The U.S. government has new opportunities to close the global digital divide and promote internet freedom through technological innovations and cost reductions by providing internet access using satellites, including new low Earth orbit satellite mega-constellations. Researchers have estimated that the satellite internet market will reach $18 billion by 2030 and grow in the following decade, and that the global space industry will reach $1 trillion by 2040, with much of the revenue coming from satellite internet services.
The FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act clarified that “the policy of the United States [is] to promote internet freedom through programs of the [State] Department and USAID that preserve and expand the internet as an open, global space for freedom of expression and association,” and “shall be prioritized for countries whose governments restrict freedom of expression on the internet and that are important to the national interest of the United States.”
In 2023, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved funding bills for the State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs that would provide approximately $100 million for internet freedom programs. Federally funded activities to promote internet freedom have made substantial progress over the past decade, particularly through the work of the Open Technology Fund, which has supported the development of freedom-enhancing technologies. However, $100 million in funding for internet freedom activities represents a small fraction of U.S. government budgets for foreign assistance, economic development, and public diplomacy programs, given the growing geopolitical competition to shape the future of global internet infrastructure.
For the U.S. government, satellite internet technology has already proven effective in providing internet access in critical circumstances. In 2022, USAID partnered with Starlink to provide internet access, consisting of 5,000 terminals, to people in Ukraine in response to the Russian invasion. In 2023, the Biden administration announced that the Department of Defense would purchase additional Starlink terminals from SpaceX to provide additional internet infrastructure in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has reported that Starlink terminals allowed vital services, including healthcare providers, to remain online during the invasion.
The provision of internet connectivity to Ukraine illustrates how these technological innovations offer a mechanism for the U.S. government to promote global internet access. Satellite internet technology could be also used by the U.S. and other Western governments to counter the People’s Republic of China’s global project to build information and communications technology infrastructure around the world. Announced in 2015, the Digital Silk Road program, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, has resulted in an estimated $79 billion in expenditures on technology development projects globally as of 2019. In 2023, the U.S. Intelligence Community determined that the PRC was using international development programs “to promote modifications to international norms to favor state sovereignty and political stability over individual rights.” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has described the Digital Silk Road project as part of a global strategy to promote digital authoritarianism.
Facing this geopolitical challenge, the U.S. government should employ satellite internet technology and other strategies to promote internet freedom and global economic development. Because current technology requires ground-based infrastructure as well as governmental approval for service within individual countries, providing widespread access to satellite internet in authoritarian states is far more difficult; nevertheless, it could provide internet access to countries that may otherwise seek to partner with China to build technology infrastructure.
This paper analyzes current satellite internet technologies, reviews existing U.S. government programs and activities, and presents policy recommendations for the U.S. government to promote global internet access. While many technological and logistical challenges remain, the delivery of internet access by satellite provides a mechanism for advancing long-standing American objectives.