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“Connecting the Unconnected”: A Critical Assessment of US Satellite Internet Services

Representation of low, medium and geosynchronous orbits
Representation of low, medium and geosynchronous orbits (ESOA: EMEA Satellite Operators Association, n.d.).

Without serious commitments from governments and the private sector to follow through on this rhetoric, satellite Internet technology could fail to reach the communities that need it most.

Published in Media, Culture & Society:

Graydon, M., & Parks, L. (2019). ‘Connecting the unconnected’: a critical assessment of US satellite Internet services. Media, Culture & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443719861835

An estimated 4 billion people worldwide still lack reliable access to the Internet, with the majority concentrated in developing countries. It is within this context that a significant expansion of the satellite Internet industry is taking place, bringing grand visions of social and economic growth through connectivity. Previously dismissed as a limited technology due to high operating costs and latency, as well as the failure of early ventures like Teledesic, satellite Internet has re-emerged in recent years as a viable alternative to the time and energy-intensive practice of laying thousands of miles of fiber optic cable. Utilizing innovative non-synchronous orbit constellations of small, mass-produced satellites that lower production costs and improve latency to better compete with broadband, new Silicon Valley–related companies such as OneWeb, SpaceX, and O3b have promised cheap, high-speed Internet access throughout the world. Drawing upon industry research, site visits, and interviews with technical specialists, development experts, and other actors, this article briefly explores the history of satellite Internet services, analyzes the promises of emerging satellite Internet companies, and argues that without serious commitments from governments and the private sector to follow through on this rhetoric, satellite Internet technology could fail to reach the communities that need it most.

Lisa Parks
Written by
Lisa Parks

Lisa Parks is a media scholar whose research focuses on three areas: satellite technologies and global media; critical studies of media infrastructures; and media, militarization and surveillance. Parks is the author of Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (Duke U Press, 2005), Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror (Routledge, 2018), and Mixed Signals: Media Infrastructures and Cultural Geographies (in progress). She is co-editor of Life in the Age of Drone Warfare (Duke U Press, 2017), Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (U of Illinois Press, 2015), Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries and Cultures (Rutgers U Press, 2012), Undead TV (Duke UP, 2007), and Planet TV: A Global Television Reader (NYU Press, 2002).

She is currently working on two new books, On Media: Twenty-one Lessons for the Twenty-first Century, and the co-edited volume, Media Backends: The Politics of Infrastructure, Clouds, and Artificial Intelligence. Parks also serves as editor of the Network Sovereignty blog, supported by a National Science Foundation grant.

Parks is a 2018 MacArthur Fellow and was founding Director of MIT's Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab. She has held other fellowships and visiting appointments at the International Research Center for Cultural Techniques & Media Philosophy (IKKM) at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg) in Berlin, McGill University, University of Southern California, and the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a PI on major grants from the National Science Foundation and the US State Department, and has collaborated with artists and computer scientists. She is committed to exploring how greater understanding of media systems can inform and assist citizens, scholars and policymakers in the US and abroad to advance campaigns for technological literacy, creative expression, social justice, and human rights.

After serving as Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Science, Technology and Society at MIT, in July 2020 Parks accepted a Distinguished Professor position in the Department of Film and Media Studies at University of California-Santa Barbara, where she will continue her work as Director of the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab. She will also be a Visiting Professor at MIT in 2020-21 to finish work with students.

Matt Graydon
Written by
Matt Graydon

Matt Graydon graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Film.

He joined CMS after working as a media and communications specialist with the United Nations in Iraq, South Sudan and Afghanistan, where he focused on migration and refugee issues in humanitarian and development contexts.

He is interested in how practices like migration are shaped by technology, the role of the media in conflict, and the use of state-sponsored media as a foreign policy tool.

Thesis: Manufacturing Dissent: Assessing the Methods and Impact of RT (Russia Today)

Lisa Parks Written by Lisa Parks
Matt Graydon Written by Matt Graydon