Digital Divide: SpaceX, Starlink and the Indigenous Spaces Between
Almost overnight, massive numbers of people have shifted to working remotely. At Animikii, we’ve always been remote-friendly, so for us it’s almost business as usual. But it also highlights the privilege that we have both as individuals and as an organization. We’re fortunate to have the connectivity to do our work remotely, but some of us still suffer from bandwidth restrictions, expensive services, or no connectivity altogether when something happens to one of the few fibre optic lines connecting the North.
Animikii team members don’t take internet connectivity for granted. Slow speeds, unreliable connections, and figuring out workarounds — we’re sensitive to this and build our web-apps accordingly. We recognize that for many Indigenous Peoples, quality internet access is still not a tangible reality. This isn’t an issue of “closing the gap”, it’s about deconstructing systematic injustice.
How Much Bandwidth is Enough?
Much of the internet access across rural Canada depends on deteriorating copper phone lines or slow, expensive, and even more unreliable satellite access. Speeds of 6 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 0.8 Mbps upload are common, despite the 2016 Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruling that internet speeds of at least 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload are considered a “basic telecom service.”
Things that urbanites take for granted, like reliable video conferencing, are just not possible in many, if not most, parts of this country. For example, the popular video conferencing software Zoom requires anywhere from 0.6-0.8 Mbps upload for low resolution video. 720p is out of reach, that needs 1.2 Mbps upload. Forget the gallery view, that requires a minimum of 1.5 Mbps upload and download. Even the lowest resolution possible requires all of the available bandwidth, assuming that those advertised speeds are what you actually get. This means that no one else in the household can use the internet connection at the same time if you want your video conferencing to work. Sometimes this effect applies to entire communities, or even territories.
Netflix requires 3 Mbps for “SD quality” and 5 Mbps for “HD quality”. YouTube is similar at 1.1 Mbps for 480p (standard definition), 2.5 Mbps for 720p (high definition), and 5 Mbps for 1080p (higher definition). Forget 4k (ultra definition), that requires 20 Mbps. These are sustained speeds, meaning that any data that’s lost due to several variables - such as a poor wireless connection, misconfigured hardware, or an aging phone line - can render these services unusable.
While the lowest end of “high speed” internet can receive high definition (HD) video and use basic video streaming, it can’t support the “remote-friendly community” that emerged as a result of COVID-19. The move towards working from home and supporting online education has just magnified the digital divide. Limited bandwidth, poor connectivity, and unreliable internet create real barriers to life in a digital age.
How Do We Avoid Entrenching Inequalities?
While it’s possible to watch high definition video on poor internet connections, it’s not an enjoyable experience. The video often lags, stutters, disconnects, or takes a long time to buffer. Sometimes the only workaround is to download the video in advance, but that is becoming harder to do as streaming video, as opposed to downloading it, becomes the norm. For privileged people, this might be just a minor and occasional inconvenience. But for many others, including Indigenous people, this is just another form of structural inequality.
Rural internet access is a serious problem throughout Turtle Island. The sheer size and diversity of these lands creates a major challenge for anything that requires a physical connection. While there are regional initiatives to improve internet connectivity, many of these are funded by the provinces. This means that they might not be obliged to consider Indigenous communities as part of their mandate. That changes if these communities are home to non-Indigenous people or their cottages, but that begs the question of who is really being served by these initiatives?
There are Indigenous-driven initiatives such as the First Nations Technology Council, Pathways to Technology, First Mile Connectivity Consortium, or other initiatives that include Indigenous voices such as the Internet Society working to address these structural inequalities, but we have a long way to go before Indigenous Peoples achieve digital equity on Turtle Island. Until then, many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who live in rural communities, or don’t have access to computers or reliable internet, are stuck with workarounds.
Will the Market “Save Us”?
There’s very little market competition for Internet access in Canada. Only 5 telecommunications companies (Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and Quebecor) own the vast majority of the country’s internet infrastructure. While other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can lease and resell these connections, all people on Turtle Island are at the mercy of these 5 telecoms or other companies such as Northwestel or even Huawei.
Because the internet requires central hubs for the overall network to function, even if a small ISP owns their local network, they still have to connect to the wider networks through internet exchange points owned by the giant telecoms. There are major research projects examining this issue, but they often exclude Indigenous perspectives. This is a serious injustice. Indigenous Peoples require in-depth consideration in this analysis so their rights are not ignored (not to mention that this infrastructure travels through both unceded and treaty land). There are initiatives that work to get fiber optic lines into Indigenous communities, but they are expensive and still require economic justification.
Canada appears to have a digital dependency on corporate interests, and this raises wider data sovereignty questions. What is access to data if you depend on a foreign entity to do so? While all Canadians should ask themselves this question, Indigenous Peoples in particular should be very concerned about it and the wider hypocrisy of the CRTC’s protectionist stance of Canadian culture.
Further, what happens if the company cuts off internet service, for whatever reason? If internet access is a basic human right, then why do we depend on corporations to safeguard it? Countries such as the US and China have a growing monopoly on the technology that drives the internet, but how does that impact Indigenous rights?
Are Low Earth Orbit Satellites such as Starlink the answer?
There is a new technology on the horizon called Low Earth Orbit Satellites (LEOS). While many companies have attempted to do this, so far SpaceX’s Starlink appears to have the most success having already launched 422 satellites as of April 2020. But that’s just the beginning. SpaceX has already proposed launching upwards of 40,000 satellites to ensure coverage across the world.
If successful, Starlink has the potential to connect remote Indigenous communities without taking a lot of time to build complicated infrastructure on the ground. Whether or not this is a more cost-effective approach is impossible to say, but this could buy time until better on-the-ground infrastructure is developed throughout the world.
To create economies of scale and spread out the cost of coverage, it’s possible that some Indigenous communities could create one connection to these LEOS, then rebroadcast those signals in a local, community network. This already occurs with existing technology, so why not with satellites? If Starlink or other similar technologies can deliver what they promise, this could create new ways for Indigenous Peoples to connect to each other and the wider world.
Also, Starlink could provide internet access to communities where it was not even possible before, and open new opportunities for economic growth using internet-based technologies. Through online commerce platforms, Indigenous entrepreneurs will have direct access to global markets. Computer-based jobs like coding, developing software, building websites, doing graphic design, or even providing consulting services are all career opportunities that pay well and can be done at a distance.
This of course assumes that people have the necessary tech hardware and skills to do these jobs in the first place. Indigenous Peoples don’t just need better connectivity, we also need access to affordable computers and skills training that’s delivered in ways we can relate to. Life isn’t the same across communities so we need to avoid one-size-fits-all approaches to dismantling the digital divide.
The internet provides space for forming new relationships between people, and can redefine how we organize communities, govern people, and operate businesses. However, sudden internet access can also make a community more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by everything from global corporations to internet trolls to human traffickers. These issues need to be considered along with the technological challenges involved in remote connectivity.
What Could Go Wrong?
As CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk has made many fantastic claims about what his companies’ technologies will do in the future. While he says that Starlink’s speeds will be comparable to fast broadband, he also says that Starlink won’t be a direct competitor to the established telecom giants. Musk claims that Starlink will serve the customers that the telecoms don’t. But will we just replace one monopoly with another?
For Starlink to work, it requires a complex partnership with state military entities such as the United States Air Force or even the new “Space Force”. What’s to stop either SpaceX or the US government from choosing who can be monitored, censured, throttled, or cut-off from service altogether? Will this end up serving as yet another mechanism to erode privacy rights?
These concerns aren’t hypothetical, we already have evidence via Tesla to see how Starlink may operate. Not only did Musk minimize the dangers of COVID-19, he demanded that Tesla factories open during an ongoing pandemic despite an ever-rising death toll. Musk has a track record of pushing his companies to succeed regardless of the potential cost to human lives. Is this technology meant to help people, or is that just a side product of making a select few people, such as Musk, exorbitant amounts of money?
There’s been many reports from astronomers that Starlink satellites are causing problems and there are only a fraction of the satellites up already. Starlink’s response to this? Installing “Sun visors”, a radio-transparent foam that blocks the sun from reflecting off the satellites. This might solve some problems, but what about all the others? From traffic jams to space junk, we don’t know what will happen when we throw so many objects into orbit.
There’s no “space traffic laws”, and SpaceX has already refused to change the path of one of its Starlink satellites that could have collided with a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite, despite the fact that the ESA’s satellite was launched into space first. You can watch for yourself where these satellites are and form your own opinion on whether or not they may be a problem.
If SpaceX has already shown that it doesn’t care about anyone else’s rights to space, what does this mean for the rights of Indigenous Peoples? Do they extend to low earth orbit? Is SpaceX even considering Indigenous peoples? What about the rest of the solar system? Why not? Indigneous Peoples are among the earliest astronomers, why aren’t we being consulted in any of this? Do we not have a right to the sky as well?
Should we place our hopes and dreams on a company that wants to colonize the solar system?
Internet access is an essential service, yet few people appear to be talking about it very much. Fewer people dare to provide critiques of LEOS, both as business models and technologies, and even fewer consider their potential impact on the lives of Indigenous Peoples. Many discussions of the digital divide assume that it’s just a matter of access to resources, but this ignores that this division is an intended result of colonialism. Equitable access is just a tiny part of decolonizing digital.
Colonialism Went Digital a Long Time Ago
Regardless of the issues surrounding the satellites themselves, customers on the ground will still need some sort of complex device to maintain the data link with the satellite network above. The cost for these devices? Anywhere from $300-$1,000 US dollars, which already puts this technology out of reach for many people. Meanwhile, cellular solutions will continue increasing their coverage across Turtle Island, and the rest of the world.
LEOS will prioritize the needs of industry, government, and other telecommunications companies. Telesat, one of Starlink’s remaining competitors, appears to be doing just that. Canadians have already invested in this company yet few have ever heard of it outside of press releases.
There doesn’t appear to be any indicators that radical change to digital equality will happen soon, and even less so for Indigenous Peoples. Our needs are either assumed to be the same as rural Canadians or we are left out of the conversation altogether. Any discussions of the digital divide need to take into account systematic barriers. This is why Animikii prefers to dismantle the digital divide, not just “close the gap”.
Instead of placing our hopes on billionaires and telecom conglomerates, perhaps Indigenous Peoples should focus on what we can do right now. For example, there are initiatives underway to reclaim wireless spectrums. Perhaps Indigenous Peoples can use income from those measures to support local initiatives using technology that Indigenous Peoples can develop ourselves. There doesn’t always need to be an app for that. Digital solutions can be great but not if we ignore local contexts.
All hope is not lost. Indigenous Peoples have always found ways to hack foreign technology so it works for us, and we will find ways to participate on the internet as well. Whether it’s through tubes in the ground or lasers in the sky, Indigenous innovators will always find a way to support their communities.