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Satellite constellation
An artist’s conception shows a constellation of satellites in orbit. (OneWeb Illustration)

The Federal Communication Commission’s plan to start rolling back regulations on net neutrality comes as bad news for streaming video providers like Amazon and Netflix, and potentially for consumers as well, but it could also bring more attention to an emerging avenue for broadband: satellite constellations in low Earth orbit.

Put extra emphasis on “could”: Even though net neutrality has been debated for years, the effects of removing the equal-access requirements for the broadband marketplace are by no means clear. And legal challenges could tie up any policy shift for a long time to come.

Simply put, lifting the net neutrality requirements would free up internet service providers to ratchet down or gear up data streams based on what’s being streamed, and by whom.

For example, Comcast (or Verizon, or AT&T) could charge a premium to provide a “fast lane” for streaming video from Amazon Prime (or Hulu, or Netflix). The premium could be paid by the content providers, or passed on to consumers. Broadband companies could also throttle back the stream or block access to a specific content provider unless they got paid.

In all of these scenarios, the balance of power shifts dramatically toward broadband companies, such as Comcast, and away from content providers that have little market leverage, such as Reddit.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai insists that getting rid of net neutrality will result in a net gain. In a statement, he said that “the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” opening the way for market innovation. “I look forward to returning to the light-touch, market-based framework that unleashed the digital revolution and benefited consumers here and around the world,” he said.

But critics say the shift would have precisely the opposite effect. In September, U.S. Rep. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Pai wants to “make it possible for those big telecom and cable companies to erect toll lanes that would further burden the nature of the internet and the innovation this economy supports.”

Today Pai said the full commission would vote on his proposal on Dec. 14. Because Republicans hold a 3-2 majority on the panel, approval is highly likely. And legal challenges are just as likely.

So, what’s an internet user to do — besides making phone calls and joining protests, that is. Today, there are some alternatives to wired broadband, including mobile wireless providers such as T-Mobile and satellite providers such as Dish Network. But within the next few years, the range of choices for satellite home broadband should become much broader.

Satellite broadband has typically relied on spacecraft in geostationary orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface. These GEO satellites can hold a stable position over a region of Earth’s surface, but they have a big drawback for real-time communications: latency.

It takes roughly 600 milliseconds or more for a signal to travel through the space-based network. That may not sound like a big deal, but it makes a noticeable difference for internet response time.

To get around the latency issue, several ventures are getting set to put hundreds, and eventually thousands, of networked satellites in low Earth orbit, or LEO. So many more satellites will be required because they’re constantly on the move with relation to Earth’s surface. But because LEO satellites are hundreds of miles above Earth, rather than thousands, the network lag time would amount to 30 to 50 milliseconds. That’s competitive with terrestrial networks.

It so happens that some of the folks connected to these satellite projects have quite a bit of experience shaking up established markets.

For example, British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is one of the backers of OneWeb, an international consortium that aims to begin offering global broadband service as early as 2019. Branson’s Virgin Orbit and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture are due to launch some of OneWeb’s hundreds of satellites.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and its billionaire founder, Elon Musk, are making plans for a 4,425-satellite broadband-beaming constellation in low Earth orbit. The company’s satellite operation in Redmond, Wash., is taking the lead development role. The first prototype satellite is due to be launched sometime in the next few months, with commercial service gathering steam in the 2019-2024 time frame.

The pricing for such services hasn’t yet been announced — but Patricia Cooper, SpaceX’s vice president for satellite government affairs,  promised in May that the constellation would bring “high-speed, reliable and affordable broadband service to consumers in the U.S. and around the world.”

OneWeb has a similar aim: “We set pretty high goals, but we are getting to a billion subscribers by 2025,” the company’s executive chairman, Greg Wyler, said last month. “These are big numbers, but we are going to make it really easy to install and really affordable.”

If these companies follow through on their claims, the buzz about LEO broadband could be growing in the midst of the legal wranglings over net neutrality.

It’s not clear where OneWeb and SpaceX stand on the issue. For what it’s worth, Google is a strong backer of net neutrality and joined with Fidelity in 2015 to invest $1 billion in SpaceX’s satellite internet venture. Amazon also favors net neutrality, while Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett was quoted as saying back in 2008 that the idea was a “load of bollocks.” (Berkett is now chairman of Guardian Media Group.)

Whichever way the wranglings lead, satellite ventures — and competition in the broadband marketplace — should benefit from the exposure. And broadband users should benefit in turn, said Phil Larson, a former White House space policy adviser and SpaceX spokesman who is now an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“One of the reasons why we need net neutrality is because consumers today have too few choices in broadband providers,” he told GeekWire in an email. “When we can harness outer space to expand cyberspace, we can give consumers more choices and better services in new and innovative ways. These new platforms can help open the Internet further by ensuring that everyone, everywhere can get access to the same universe of knowledge across the internet and without the need for paid prioritization or fast lanes.”

That’s not to say satellite services should be a substitute for net neutrality. Just to make clear where he stands, Larson spooned on an extra dollop of holiday-themed, pun-filled opprobrium.

“This net neutrality item is a turkey stuffed with false assumptions,” he wrote. “It gobbles up consumer opportunities, which gives away the gravy to the big telecom firms.”

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