Over the past two years, several private companies have launched efforts to provide global broadband internet using networks of low-earth-orbit satellites. The outcome of these projects is uncertain, but the scale of their ambition is undeniable. In total, they plan to put nearly 20,000 global broadband satellites in orbit. To put some context around that number: there are only 2,000 functioning satellites of any kind in orbit today.
OneWeb launched its first six satellites in February 2019, followed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which launched its first 60 in May. The competition intensified in April, when FCC filings revealed Amazon’s plan, codenamed Project Kuiper, to launch its own broadband constellation of more than 3,000 satellites. Building and launching satellites is an extremely capital-intensive endeavor, and Amazon’s deep pockets could be what is needed to make global broadband a reality.
The potential impact of this broadband infrastructure is hard to overstate: only 57% of the world’s population currently has access to the internet, and many who lack access live in remote rural areas, where extending wired broadband would be prohibitively expensive.
Closing the digital divide has obvious benefits, from education to financial inclusion and increasing GDP. In fact, the benefits are so widely-accepted that one of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals focuses on providing “universal and affordable internet in the least developed countries.”
But expanding internet access could have another benefit that is seldom talked about but no less significant: helping hundreds of millions of people secure the rights to their land and homes.
Billions of people around the world lack formal documentation of their property rights, leaving them vulnerable to displacement, limiting their economic opportunities, and sparking conflict. Often, the evidence they need to obtain property documents, for instance a survey plan, is unattainable by traditional means. In Uganda, for example, which has an estimated 15 million unregistered land parcels and fewer than 100 official surveyors, it would take more than 1,000 years to map and register every informal parcel in the country.
Over the past decade, a variety of technologies have emerged to help solve this problem by mapping and documenting property at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time of traditional methods. These new tools include digital identity, high-precision location services, and satellite imagery for participatory mapping. The problem: they rely on internet connectivity.
For example, smartphones are becoming ubiquitous for mobile mapping efforts, and with the introduction of dual-band GNSS receivers, these phones can map with greater accuracy than ever before. Projects from USAID’s MAST, NGOs such as the Cadasta Foundation, and start-ups such as Suyo are solving the last mile problem by using smartphones to map property and populate biographical information that can be used to generate property documents.
But without an internet connection, a key benefit of mobile mapping — the ability to collect data in the field and transmit it seamlessly to a home office or registry — is lost. The dirty secret of many mobile mapping projects is that a car or moped has to physically transport the phones containing the data to a city center or other connected area, in order for the collected information to be uploaded. Not very mobile.
The introduction of global broadband internet promises to fully fulfill the ambitions of these mobile mapping efforts, allowing them to work in the field just as well as they do in the lab.
Not only that: in a truly connected world, entirely new opportunities will arise for people to prove their property rights.
As smartphone penetration rises and people’s social and economic lives move online, they will be able to present entirely new evidence — their data trails — as proof of their rights. Location data showing where individuals sleep at night and receive deliveries, paired with online payment histories for home repairs and upgrades, and compounded with social graphs and online neighbor attestations, can create evidence that supplements or substitutes for traditional proof points such as surveys and wills. Global broadband will power the development of this tapestry of proof.
While the prospect of global broadband is an exciting one, there’s much work to be done before it becomes a reality. Satellite internet has been tried before, in the 1990’s, and it failed. Those earlier efforts relied on a smaller number of large satellites in geosynchronous orbit 35,000km above the earth. The satellites were expensive to build and launch, and the service was correspondingly expensive. Moreover, because of the distance the signals had to travel, the service was slow.
These current efforts take a fundamentally different approach, using large networks of small, relatively inexpensive satellites that are placed in low earth orbit to provide lower-cost, lower-latency service. The plans for SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, for example, call for up to 12,000 small satellites orbiting the earth at distances of 550km-1,150km.
A number of questions remain. Antennas are needed on the ground to connect the end-users to the satellite networks. It is unclear how much it will cost to install and power these in remote areas, or who would pay for it. As with terrestrial internet, cost and the lack of technical education are barriers that must be addressed.
Nevertheless, achieving global broadband coverage within the next decade a real possibility. If policymakers and technologists are prepared to innovate, it can also help to bring about a revolution in property rights, one of the most widespread and pressing obstacles to international development.