Satellite debris is becoming a huge problem

Here we go again. Satellite companies that plan to put tens of thousands of satellites into orbit to create space-based Internet and mobile phone networks are by reaching the final limit of human degradation of the environment, outer space. And they do so in ways that threaten the radiation protection of the ozone layer.

The so-called low-Earth orbit satellites that the companies launch are designed to last for about five years and then fall back to Earth and disintegrate in the atmosphere as they fall. What they leave behind are materials that are likely to lead to the destruction of the ozone layer. With thousands of satellites potentially falling to Earth each year, the scale of the damage can be great.

We’ve seen this movie before. Without the curiosity of a lone scientist and his assistant in the early 1970s who asked what happens to highly persistent chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) once they are released into the air from refrigerator coils and spray cans, we humans might have lived (and died) through the destruction of the ozone layer without having the knowledge to stop it. That layer high up in the stratosphere protects all living things from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

Worked with F. Sherwood Rowland and his assistant, Mario Molinawas central in creating The Montreal Protocol in 1987, which led to a worldwide phase-out of the production of ozone-depleting substances. Without the protocol, an ozone hole – then limited to Antarctica – may have spread across the planet, threatening all of humanity and all living life, which, as it turns out, evolved to adapt to the ozone layer’s protection against ultraviolet radiation.

CFCs, which are synthetic compounds, began to be widely used in the 1920s. So it took more than 50 years before their danger to our health and the environment became known. Today we are at the beginning of a colossal increase in the number of satellites orbiting the Earth from about 5,000 to perhaps hundreds of thousands. And we know in advance that this could end up destroying the ozone layer if we do nothing. But will we?

It is worth understanding the reasons why these satellites go up. After all, why do we need a new space-based network for internet and mobile phone communications when we already have a ground-based network? The companies that launch the satellites will tell you that they want to reach underserved people in rural areas who cannot access high-speed telecommunications services. A more plausible explanation is that it costs a lot of money to build a terrestrial network and it is risky to do so alongside other competing networks that already exist. In some cases, it would not be allowed because the government owns and operates the Internet and wireless telecommunications networks.

In addition, a terrestrial network company must deal with national, state and local authorities around the world and their regulations, permit applications, laws and fees. The cheap, easy way to build a network, then, is to go to the FCC – which acts as if it has jurisdiction over all of outer space – and get bulk approvals to launch thousands of cheap satellites. As a bonus, the FCC won’t bother you with burdensome environmental assessments.

The simple truth is that the FCC knows nothing about space flight and next to nothing about regulating anything for safety or environmental protection. It is a political commission created with a political purpose: to allocate scarce spectrum for the common good to people and organizations that want to use it.

As for the satellite companies, their protestations that they have the interests of the poor and the neglected in mind will soon be exposed as mere public relations. The vast majority of internet and telecommunications users live in urban areas. Servicing them will be much cheaper than servicing rural residents who are spread out. It is important to understand that satellite-based systems currently require ground-based relay stations to operate. It costs money and it is more cost effective to configure these stations to serve dense urban populations. The same applies to the deployment of satellites across the sky. The more people served by one satellite, the cheaper the system will be to construct and operate.

Essentially, the satellite companies are just trying to carve out a small part of a very lucrative market for cheap. This is not a charity project for the displaced.

We’ve seen what happened to money that many of us Americans paid in special fees approved by the government and given to Internet companies to bring fiber optics to rural and underserved areas. The money was reallocated to expand the industry’s wireless network for a simple reason: the prices of wired communications are regulated, and the prices of wireless communications are not. The industry is just another Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton said, “Because that’s where the money is.”

As of 2017 – I couldn’t find any market intelligence for free after that –The United States ranked 39th in the world for fiber optic deployment, well behind Singapore and South Korea, which were third and fourth, respectively, and behind such tech giants as Uruguay (9th), Vietnam (21st), Bulgaria (23rd) and Kazakhstan (35th). Universal fiber optics would be a far better and safer system for all of us.

How much do you want to bet that the promises made by the satellite internet companies to cover the whole Earth including poor countries and rural areas will not be fulfilled? Remember whenever you hear such promises that these companies will almost certainly focus on the markets that are most lucrative “because that’s where the money is.”

By Kurt Cobb

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