Things are getting crazy 200 miles straight above us in low Earth orbit. In the next two decades, nearly every human on Earth will access the internet via satellites (versus today, when 95% of the world’s internet passes through 200 undersea cables). Due to technological advances and innovations like reusable rockets, satellite internet costs 100x less than it did 15 years ago. Now, companies like SpaceX, which manages the Starlink internet service, are launching satellites at a break-neck pace. SpaceX has launched over 4,500 satellites since 2019 and has applied for licenses to launch 40,000 more (by 2030, experts predict there will be 60,000 satellites in low Earth orbit). Already, one in every two satellites orbiting the earth is a Starlink satellite, and Starlink has been essential to communication for those in remote places and in conflict zones: Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, told The New York Times, “Starlink is indeed the blood of our entire communication infrastructure now.”
Both companies and countries are racing to catch up as satellite internet becomes a tool of national security and geopolitics: China plans to send up a constellation of 13,000 satellites, has banned Starlink over the mainland, and disapproved of Starlink providing service in Ukraine (conceivably because cutting off undersea internet cables might be a pre-invasion immobilization strategy if China were to ever take Taiwan). The US, the EU, and other global alliances are recognizing that controlling satellite internet is an issue of urgent national security, and militaries are beginning to train missiles up at the satellites of their enemies. One study by Chinese scientists found that an atomic detonation in low Earth orbit could lead to the paralysis of the world’s satellite internet.
I sometimes wonder if we’re fully conscious of how quickly the tectonic plates of technological infrastructure, like internet access or semiconductors, are shifting beneath our feet and cleaving along the lines of geopolitics. Where there is invisible technological infrastructure propping up a global economy, there is immense vulnerability.