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Space-Based Telecommunications Are on Track to Provide Affordable Remote Broadband. Are We Ready?

January 19, 2022

About a year ago, I went outside with family into a crisp December night and watched as a newly launched string of satellites unspooled themselves across the night sky. I was witnessing one of many “batch” launches of SpaceX’s satellites’ reflecting light as they prepared to settle into a steady low Earth orbit. I knew, of course, that this venture was one of several commercial and state satellite constellations in progress, with the promise of providing genuinely affordable highspeed broadband to remote, unconnected areas of the world. Seeing the satellites with my own eyes, however, moved the issue from theory to potential near-term reality. It spurred an important question: Are we seeing a real sea change in remote telecommunications? If these ventures are successful, would governments and development, advisory, and financing organizations be ready to engage?

Are we seeing a real sea change in remote telecommunications?

I understand institutional hesitation to get too excited about leapfrog technological solutions to enduring development challenges. Space enthusiasts have been promising, and largely failing, to provide cheap space-based telecommunications since the 1990s. However, the technology, available investment, and modern business case seems to have finally reached a critical mass. One or more of these new constellations will most likely push down the cost of a digital connection for remote, unconnected areas. The degree and speed are to be determined, but the drive toward true affordability is moving in the right direction. In addition to affordability, such satellite-based infrastructure is additive; it can provide a layer of resiliency in conflicts and natural disasters, further connect the blue economy, and establish new economic lifelines for landlocked countries that are unable to directly access undersea cables (the optic-fiber “superhighways” of intercontinental data relay).

I understand institutional hesitation to get too excited about leapfrog technological solutions to enduring development challenges.

Getting the most good out of space-based telecommunications infrastructure will require a mix of government, development, and private sector action and cooperation. In my new note, “Space and Development: Preparing for Affordable Space-Based Telecommunications,” I propose pragmatic recommendations designed get the conversation going.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.