Companies like OneWeb and Elon Musk’s Starlink have been moving forward on ambitious plans to make internet available to every person on earth, which is a noble goal considering an estimated 4.3 billion people don’t have internet access.
The problem is that there’s a natural incentive for a private satellite company to engage in “spectrum warehousing,” or highballing the amount of satellites it asks the government to allow it to shoot up. The company’s request may get approved on paper, but the companies may drag their feet sending up those satellites, or never send them up at all. Reserving the space then becomes a path to monopoly: If one company has permission to use a specific area, and a specific spectrum range, it prevents competition and ultimately allows companies to jack up the prices on the spectrum they control. This means companies with lots of resources have the potential to take advantage of people for whom internet access, an increasingly necessary resource in the developing world, is not a given.
These initiatives require sending hundreds, perhaps thousands of satellites, into what’s known as Lower Earth Orbit (LEO). LEO is a finite area of space known for being better at transmitting signals to earth, such as internet services, compared to satellites stationed further from the surface.
In a phone conversation with Brendan Cunningham, a professor of economics for East Connecticut State University who has studied warehousing, he explained that a limited amount of satellites that can physically go into LEO due to the risks associated with satellite collisions and space trash.
“In certain orbits, there are a finite amount of what we think as ‘parking spaces’ for satellites,” he said. “So if one satellites operator uses one of those parking spaces, it’s not available for others.”
Major telecom companies like Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Comcast, and Cox have all been accused of applying to use particular frequencies in space, getting approval, not sending up the satellites, and hiking up prices for their services.
The more satellites companies say they will put up, the more likely it is they are just trying to stake out space they might not use. On March 19, OneWeb (also known as WorldVu Satellites) asked the FCC if it could triple the amount of satellites it can launch into orbit using a total of 5.9 gigahertz across the electromagnetic spectrum, according to reporting by SpaceNews. In June, OneWeb said it would need from 720 satellites in this range. Now, it says that it needs 1,980.
It’s unclear exactly what the end-game is for satellite internet, or the exact number of satellites needed to make global internet access possible. Cunningham said that satellites in LEO are more likely to come out of orbit, either to to fuel up or to come down to earth altogether. This short life span is considered when approving satellite missions, meaning that some of the risk of warehousing is reduced.
OneWeb hasn’t yet gotten approval for its proposed 2,000 satellites, and representatives from OneWeb and the FCC did not respond to requests for comment.
There is regulation in place meant to prevent spectrum warehousing, but there’s still loopholes for private companies. The United Nation's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is responsible for regulating satellites around the world, but its power is very limited. The ITU leaves it up to individual countries to enact laws that provide fair and equitable access for satellite manufacturers around the world. But in the US, this means that spectrum regulation is subject to the internal politics of the FCC, which approves satellites on a first-come, first-served basis. Companies used to have to launch every single satellite mentioned in proposals within six years. Now, companies only have to launch half of the satellites mentioned within six years, as opposed to all of them.
OneWeb, in addition to other commercial satellite companies, has argued for years that the FCC’s warehouse spectrum regulations are too strict and prevent America from pursuing space dominance in the private sphere. But even after loosening regulations in September, OneWeb has written to the FCC three times this year (on February 8, 28, and March 2) requesting the agency to make their policies more friendly to private companies like them.
It’s notable that thousands of satellites increases the risk of space trash, or the accumulation of everything from paint specks to entire pieces of satellites that break off in the harsh environment of space and damage other satellites. There’s also the risk of satellites colliding with one another if there’s a failure in traffic communication.
In a future where a just handful of companies control the entirety of the usable frequencies, it’s possible that global internet access and satellite services would be accessible to much of the world. But larger companies stand to make huge profits, and consumers would be subject to the will and motivations of those companies.