Will China collapse in 2031
Internet from space
Problem and recommendations
It may sound like science fiction, but it could soon become a reality: A number of companies are investing significant resources in making the Internet accessible via satellite connections anywhere on earth. For this purpose, satellites in orbit near the earth should be used, i.e. at a comparatively short distance from the earth's surface. A global network of thousands of such satellites will enable fast data connections and the transmission of large amounts of data. The company is the furthest Starlink from the USA, which has already stationed the first satellites for a planned network, a so-called "constellation", made up of tens of thousands of satellites. There are also a number of other companies from the USA that are pursuing similar plans - with support from the US government. Competition comes from China: The large Chinese state-owned companies in the space technology sector have announced that they will be setting up their own constellations.
The plans for the new satellite networks reflect the increased demands on the global Internet infrastructure - and the increasing awareness of the political importance of this infrastructure. Access to the global Internet is of ever greater economic importance; But it also has a political dimension: a growing number of states are trying to extend control over the Internet infrastructure and the flow of information. As with the establishment of the first telegraph networks from the late 19th century, they are concerned with expanding their own communication options - and at the interface between technology and politics, influencing the conditions under which information is exchanged around the world.
It is still open today whether the highly ambitious plans for the satellite constellations can be realized. All companies involved are confronted with a multitude of technical and economic challenges. However, if we succeed in overcoming these challenges, this would have far-reaching consequences for access to the Internet, for the security and resilience of the Internet infrastructure and, last but not least, for the power relations in global Internet governance.
In order to illuminate the spectrum of possible developments and to clarify the corresponding options for action, two scenarios are run through in this study. In the first scenario, entitled “Global Oligopolies”, three satellite constellations are set up, two of which are under American-British leadership, and one as a Chinese project as part of the “Belt and Road Initiative”. In this scenario, the enormous concentration of economic power also has political consequences: the availability of the services is based on political lines of conflict. As a result, the trend towards fragmentation of the Internet is increasing. The operators of the constellations and the states behind them can precisely control how data is exchanged within and between the respective systems. In this scenario, the states of Europe, and thus also Germany, are hardly in a position to align the use of digital infrastructures to their own political interests and notions of order.
In the second scenario, entitled “Regulated Competition”, the new satellite constellations are regulated in such a way that a certain degree of competition can arise. In particular, new agreements within the framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO) stipulate that the operators of the constellations are generally not allowed to offer services for end consumers on earth themselves, but rather have to cooperate with local companies. Targeted public funding and a close technological partnership with Japan also make it possible to establish a European constellation. For Europe itself, but also for many other countries in the world, this creates an alternative to the systems from the USA and China. On the basis of close cooperation between the European Union and the African Union, a large number of people in developing countries will be given affordable and reliable access to the Internet for the first time. In this scenario, too, the constellations are sometimes used as a means of geopolitical interest politics, but the common global foundation of the Internet is preserved.
It cannot be assumed that either of these two scenarios will become a reality in its purest form. However, the purpose of thinking in such scenarios is not to predict a probable future either. Rather, it should be made clear what potentially far-reaching political consequences the developments in the field of internet satellites could have - and what possibilities there are to shape these developments politically.
In recent years the Federal Government and the Bundestag have repeatedly committed to the goal of an open, free and truly global Internet. The plans for new constellations of Internet satellites are both an opportunity and a challenge in view of this goal. They offer the prospect of a more powerful and much more inclusive Internet. At the same time, there is a risk of an enormous concentration of economic and, consequently, political power.
In order to meet this challenge, German and European politics should work through targeted regulatory measures and public funding to ensure that the European and global Internet infrastructure is made safe and reliable through technological redundancy and diversity. In a balanced technology mix, the new satellite constellations can be an important addition to digital infrastructures without creating political dependencies.
In addition, Europe should strive to build up its own European constellation in order to remain economically and politically independent and in this way to participate in the debate on the future of the global Internet with a concrete technological alternative. To this end, it is important to deepen strategic partnerships, to strengthen the relevant multilateral institutions such as the WTO and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and to maintain the structures of Internet governance, especially where they are most productive, i.e. especially in the established forms of voluntary cooperation in the development of open standards.
There is still time to help shape developments in the field of Internet satellites in the »enlightened self-interest« (Tocqueville) of Germany and Europe. And even if today's plans cannot be realized, a more proactive approach would make an important contribution to the disputes about the future of the global Internet infrastructure, which will be pending in the next few years, regardless of individual technologies.
On the political significance of global communication infrastructures
With the projected mega-constellations of internet satellites, new technological approaches are being broken in many respects. The political dynamics associated with the planning and the goals, however, are not new. To understand them, it helps to recall the history of global communication systems, from the first telegraph connections in the 19th century to the global expansion of the Internet in the late 20th century.
The strategic interests of states
The introduction of new communication technologies often paves the way for completely new forms of social interaction. However, as social science technology research emphasizes, the direction of the transformation is open: Much depends on how a society makes use of new technologies.1 In the case of international communication systems, there is also the fact that technological developments in this area can change not only individual societies, but also the balance of power between states.
This also explains the states' strategic interest in technological innovations. First, access to a global communication system gives governments the opportunity to expand their own administrative and military room for maneuver. For example, the establishment of the first worldwide telegraph networks was essentially driven by the endeavor of the colonial administrative apparatus to be informed about developments in the colonies as quickly as possible and to be able to react to them.2 As it was then, the security and reliability of communications systems for military and diplomatic communications (sometimes still referred to as "cable reports") are of paramount importance today. The military significance is particularly impressively illustrated by the fact that at the beginning of the First World War one of the first acts of the British High Command was to cut the majority of Germany's international cable connections. More recently, the publications of U.S. dispatches have increased. State Department demonstrated through WikiLeaks in 2010 what is at stake in the security of diplomatic communications.
Second, access to global communication networks is of great economic importance. From today's perspective, the first transatlantic cable between Great Britain and the USA could only transmit an extremely small amount of information; But even basic data and news about the development of prices for commodities and what was happening on the financial markets were of great value to companies at the time.3 This explains why the communication systems were already oriented towards the structures of the global trading system in that period, which in many cases meant the interests of colonial rule.
The Digital divide divides the world into those who can use the Internet and those around 3.6 billion people who still do not have access to the Internet.
The Internet is adding a new chapter to this story: information in the form of digital goods and services has become an economic product in itself. The economic success of the Internet is offset by a fundamental global inequality. The Digital divide divides the world into those who can make use of the diverse possibilities of the Internet and those around 3.6 billion people who still have no access to the Internet. It is a sad punchline in history that this largely affects those societies that once suffered from colonialism. At that time they were integrated into global communication systems for the purposes of colonial rule, but now they lack this access as an increasingly important basis for independent economic development.
Thirdly, at least some states see control over global communication infrastructures as a lever to exercise power beyond their borders. In her book News from Germany Heidi Tworek traces how at the beginning of the 20th century a number of states discovered this political potential for controlling and monitoring the flow of information for themselves, including Germany. Even then, these states were aware that this type of control would allow them to prioritize the dissemination of certain information in the service of their own political and economic purposes, while manipulating other information or even suppressing it completely.4 It was also clear at the time that a certain international coordination was required here - and that the conditions and details of this coordination can themselves be politically significant. Against the background of the strategic considerations in Germany at the time, it was therefore no coincidence that the German Reich hosted the first "World Radio Conference" in Berlin in 1906.5
The role of private companies
Large parts of the global Internet infrastructure are owned and maintained by private companies. Today around 95 percent of all submarine cables for Internet connections are in private hands.6 The majority of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) are also operated by companies, including nearly all of the largest IXPs.7 From a historical perspective, this is not surprising either: the very first telegraph cables were laid and maintained by private companies; The first global telegraph networks a few decades later also belonged to private owners.8
Even then, the operation of global communication networks was accompanied by complicated relationships between states, companies and the wider public. Little has changed about that to this day. The states tend to see the respective "national" economic actors as an extension or extension of their power. The private companies fuel this perception where it pays off in public support for their activities; At the same time, they pursue their own commercial goals and are often unwilling to allow themselves to be restricted by narrow guidelines from national interest politics. According to official statements, the broader public should be the beneficiaries of state and private sector action; However, it is often controversial whether the services offered meet actual societal needs.
The construction and operation of global communication infrastructures can be understood as an economically independent endeavor. For many companies, however, it is also often a question of gaining a greater degree of control over the processes used to manufacture goods and provide services. This view seems to be increasingly expanding to include companies that have not previously belonged to the "usual suspects" in this industry. Some of the largest companies offering digital goods and services today - Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, in short: GAFAM - are increasingly switching to operating their own infrastructures. To this end, they are investing massively in the construction of data centers in all regions of the world and in new undersea cables that are intended to meet the constantly growing demand of these companies for data transmission capacities (see Figure 1).
Aims of German politics
In Germany, too, there is a growing awareness of the strategic importance of the Internet infrastructure. The discussion about the involvement of the Chinese company, for example, attracted a lot of attention Huawei on the development of the 5G network in Germany. The sharpness of the dispute and, last but not least, the robust demeanor of the US administration under Donald Trump clearly showed how much seemingly technical issues of digital infrastructures are linked to geopolitical disputes about political and economic influence.
In 2019, the Bundestag and the federal government used Germany's role as host of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to make their own priorities with regard to global Internet governance clear. In her opening speech at the IGF, for example, Chancellor Merkel explicitly underlined the value of the global Internet infrastructure: "This shared Internet infrastructure has become a core element of the global economy."9
The Chancellor warns of the fragmentation of the Internet. It is important to "protect the core of the Internet as a global public good."
In the run-up to the IGF, the Bundestag also emphasized the goal of a free and genuinely global Internet in a resolution and expressly opposed the political fragmentation of the Internet. At the relevant point it says: "In particular, a separation of states or even entire regions from the central infrastructure of the common address system (DNS) must be counteracted."10 In her speech at the IGF, the Chancellor warned that a fragmentation of the Internet would endanger the stability of the global infrastructure and would make surveillance and censorship easier. In order to prevent this, according to Merkel, it is important to »protect the core of the Internet as a global public good«.11
In recent years, the German federal government in particular has increasingly adopted the idea of “digital sovereignty”. The contested term is mostly used to link a number of issues with one another: These range from a proactive industrial policy to measures to develop digital skills in public administration and individual data sovereignty. In her speech at the IGF 2019, Chancellor Merkel delimited sovereignty in the sense of democratic self-determination from protectionist and nationalist ideas of sovereignty in the sense of isolation.So it is not surprising that the concept of digital sovereignty was accorded central importance in the program of the German EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2020.12
Internet by satellite
A number of companies have plans to provide fast, widespread access to the Internet via satellites in low earth orbit. A dense network of such satellites should enable the probes to cover the entire surface of the earth as they move around the earth. If the companies involved succeed in implementing their projects and putting the satellite constellations into operation, a completely new dimension of the global Internet infrastructure would arise.
Since the Soviet Union sent the first probe into space with Sputnik in 1957, the importance of satellites has increased considerably. Today satellites are mainly used for three purposes: For positioning systems on earth such as the US American Global Positioning System (GPS) or the Automatic Identification System (AIS) used in shipping; for observing the earth for civil purposes such as weather and environmental research and for military purposes of satellite image-based reconnaissance; and finally for communications and satellite television.
A rough distinction can be made between satellites in geostationary orbit (Geostationary Earth Orbit, GEO) and those in near-Earth orbit (Lower Earth Orbit, LEO). GEO satellites are located at the height of the equator at a distance of 35,786 kilometers from the earth and move there at the speed of the earth's rotation. Seen from the earth, they seem to be fixed in the sky. In contrast, LEO satellites orbit the globe at a relatively short distance from the earth's surface of 160 to 2,000 kilometers. They move faster than the earth's rotation and can therefore only be reached for a limited time from a fixed location on earth (see Figure 2, p. 12).
GEO satellites can only be used to a limited extent for Internet connections. The greater distance to earth means that the data transfer takes longer. While this is hardly a noticeable problem for calling up websites, this delay is particularly noticeable in real-time applications such as video telephony.
What we know today about the data transfer capacities of LEO satellites
representative of Starlink have stated to the media that the Starlink-Satellites should enable a data throughput of 17 gigabits per second (Gbit / s). Stationed Starlink 10,000 satellites, this would theoretically mean that the constellation would have a total data transmission capacity of 170,000 Gbit / s, or 170 terabits per second (Tbit / s). Should the publicly announced expansion of the constellation to 48,000 satellites take place, the capacity would increase to 816 Tbit / s. Two comparisons can help to illustrate the dimension of this project: That of Facebook The planned new submarine cable »2Africa« is to connect the entire African continent with Europe and have a data transmission capacity of 180 Tbit / s. In March 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the Internet Exchange Point (IXP) in Frankfurt, DE-CIX, reported a new world record of 9 Tbit / s for the data turnover of a single IXPS.a
aEric Ralph, "SpaceX Says Upgraded Starlink Satellites Have Better Bandwidth, Beams, and More," Teslarati (online), November 12, 2019,
The lower delay (latency) in the exchange of data that results from the use of LEO satellites is one of the main reasons for the plans to set up constellations of satellites in near-earth orbit. Here, however, the challenge arises that LEO satellites continuously orbit the earth as described and can therefore only be reached for a short time from any point on the earth. In order to enable reliable internet connections over the long term, the plans therefore envisage building comprehensive networks of LEO satellites. Despite the permanent movement of the satellites, the connection to at least one satellite should be available at all times.
The designs of the planned constellations differ significantly. Some companies want to set up networks of tens of thousands of satellites, while others "only" plan with a few hundred satellites.
Many of the companies that are new to the satellite communications market - for example SpaceX and Amazon, but also some companies from China - have set the goal of offering users a direct connection to the satellites. With the help of antennas specially designed for this purpose (so-called "phased array antennas"), users should be able to connect directly to the satellites. These antennas are currently about the size of a pizza box and are intended to be attached to buildings and moving objects such as cars, trains or boats. Other companies such as AST & Science want to make direct access to the satellites possible via standard cellular technology. However the connection is technically established, it is clear that a large number of satellites is needed in order to be able to offer a large number of users a fast and reliable Internet connection. Accordingly, these companies are planning with constellations of tens of thousands of satellites.
The enterprise TeleSat however, stands for a completely different approach: TeleSat plans to set up a comparatively small constellation to act as a backbone provider for local Internet Service Providers (ISP). The original considerations envisaged 300 satellites, but the company is now calculating with up to 1,671 satellites. The business model is basically similar to that of today's submarine cables: End users use the current technology to connect to their local ISP, and the latter uses special equipment to enable a connection to the global Internet - in this case via satellite . Because the local ISPs can use much more powerful antennas than those who do SpaceX provides for the end user, and thereby bundle the inquiries of the end users, such a system can in principle get by with a very much smaller number of satellites.13
In order to be able to offer internet access via satellite, the satellite systems not only have to be connected to the end users, but also to the physical internet infrastructure on earth. At the moment, most of the company's plans boil down to the fact that not every LEO satellite is dedicated to these ground stations (ground stations) connects; rather, they should form a network with one another, via which data can be transmitted directly between the satellites, so that it is sufficient for individual units of this network to communicate with the ground stations communicate.
In order to enable the exchange of data between the satellites, a number of companies are working on technical solutions based on laser beams; we are talking about inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs). In principle, this technology has the potential to transmit data at the speed of light. In contrast to the cables used today on land and in the sea, there is no need for complex and fault-prone »cabling«. There are also approaches to use laser technology to connect the satellites to the earth. The company is working on this, among other things Mynaric from Bavaria. The importance of this technology is shown by the decision of the Federal Government, which became known in July 2020, Mynaric to prohibit the export of its products to China.14
Advances in rocket and satellite technology have turned the construction of mega-constellations into an economically viable project.
The main companies
Advances in rocket technology and the serial production of satellites have resulted in the expected costs of building mega-constellations in low-Earth orbit to such an extent that corresponding projects are economically feasible. With a few exceptions, the business model of satellite-based communication services has so far been based on the use of a few geostationary probes. The cost of manufacturing and deploying the satellites is very high, at an estimated US $ 150 to 500 million per satellite.15
For the construction of the now planned LEO constellations, however, new launch vehicle systems such as that of SpaceX be used. A key factor here is that it is SpaceX has succeeded in developing carrier systems in which the missiles can be used multiple times. As a result, the cost of rocket launches can be significantly reduced. The boss of SpaceX, Elon Musk, told the press that the cost of manufacturing and deploying the satellites is currently $ 500,000.16 Using these numbers as a basis, building a first constellation of 10,000 satellites would cost around $ 5 billion in total.
However, the high initial investments are only one of the economic challenges that have to be overcome when implementing the plans for the new LEO constellations.17 Urban centers, for example, are on the one hand an attractive market because there are many wealthy customers to be found here; on the other hand, the competition is extremely high here too. In addition, it would only be possible with considerable additional investment to offer reliable connections via satellite for many people in a confined space. In addition, there is the low purchasing power of end customers in developing countries: The fact that billions of people still have no connection to the Internet is due not least to the fact that it has so far not seemed lucrative for companies in the telecommunications industry to provide them with such access. If the operators of the mega-constellations want to offer their services in developing countries, they too will be confronted with the fact that the purchasing power of their potential customers in these countries is very low.
The focus of this study is on those companies whose aim is to offer broadband internet connections on the basis of LEO constellations (see Figure 3). In addition to the big players who are planning mega-constellations, some smaller companies have also announced their intention to provide broadband Internet connections for the »Internet of Things« via LEO constellations. In particular, radio frequencies in the Ku and Ka frequency bands are to be used for broadband Internet connections; some providers are also considering V and Q bands in their plans.
There are also companies that rely on satellite connections with low transmission capacity, as they did before Iridium Communications End of the 1990s, and those who want to set up small satellite constellations for specialized Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications via VHF and UHF, for which a low data transmission capacity is sufficient.
The market leaders from the USA, Great Britain and Canada
The company's projects are currently attracting the most attention Starlink. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that Starlink has made the furthest headway in the implementation of its plans of any company in this area. Starlink stationed just over 1,000 satellites at the beginning of 2021, far more than any other competitor. The company plans to offer its first services to customers in southern Canada and the northern United States as early as the beginning of 2021. The attention paid to this satellite operator can also be explained by the fact that Starlink a subsidiary of the space company founded by Elon Musk SpaceX is. Regardless of the ambivalent public demeanor of the person Elon Musk has this for Starlink the advantage that the company can use the launch vehicle systems from SpaceX can use. SpaceX in turn, benefits from the considerable competitive advantage Starlinks towards other companies and from the income for their own launch vehicle systems.
Next Starlink applies Project Kuiper, a subsidiary of Amazon, as the most promising company from the USA. As in the case of Starlink this is also a newcomer to the satellite communications market. Currently planning Project Kuiperto build a constellation of around 3236 LEO satellites.18 As in the case of Starlink are based on the AmazonDaughter insists that the cost of deploying internet satellites will decrease in the future. Also has Project Kuiper only received authorization to operate a satellite constellation over US territory in July 2020; announced in this regard Amazon to invest at least 10 billion US dollars in the project.19
An advantage that Project Kuiper compared to SpaceX owns is that Project Kuiper when operating data centers and data connections on the experience of Amazon Web Services (AWS), another offshoot of the online mail order company. AWS is one of the largest cloud providers worldwide and has a correspondingly extensive network of data centers. In addition, is Amazon has been involved in the construction of new submarine cables in recent years (see Figure 1, p. 9). With that in mind, it's not surprising that Amazon has already positioned itself as a service provider in the telecommunications sector.
The third relevant player alongside the two US companies would be the British company OneWeb to call. In spring 2020 OneWeb Although filing for bankruptcy, in July 2020 the company was sold to a consortium made up of the British government and the Indian company for the sum of one billion US dollars Bharti Global consists.20 So far has OneWeb 74 satellites stationed. Has for the production of the space probes required OneWeb a joint venture with airbus founded and established production facilities in Europe and the USA.21
Finally comes from Canada TeleSat as the only company that has been active in the field of satellite communications for a long time, unlike those previously mentioned. 2018 has TeleSat As part of his “TeleSat LEO” project, the first LEO satellite was stationed for test purposes. The aim of »TeleSat LEO« is to achieve worldwide coverage with a comparatively manageable number of satellites. The TeleSatSatellites should be included TeleSat-own ground stations are connected. Alternatively, the Canadian company is also advertising its system as an offer for operators of cellular networks: These are to use their local networks via the TeleSat-Connect the constellation to the global internet.22TeleSat states that it will be able to start operating nationwide as early as 2022. The company has a contract with Jeff Bezos' company for the deployment of the constellation Blue Origin completed.23
Chinese state-owned company
According to media reports, companies from China are also pursuing ambitious goals for setting up LEO constellations. In varying degrees, it can be assumed that these activities are supported, if not even controlled, by the Chinese state.
The state company China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation With the "Hongyun" project (CASIC) is pursuing the goal of creating a global network of 156 LEO satellites. A first satellite was launched from China in December 2018.24 The state-owned company with almost the same name China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has also stationed a satellite that is supposed to be the starting point for a LEO constellation under the project title "Hongyan". Another Chinese company, Galaxy Space, stationed its first satellite in January 2020. Over the next few years, this will become 144 satellites that will enable Internet access via 5G.25 The publicly available information does not indicate whether the satellite constellation will allow a direct connection of 5G end devices or be used to connect 5G ground stations.At the end of 2020 there were also reports about another Chinese LEO constellation under the name »GW«, which is said to comprise almost 13,000 satellites.26
If you look beyond the institutional framework of the EU, come with me OneWeb after all, one of the relevant companies from Europe. The Munich-based company also represents an interesting special case KLEO Connect dar: According to its own information, the goal of the start-up is to set up a constellation of up to 300 satellites in order to offer data connections for networked devices (Internet of Things, IoT).27 According to media reports, however, a Chinese company has since become the main investor and is also involved in the operational management.28
From a European perspective, however, it is more decisive that some companies position themselves as important, even indispensable, suppliers. It comes first here airbus with its serial production of communications satellites. There are also some companies that offer individual components and services. One example of this is the company OHB from Bremen, which, as the main contractor, developed the satellites for the European satellite navigation system Galileo.29 Another example is the company mentioned earlier Mynaric from Munich, who works on systems for communication between satellites by laser, among other things.
Political design options
The future development in the field of internet satellites will largely depend on whether the technical questions that are still open can be resolved and whether the companies succeed in conceiving viable business models. Events that - such as the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020 - cannot be foreseen and that suddenly slow down or end the progress of Internet satellite projects - or could give them a new boost, must be taken into account.
In addition to these factors, there is also the possibility of targeted influence by states. As described in the first chapter, states have always tried to shape the development of global communication flows in their favor.
Space law as a branch of international law forms the framework for this.30 The central document in this area of law is the "Treaty on the Principles for Regulating the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies" from 1967 - often simply referred to as the "Outer Space Treaty".31 The treaty has so far been ratified by 107 states, including Germany. In a fundamental way, it regulates the rights and obligations of states in space. Among other things, it contains a liability rule in Article 6, according to which states are responsible for all national activities in space, "regardless of whether state agencies or non-state legal entities operate there". This regulation in particular could gain in importance in the future if the trend towards private space activities continues.
Since 1959, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has had the mandate to coordinate the use of radio frequencies internationally. This also applies to the radio frequencies that are intended for the new satellite constellations. The ITU also regulates the use of orbits. Today the "Radiocommunication Sector" (ITU-R) is responsible for this within the ITU. Fundamental decisions are also made in the context of the World Broadcasting Conferences.
The coordination function of ITU-R with regard to the radio frequencies essentially consists in determining within the scope of a very complex procedure whether there is a legitimate interest in the use of a certain frequency range.32 To put it simply, the basic principle is: "first come, first serve". Whoever registers a use first has priority; All states and companies that later want to use the same or obvious frequency ranges have to come to terms.
Private economic actors cannot appear in these proceedings themselves. Rather, the states register the use of frequency ranges on behalf of companies. It often happens that states apply for use by companies from other states; Norway, for example, already had SpaceX Register 4,527 satellites and the corresponding frequency requirements.33 It seems that it is attractive for companies to register their interests with the ITU via different states, because this allows them to bypass the specific requirements of individual national regulatory authorities. Many states, on the other hand, deliberately do not want to make a distinction between domestic and foreign companies, are happy about the corresponding fee payments and hope for deeper economic relations with the applying companies.
A growing problem is emerging that the coordination function of the ITU was originally designed for a different practice. The enormously complex procedures come from a time when the total number of satellites stationed in space was manageable; always new applications for mega-constellations threaten to overload this allocation system. The dimensions of the currently planned constellations also call into question the basic mechanism of frequency allocation by the ITU: If financially strong companies with plans for mega constellations claim large areas of the frequencies that are attractive for data transfers, these become a rare commodity. The “first come, first serve” principle threatens to become a hurdle for newcomers. Where in earlier times a voluntary agreement between the parties involved was usually quite possible with a few satellites, real distribution conflicts are now emerging.
At the global level, the use of radio frequencies in space is coordinated by the ITU. However, it is up to the states to regulate the use of radio frequencies on their territory - and in the associated airspace. Security considerations can come into play here, but also efforts to protect existing forms of use from disruptions. The Federal Network Agency is responsible for this in Germany.
The activities of commercial satellite operators are also subject to the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The regulatory framework of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) also extends to the area of telecommunications services, including the so-called "cross-border transmission of telecoms services".34 108 WTO member states have currently committed to dismantling trade barriers in this area.
The broad WTO definition of telecommunication services also includes satellite communication and thus at least in principle also the newly planned LEO constellations. This means that all states that have taken on corresponding obligations within the framework of the WTO would have to give the operators of the new constellations access to their markets.
It would also be conceivable, however, to make new agreements for this type of telecommunications services within the framework of the WTO regulations. For example, states could oblige providers not to discriminate against data flows in their networks. One possibility would be to stipulate the principle of net neutrality for the operators, i.e. the fundamental equal treatment of all data regardless of content and sender / recipient.35
In the context of the WTO, states are also free to regulate certain services nationally. The only prerequisite for this is that the same requirements apply to domestic and foreign companies. Within Europe, it is the EU that sets most of these regulations. The existing requirements for telecommunications service providers - for example in terms of data protection or network neutrality - would also be relevant with a view to the planned LEO constellations.
After all, the WTO rules give the states one “trump card”, namely the reference to questions of national security. According to media reports, there were plans by in the course of 2018 OneWeb, a joint venture with the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos to build. These are said to have been stopped by an intervention by the Russian domestic secret service FSB, which believed that the cooperation sought posed a threat to national security.36
Public funding for research and development
Almost all companies that are currently pursuing plans for a LEO mega-constellation state that their systems provide access to the Internet for all those 3.6 billion people who have previously been on the wrong side of the global one Digital divide and have no access to the Internet. So far, however, it cannot be assumed that these potential new customers will be able to provide the companies with the income that is necessary for setting up and operating the constellations.
The satellite companies will probably try to get financial support from development cooperation budgets.
It is therefore to be expected that the companies will try to obtain financial support from development cooperation budgets. For example, UNICEF and ITU jointly founded the GIGA initiative, one of the goals of which is to give every school in the world access to the Internet.37 General Secretary António Guterres explicitly mentioned the initiative, among other things, in his opening speech at the Internet Governance Forum 2019.38 Although the initiators of the GIGA campaign emphasize that this is pursuing a technology-neutral approach, it can be assumed that at least some companies from the Internet satellite industry will try to participate in the upcoming tender.
In addition to their commitment to international development cooperation, some countries specifically support companies from their own country in setting up LEO constellations. Obviously, even if the details are difficult to understand from the outside, this is the case with Chinese state-owned companies. In any case, the final declaration of 2019 of the World Internet Conference, which takes place annually in Wuzhen, China, makes it clear that the Chinese leadership is aware of the global importance of communication infrastructures in space. It says here: "The states should make joint efforts to promote the laying of cross-border and international undersea cables with optical lines and to improve the information infrastructure in space."39
The USA and Canada choose a different path: Here the state acts as a customer, guaranteeing the company sales for a certain period of time, and as a sponsor of research and development. The latter has so far been carried out in the USA through military projects, but also through civil programs to promote access to the Internet in sparsely populated regions of the country.40 In Canada, the government supports the company TeleSat through grants when setting up a LEO constellation.41
Development of standards and protocols
The transmission of data in constellations of tens of thousands of satellites that are permanently in motion, and the transmission of data between the constellations and the users on earth, will make completely new software protocols or the adaptation of existing protocols necessary. So far, institutions such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and, for certain areas, the ITU have developed such protocols and standards.42
In fact, there are already initial discussions within the framework of the IETF.43 At the end of 2019, China proposed to the ITU to develop a completely new Internet protocol called "NewIP". In response to massive criticism, it has in the meantime given up on this project, at least in its original form; But it is interesting, among other things, that here too the Chinese have linked their advance with the plans for new LEO mega-constellations.44
Possible futures: the global internet in 2035
The future development in the field of internet satellites cannot be determined with certainty predict. However, the spectrum of conceivable and plausible future scenarios can be described systematically. One such entirely plausible scenario is that none of the companies involved succeeds in building a LEO mega-constellation of internet satellites. The technological, economic and also political obstacles are enormous and could ultimately prove insurmountable even for the most ambitious actors in this area.
In the following, however, I would like to take a closer look at two scenarios as to how things could develop if these obstacles can be overcome (see Figure 4). For both scenarios, I examine what this would mean for three central dimensions of global internet governance: for access to the internet, for the security and resilience of the global internet infrastructure, and for the balance of power in global internet governance. Related questions of space governance - from necessary changes in space law to concerns about an increase in space junk - cannot be addressed here.
It is not very likely that the actual development corresponds exactly to one of the two scenarios outlined below.
In order to structure the range of possible developments, I locate them on a spectrum in which the Degree of competition the relevant factor is. This factor, in turn, has two components (see table). First, it includes how many mega-constellation operators are competing in the broadband Internet connectivity market. Second, it is about the degree of vertical integration, i.e. how many elements of the Internet connectivity service a provider combines. It is not very likely that the actual development will exactly correspond to one of the two scenarios outlined below. Rather, the purpose of this type of analysis is to raise awareness of the range of possible trajectories - and in particular of the political implications associated with it.
Thanks to such a heuristic approach, the pending political decisions can also be better supported. In simple terms: In the light of the self-imposed goals of German policy in the area of global internet governance (see Chapter 1), the first scenario can be described as worst case understand what to avoid. In the second scenario, too, the development is not exclusively positive; at least, it becomes practically conceivable here what the building blocks and requirements of a development worth striving for from the perspective of German politics would be.
In order to paint a vivid picture of these two possible futures, I use the names of specific companies and countries. Although the results of the analysis from the previous sections flow into the scenarios, it should be emphasized at this point that these are fictional narratives.
Scenario 1: Global Oligopolies
With a little delay it will succeed Starlink To put a LEO constellation of around 3,000 satellites into operation at the end of 2021, with which 60 percent of humanity can be reached. The focus is on regions in the northern hemisphere, particularly the USA and Canada. At about the same time, the AmazonSubsidiary company Project Kuiper and OneWeb a joint venture named KuiperOne. 2022 takes KuiperOne the regular operation of its satellite constellation. Starlink and KuiperOne offer "backbone services", i.e. the high-performance background networks, for local Internet service providers and data centers. But they also enable a direct connection for end users. In the rural regions of the USA they are cooperating with us Verizon and AT&T: Customers of these companies can switch to satellite connections if the local networks are insufficient. In addition, align Starlink and KuiperOne but also directly to end users: For an initial price of 99 US dollars, customers can book a data package of 100 gigabytes (GB) per month, which allows them to connect directly to the satellite constellations. The special antennas required for this awaken memories of the first mobile phones due to their unwieldy size.
Domestically, the US government supports Starlink and KuiperOneby providing funding to the two companies through a program to expand broadband Internet access in rural areas and research projects by the Ministry of Defense.In their international activities, the companies benefit from programs with which the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supports the establishment of Internet infrastructures in developing countries. The companies also receive support in terms of foreign policy: At the initiative of the State Department, the four other members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance - Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - sign a memorandum entitled "Internet Satellites and National Security" in which they undertake to the activities of Starlink and Blue Origin to accompany benevolently. As a result, other states, including Poland and the Baltic countries, take on this commitment.
At the same time, the Chinese government is orchestrating the creation of its own mega-constellation of planetary reach. As in the USA, there is initially politically wanted competition between a number of companies. In the summer of 2021, however, Beijing will bring these various initiatives together: The newly founded company AliLink bundles all previous activities and will start operating its constellation in 2022, the Communist Party of China is setting up a new sub-committee to oversee developments in this area. The Russian government is also pursuing its own plans for a mega-constellation until 2025. In light of the worsening economic situation in the country, however, President Vladimir Putin agreed on a strategic partnership with China in 2025. The previous activities on the Russian side will be integrated into the system of AliLink integrated, which is now also available in Russia.
Many of the European suppliers are being bought up by one of the three big operators as part of this consolidation process. Only a few of them manage, with the support of their respective home governments, to maintain their independence and assert themselves in a niche of the global market.
The year 2026 marks a breakthrough in Internet satellite technology, because the first mobile devices for end users that are "satellite-ready" appear. Special antennas are no longer necessary to connect these devices to satellites. Cell phones and the now widespread digital glasses (“smart glasses”) can now short-circuit directly with the satellites. You use existing cellular protocols and new protocols that are specially tailored to the requirements of satellite communication. Since the three large satellite operators use different frequencies and are also technically incompatible with each other, specific hardware modules are required in the end devices in order to connect to the various satellite constellations. These hardware modules are licensed by the three operators. With reference to threats to national security, the US and many allies prohibit the sale and use of the Chinese module; in the same way, China and Russia are banning western modules.
The data exchange between the three constellations takes place at Planetary Exchange Points (PXPs).
Since 2024, data has been exchanged within the three constellations via inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs). A growing number of satellites are used as distributed data centers. Like earlier earthbound content delivery networks (CDNs), these hold data that is particularly frequently requested by users, such as video streams.
The data exchange between the three constellations takes place at Planetary Exchange Points (PXPs). In an initial phase these are on earth. The US and China informally agree that around half of the PXPs will each be stationed in locations controlled by one of the two states. In 2030, the US and China announce that they will move the PXPs into space. They declare that in this way they want to avoid problematic dependencies on states on earth on whose territories the PXPs were previously stationed.
The constant expansion of the three constellations means that their operators are increasingly becoming direct competitors of local Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Attempts by some European countries to prevent this high degree of vertical integration of the services offered by the satellite operators through new WTO rules have failed. In rural and sparsely populated regions, it is becoming more and more apparent that local ISPs cannot compete with providers of satellite-based services. In densely populated urban areas, satellite operators use local relay stations that enable many end users to access 6G and WIFI6 and, thanks to their particularly powerful antennas, can connect to several satellites at the same time. In urban areas too, satellite operators are increasingly becoming serious competition for local ISPs.
As a result, there will be three fully operational mega-constellations in 2035. Two of that - Starlink and KuiperOne - are owned by private companies under the jurisdiction of the US and its closest allies. The third constellation AliLink is operated by a Chinese state-owned company and actively supported by the Russian government. The two western constellations each have 10,000 satellites, the Chinese constellation 14,000. Almost 60 percent of the world's Internet data traffic is routed through the three constellations and around two thirds of the world's population regularly use the constellations to access the Internet. However, the distribution is uneven: While satellite internet is used almost exclusively in rural areas, many cities are increasingly relying on fiber optic connections. What does all of this mean for global internet governance in 2025?
The constellation of AliLink can be reached from China and Russia as well as from all states of the Belt and Road Initiative.
In principle, all three systems can be configured in such a way that they can reach any place on earth. However, in view of the controversies between the states in which the satellite operators are located, the actual coverage depends heavily on political criteria. The two western constellations primarily cover North and South America, as well as the areas of allied states in Europe and the Pacific and parts of the African continent. The constellation of AliLink can be reached from China and Russia as well as from all states of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Since 2025, Hungary, Turkey, India and a number of African countries have gradually joined the BRI. As promised by the operators, the constellations can offer internet connectivity in many rural areas that still had no access to the internet in the 2010s.
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