Amazon.com is going into outer space. Well, at least into geosynchronous orbit.
Associated Press reported today that the company has obtained US government approval to put over 3200 satellites into orbit. Their goal is to beam internet service down to earth.
Amazon commented that satellites could provide internet service in areas of the world that don’t have it (and won’t anytime soon).
The reality is that there are vast portions of even the US unserved or dramatically underserved by internet access. It has been a known problem for a long time and there has been precious little effort made to correct the problem. It requires substantial investment in infrastructure, a lot of which would never, in purely financial terms, be justifiable in the eyes of some.
The problem has come into dramatic focus after the emergence of Covid-19. Not just employees are staying at home, but school children are being forced to stay at home and learn in a new environment. The ability to deliver educational content is heavily reliant on the student’s access to the internet. Some kids will have fantastic, lightning speed access, others will only be able to access the internet through, say, the local coffee shop during business hours. Many more will have no access at all.
In a world where equality of opportunity is of great importance, this inequality that was bad eight months ago is now dramatically amplified. And, when school goes back into session in a few weeks, it will be demonstrably worse.
Why Are School Buses Yellow?
My good friend Shawn Olsen, CEO of Cloudwyze, www.cloudwyze.com, drives this example home in a talk that he calls Why are School Buses Yellow? *** The underlying premise of the story is that kids will ask their parents unusual questions.
If the parent does not know, what do they do? They go to the internet for the answer. This not only yields answers to those questions but spurs investigation into other areas of curiosity, increases parent-child interaction, and more. But, what does the family with no internet service do? Where do those answers come from? How different does that parent-child interaction look?
Amazon’s initiative, dubbed Project Kuiper, while laudable, won’t solve the problem any time soon.
The $10 billion initiative just moved into research and development for the satellites at a new facility in Redmond, Washington. Amazon won’t say when they expect to have Project Kuiper in operation. The FCC’s approval yesterday requires half of the satellites to be in orbit by July 2026.
But is this the answer?
But Amazon’s involvement also begs another question. Should this initiative be trusted to a single technology monolith? Do we want Amazon (or for that matter, Google or Facebook or Twitter) controlling internet access throughout the world? No doubt, there will be competition and a race by competitors. No doubt, there will be government oversight and regulation.
Some might argue that this is an infrastructure issue, best left to the government, just like roads, airports, train lines, etc. Many, and I include myself in this category, would point out that the government typically does a horrible job of solving problems like these. Note how little they’ve done so far.
Others might point out that there are already countless examples of tech giants squelching free speech and stifling opinions. Why in the world should they be permitted any control over what people say or think?
Personally, I am extremely torn on this one. Government intervention on this problem to date has been a failure. The private sector is seeing an opportunity and jumping in.
However, those coming to the rescue have a less than stellar reputation when it comes to freedom of thought and expression. Then there’s the profit motive issue and that creates an entirely different type of analysis. If it is unprofitable, and Amazon wants to shut it down, or drastically raise prices, it’s not difficult to see a host of other problems we’d be facing as we strive to make internet access available to all.
Wayne Hippo is an owner and Managing Partner of PS Solutions, a software development and consulting firm with offices in Altoona, PA, Pittsburgh, PA, and Wilmington, NC.
You can reach Wayne at firstname.lastname@example.org