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

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

About 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). Parks is Director of MIT's Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab, and is a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. 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. Before joining the CMS/W faculty, Parks was Professor and former Department Chair of Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara, where she also served as Director of the Center for Information Technology and Society.

 
 

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