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Unsovereign States

What will Happen When Satellite Internet becomes Available Worldwide in 2022?

28 December 2021

The communication industry has undergone revolutionary and unprecedented changes during this decade. It was not an upgrade of speed or introducing a new generation. Rather, it was the announcement of a whole new era of ultra fast wireless communications that is completely different, in terms of quality and quantity, and never seen before. Huge volumes of data can be transferred in a split second, enabling millions of the Internet of Things and AI devices and systems to be synchronized in real time, while the whole planet can be covered without the need for any cables or wires. 

The launch of 5G networks by some countries has triggered a race between major global companies scrambling to offer satellite internet services using low Earth orbit satellites to transfer data at ultra high speeds to users. The development makes the outlook for the internet, and wireless communications in general, murkier as individuals will have access to the internet, away from the control of states, directly and wirelessly  from orbiting satellites and using only receivers similar to those used to receive TV transmission. 

This analysis is one in a series published by Future for Advanced Studies and Research ahead of the new year. It begs the following questions: What will happen when the satellite internet becomes popular worldwide? What are the implications for the sovereignty and national security of states? 

What is satellite internet? 

Satellites used for radio and TV transmission rotate around themselves in a fixed orbit and at altitudes over 36000 kilometers above earth so they can cover a maximum area of Earth. This causes a latency of half a second, which means those communicating  over satellite uplinks, like in TV interviews for example, will keep interrupting each other. The issue might seem simple when it comes only to phone conversations, but for data transfer it is a huge problem because there should be no delay to achieve real-time synchronization between connected devices. 

To minimize latency of data transmissions, satellites should be put in orbits as close as possible to Earth- between 300 and 2000 kilometers. But then, at altitudes this low, the covered area is reduced. This requires hundreds and even thousands of satellites to be put in orbit  to transmit high-speed data with minimum delay to smaller areas of the planet. Several global companies are working on this to provide satellite internet. 

High-speed satellite internet is provided with latency rates as low as 3 ms. Transmission is directly received from low-orbit satellites goes to terrestrial stations that relay data to users and back to the satellite again, or to transceivers- smaller versions of those dishes used in the past for satellite TV services- that do not necessarily have to be set for a specific satellite as the dish automatically shifts to different satellites. 

Major projects

Major companies have already sent satellites to orbit to provide internet access. Space-X, headed by Elon Musk, OneWeb, owned by Airbus and SoftBank Corp., Amazon, Virgin, as well as Canada’s Telesat, all are planning to deploy their own satellites into space. 

Satellite internet service operated by SpaceX has launched the largest constellation of satellites into orbit, followed by OneWeb, which is already testing its services in Europe and has plans in place to expand in the future. 

The third major is US giant Amazon, which announced plans to invest $10 billion in satellite internet services, after the US Federal Communications Commission has approved its application to launch more than 3000 satellites into low Earth orbit as part of its Kuiper project which will provide satellite internet in the US and later across the world. 

Canada’s Telesat is seeking to provide services for government entities, airline companies and the shipping industry in some European countries by 2024 using 298 satellites.


SpaceX is planning to launch about 42000 satellites to low-Earth orbits to provide high-speed internet with latency as low as 3 ms to most of the Earth, including unserved where the internet is very slow. Some 3.5 billion people will get access to the internet for the first time ever. 

Up to April 2021, Sarlink deployed 1350 satellites to space by Falcon 9 rockets (60 satellites in each launch). In the next five years, the company will have launched 12000 satellites to low-Earth orbits in three constellations, with the first including 1440 statellites at an at an orbital altitude of 550 km, the second including 2825 satellites (at 1110 km), and the third of 7518 satellite will orbit Earth at only 340 km. 

Compared to traditional satellites, these orbits are very low orbits. Each satellite will cover a specific area, which means stronger signals will be sent to Earth reducing latency and saving power used by receivers. 

In addition to plans to launch 12000 satellites announced by Elon Musk, the company’s application to deploy 30,000 additional Starlink satellites received approval from the Federal Communications Commission. 

SpaceX strategy provides broadband connection directly to users via smaller and less expensive receivers that can be installed on roofs without having to adjust the receiver to receive from a specific satellite. The user terminal receives transmission from different satellites orbiting Earth, which means they can be put on any moving object, such as a car or a ship, to receive stronger transmission in wider areas than those covered by traditional satellites. 


The UK-based European company is seeking to provide broadband satellite internet services using 648 satellites in orbits at 1200 km altitude. It had already launched 146 satellites to orbit to cover the northern hemisphere including Alaska, Greenland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. 

OneWeb is manufacturing hundreds of small-size satellites for very low-Earth orbits to build a highly complex network. They will synchronize with each other and with ground stations to provide uninterrupted high-speed broadband. 

OneWeb’s project is different from SpaceX’s. It is designed to provide the internet service to service providers and individuals through ground stations linked up to satellites. The 45 interconnected ground stations are linked to the satellite network. 

Challenges to states

Although some companies such as SpaceX and OneWeb already started to provide services in beta  to users, the satellite internet projects are facing several challenges. Most importantly are the restrictions imposed by states on companies. Because they seek to control the flow of data about their citizens, states request an emergency shutdown of the satellite network at any time.

This can probably be implemented by granting or denying authorization for ground stations. This might work in the case of OneWeb and not SpaceX which allows every individual user to own a station for reception and transmission (transceiver). If states are able to impose restrictions on the sales of these gadgets, they can still be smuggled easily because of their small size. 

This creates several dilemmas for states. They are as follows:  

1- No state sovereignty on satellite internet: 

Despite their full control on internet service providers, states are still facing huge challenges preventing them from getting all information about their citizens that is gathered through the internet. They are even unable sometimes to shut down websites that are viewed as threats to their sovereignty. Some individuals use VPN to escape controls imposed by states to restrict their use of the internet. In the satellite internet, this will be much harder because companies don’t even need an operation license from the state to provide their services to users inside the state.

2- Losing grip on the communications industry:

Individuals now have direct access to the internet through satellites. They don’t even need ground stations to receive transmission from satellites orbiting in space. This means that states cannot enforce their control on the satellite internet or even regulate transmission and reception. Not only this. States are likely losing most of their control on the communications industry. The reason is that this is a new gap outside the control of states. A large section of the industry is becoming outside the control of states. If, in the coming years, technology companies are able to make smart phones connecting to low-Earth orbit satellites, with low operation cost, this means that a large part of the traditional communication industry will no longer be under state control. 

3- Jeopardizing the national security of states:

All states are working on digitization, using smart services in both the public and private sectors and building smart cities, while individuals become more reliant on a lifestyle featuring more technologies such as the Internet of Things, web applications and smartphones. This leads to a huge number of these services and devices becoming more reliant on the satellite internet which offers high data rates and can spread even to areas where states fail to build infrastructure. All this means that states and their citizens become more exposed to companies providing satellite internet services and are in possession of huge volumes of data and information which they can use to pose threats to the national security of states. 

In conclusion, as states become increasingly reliant on satellite internet companies to provide services to their citizens, while failing to offer alternative solutions and projects, both states and their citizens become at the mercy of those companies, which can shut down the internet service in any state and jeopardize all their services, resources and security.