Russia’s legislative body, the State Duma, is currently considering a law that would fine Russian residents for using Western space-based Internet services like SpaceX’s Starlink and upcoming competitor OneWeb. The law would impose a fine of up to 30,000 rubles (US$405) for individuals and 1 million rubles ($13,500) for legal entities like businesses.
Not surprisingly, Russia is currently planning its own space-based Internet service, known as Sphere. Although the budget for creating its own satellite Internet is unknown, some analysts say that it could cost up to $20 billion by the time it is completed. By way of comparison, the Russian space agency Roscosmos receives a budget of $2.4 billion a year.
Russia Totally Not a Fan of SpaceX
Russian officials have gone on record with a strong dislike of SpaceX, which recently shattered Russia’s monopoly on crewed spaceflight with two successful crewed flights to the International Space Station from U.S. last year and a contract for more launches to the International Space Station starting in early 2021. Head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin has been especially disparaging of SpaceX, saying that the American aerospace company is being propped up by NASA and the American military although it has been amazingly successful at bringing the cost of launches down through its development of rocket stages that can be flown again with only a minimum of sprucing up.
He recently called Starlink, which could provide space-based Internet communications for the American military, “a rather predatory, clever, powerful, high-technology policy of the USA, which uses Shock and Awe in order to advance, before all, their military interests.”
Rogozin was especially dismissive of space-based Internet services’ ability to bring the Internet to regions that have suffered from the lack of opportunity that comes with lack of reliable high-speed Internet access. The United Nations has called Internet access a “human right,” but this has not encouraged “traditional” Internet service providers to make the investment in regions of low population density or low median income. It’s estimated that four percent of Earth’s land surface is not covered by reliable Internet access. Services like Starlink and OneWeb could change that.
Russia will take the money of Western companies that are interested in launching Internet satellites. OneWeb currently has a contract to launch the initial batch of satellites on Russia’s Soyuz rocket. Companies like OneWeb appear to be propping up Russia’s launch industry at a time when SpaceX seems keen on undercutting Russia on launch costs and turnaround time.
SpaceX is currently eyeballing the possibility of landing the Super Heavy rocket at the same launchpad that it launched from. This could enable the refurbishment and refueling of the rocket at the pad itself, which could speed up the reuse of the rocket by eliminating the need to transport it.
Ability to Censor Internet Access May Also Be Factor
Supporters of the Russian bill have also expressed concern that “independently” accessing the Internet using an Internet service provider that isn’t controlled by Russia could bypass the System of Operational Search Measures, which monitors Internet use and mobile communications and forces all Internet-based data traffic to enter and leave Russia using only Russian communications providers.
This can enable censorship of Internet-based information and allows Russian law enforcement officials to monitor the Internet for any activity that might violate Russian law. Some Western-based social media venues like Facebook and Twitter might especially become targets for monitoring because they have been used to organize uprisings like the Arab Spring, a series of protests and violent uprisings in several Muslim-majority nations that occurred in the early 2010s.
Effective censorship requires the ability to control the Internet, which may be one of the goals of the Russian State Duma’s plan to ban foreign satellite Internet services like Starlink. Russia may also dislike the idea of competition for its own planned satellite constellation, Sphere, within its own borders.