aNewDomain — Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, recently hosted a private event to announce the opening of SpaceX Seattle, attended primarily by engineers recruited as potential hires. “It’s a difficult problem so we need the smartest engineers in the world,” Musk said to the audience about this plan to launch a network of satellites designed to make Internet access possible around the world. After a pause, he joked, “and at the same time to make sure we don’t create SkyNet.”
The audience laughed, but his remarks may allude to a much more pressing issue than creating malicious AI, like Asimov wrote of in the Foundation series. No, what worries me more than the potential of SkyNet is the creation of a Comcast entity on steroids.
Screenshot by Larry Press
SpaceX isn’t the only company currently working to provide Internet access to the far reaches of the planet. Greg Wyler’s OneWeb, who recently secured funding from Virgin Group and Qualcomm Inc. to support the project, plans to offer fast Internet in rural and emerging markets. If one or both succeed, we may be looking at a monopoly — or at best, an oligopoly — with only one or two companies serving as ISP to almost half the world’s population.
They could charge monopoly-level prices to consumers, while offering the same last-place customer satisfaction we’ve come to expect from American ISPs. Imagine a combination of the Koch brothers, FOX News and Comcast; a global company with political power and the ability to control half the world’s population.
More Questions than Answers
Do global ISPs require unique regulation? How do we regulate them and who has the power to do it? What would the regulations look like?
In the search for answers, I think one solution could be to keep both companies out of the retail Internet service market and restrict them to providing wholesale transport service, on an equal basis, to any retail ISP. This would enable far greater competition in the market and would help mitigate the potential for monopoly pricing and poor service. To avoid political abuse, we could also prohibit the companies from refusing service to any retail ISP in any nation. Not a foolproof solution, but it would help.
The question of authority is already being raised. Musk said that SpaceX has permission from the ITU to launch the satellites, though he acknowledged that he will have to negotiate on a country by country basis for the right to provide service. SpaceX and OneWeb are both U.S. corporations, which means they are subject to U.S. law, but is it appropriate for one nation to be regulating global infrastructure?
Jason Koebler likens Elon Musk to the railroad barons of the 19th century, noting his determination to create reusable rockets which would give him an unassailable first-mover advantage in space — for imaging, communications and other applications.
While it’s important to consider the risks, I hope SpaceX and OneWeb both succeed in their endeavors to connect the other three billion people on this planet. I believe the benefit to humanity will outweigh the challenges of defining acceptable and effective global policy.