoly was the result of many factors. Admittedly, Musk’s foresight is one; extremely light regulation from the Federal Communications Commission is another.

  • SpaceX’s partly reusable rockets give Starlink a non-stop elevator to get satellites into LEO in a relatively inexpensive manner. This is where its serious competitors trip up.

Way forward

  • The obvious solution is that we need more LEO satellite constellations – government, private or some combination of the two – that provide Internet access.

  • Rival firm OneWeb, whose biggest shareholders are Bharti Airtel’s holding company and the U.K. government, were forced to abort a launch in Russia after Putin demanded the satellites not be used against Moscow. 

  • OneWeb took a $230 million hit after Russia refused to return its satellites too.

  • This is why more government-specific projects are needed.

  • In 2022, the European Union earmarked EUR 2.4 billion to set up a “sovereign” satellite constellation to be rolled out by 2027. 

  • China has its own plans to deploy a 13,000-satellite LEO mega constellation to rival Starlink.

  • Starlink’s disputes with Ukraine and other countries should serve as a wake-up call of how the power of the stars is quickly being concentrated in the hands of just one man, and a worrying lesson for any country or government looking to depend on Musk for connectivity.

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Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam: Starlink Satellite Constellation UPSC NOTE
Starlink Satellite Constellation UPSC NOTE
Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam
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