from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
So we’ve already noted several times that while Elon Musk’s Starlink internet broadband service will be a great thing for folks certainly out of the range of existing broadband options, it’s not going to be the massive disruption many people assume. For one thing, the service is only going to serve around 800,000 subscribers in a country where up to 42 million Americans lack broadband access and another 83 million consumers live under a broadband monopoly. So even at the high-end, extremely optimistic, longer term goal of 6 million total Starlink subscribers, we’re talking about a small dent in a very big problem.
Another problem is that for many of America’s underserved populations, the real issue is cost. And given its $500 initial down payment for hardware, and $100 monthly price tag, the service is going to be well out of range for many folks who really need it. That said, if you can actually get it, and actually afford it, and currently have no access to fixed line service, it’s going to be an upgrade. Probably, anyway.
New reviews at outlets like The Verge have taken some additional bloom off the rose, noting that line of sight and other technical issues are marring the service, at least during its current, ongoing 10,000 user beta. Says The Verge’s Nilay Patel:
“Starlink, a new satellite internet service from SpaceX, is a spectacular technical achievement that might one day do all of these things. But right now it is also very much a beta product that is unreliable, inconsistent, and foiled by even the merest suggestion of trees.”
Throughout the review, Patel makes it clear these problems aren’t small potatoes:
“I am going to emphasize the line-of-sight requirement, since it is crucial to understanding what Starlink can and cannot do right now, and it?s an important reality check on what it might be able to do in the future. Like the similarly over-hyped mmWave 5G, Starlink is remarkably delicate. Even a single tree blocking the dish?s line of sight to the horizon will degrade and interrupt your Starlink signal. Whatever satellite internet dreams you may have will run crashing into this reality until you can literally rise above.”
It’s likely things will improve, but even at max capacity (see above) we’re talking limited impact. It’s clear Musk is mostly interested in using Starlink to fund and market Space X, even though he’s acknowledged that profitability will be difficult and the low orbit satellite broadband market is paved with failure. There’s also that whole polluting the night sky and derailing scientific research both Musk and US regulators seem largely apathetic to. So this system, while promising and assuming it survives, will impact business interests (shipping, nautical) far more than residential broadband.
That said, Patel’s review of Starlink does something tech coverage of broadband often doesn’t do: he clearly acknowledges that US broadband is a busted and uncompetitive market thanks to decades of failed US telecom policy. He then uses that historical context to properly frame the potential promise Starlink offers:
“Starlink also represents something else: the American telecom policy establishment?s long-standing, almost religious belief that consumers are best served by something called ?facility-based competition.? Starlink is a new facility for accessing the internet, one that does not rely on existing infrastructure. ?Facility-based competition,? telecom lobbyists feverishly whisper while handing out their dirty, sweat-stained checks in Congress. ?That is the American way.?
AMERICAN BROADBAND POLICY STINKS, AND WE ALL PAY TOO MUCH MONEY FOR SLOW SPEEDS AND TERRIBLE CUSTOMER SERVICE
Of course, the only thing a decades-long commitment to ?facility-based competition? has brought to most Americans is? a total lack of competition. Reality, as I have said, is quite irritating.
(By contrast, in Europe, where the prevailing philosophy is called ?service-based competition,? large incumbent providers are required to lease fiber access to competitors and there is a thriving market for internet access with much lower prices for much faster speeds. If the United States were in Europe, it would have the most expensive broadband in the region.)”
FCC data has long shown that open access networks (where multiple ISPs compete over a single, centralized fiber network) results in better, faster, cheaper service. But because that would bring competition to regional monopolies, we’ve never really embraced that approach. We did try to hack together some flavor of line sharing as part of the 1996 Telecom Act, but it was dismantled by telecom lobbyists before the ink was even try, resulting in an absolute bloodbath for smaller broadband providers.
Which brings us to the most important thing: the reality is you’re just not going to fix US broadband dysfunction with spit, innovation, and elbow grease. That’s because what’s driving US broadband dysfunction is two major things: extremely politically powerful regional telecom monopolies (most of which are tied directly into our intelligence gathering apparatus, shielding them from accountability), and the state and federal corruption that protects this broken mess. Innovative tech can help, but it’s not going to truly get to the root of the problem because the problem is human ethical failure, not technical.
For decades, telecom monopoly lobbyists have argued that you don’t need functional FCC or FTC regulatory oversight of telecom — or pro-competition policies that disrupt monopolization — because a miracle technology is waiting in the wings to fix everything. Back during the big deregulation push in the early aughts, broadband over powerline (BPL) was hyped as a holy grail. Former FCC boss Mike Powell (now a top cable lobbyist) told anyone who’d listen that his decision to deregulate lumbering telecom monopolies was wonderful, because BPL would act as a competitive layer that would fix everything.
But BPL wound up being aninterference prone mess. And instead of telecom Utopia as promised, we just saw regional monopolies double down on the same bad behavior, now free of both functional regulatory oversight and competition.
These days it’s 5G that’s being treated as a miracle market panacea, despite the fact that 5G isn’t a competitive silver bullet either for a number of reasons we’ve well explored. The real solution to improving U.S. broadband involves driving as much residential fiber to homes as possible, regardless of whether that’s the private sector or community broadband
That’s not to say 5G and Starlink can’t help! But again, the problem at this point is incompetent and corrupt policymakers on the state and federal level. Policymakers in mindless sway to monopolists. We could have delivered fiber to every home in America several times over by now for less than AT&T spent on its bungled AT&T Time Warner merger. We don’t do that not because it’s all that expensive and hard, but because this would upset dominant regional monopolies that effectively own US broadband policy and despise anything even resembling real world competition.
Filed Under: competition, satellite broadband, starlink
Companies: spacex, starlink