Six weeks ago, however, his circumstances changed, thanks to Starlink. Woodward became a beta user of SpaceX’s internet service, which uses a growing fleet of 1,600 satellites orbiting Earth to deliver internet access to people on the surface. As of the end of July, the company was reporting close to 90,000 users. “Within the first few weeks, I became a real fanboy of Starlink,” says Woodward.
“For anybody that’s been living out of the sticks like me, Starlink will come as something of a revelation,” he adds.
But Starlink wasn’t designed just to hook up remote cybersecurity professors: SpaceX has made bigger claims than that. It hopes to bring high-speed satellite internet to many of the 3.7 billion people on this planet who currently have no internet connection at all. Many simply make do with mobile-phone connections—an expensive workaround in its own right. (One gigabit of data in sub-Saharan Africa costs 40% of the average monthly wage.)
And that’s not even considering people who have internet access but lack a broadband connection. Almost the entirety of the US has access to the internet, but 157 million Americans, most of whom live in rural communities,don’t use it at broadband speeds. Black communities are disproportionately more likely to lack access to broadband internet, even when they are in close proximity to whiter (and wealthier) communities. After living through covid and a time when most people relied on the internet as a lifeline, it’s difficult to think that high-speed internet is still an unattainable luxury for some.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether Starlink can actually solve this larger problem. “It’s really meant for sparsely populated regions,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said at a conference in June. “In high-density areas, we will be able to serve a limited number of customers.” And many rural citizens of the world will be locked out because they won’t be able to afford it.
Starlink must get costs down fast in order to expand its customer base, but it must also make enough money to continue launching hundreds or even thousands of satellites every year. It’s a delicate needle that might be impossible to thread.
Typical satellite internet services place just a few satellites in very high orbits, called geostationary orbits. From up there, individual satellites can provide wider areas of coverage, but the latency (or lag time) is greater. Woodward has used such services before but has always found them to be “useless.”
Starlink and its competitors, like OneWeb and Amazon Kuiper, instead deploy tens of thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). Their closer proximity to Earth means latency is significantly reduced. And while each one covers a smaller area, the sheer numbers mean they should theoretically blanket the planet in coverage and prevent any loss of connection.
Starlink began beta testing last year and is now available in 14 countries. Last December, the US Federal Communications Commission awarded SpaceX $886 million as part of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which subsidizes US telecom companies that are building out infrastructure to help get broadband access to rural places.
But it’s not totally clear whether rural America is a viable customer base for Starlink. The biggest issue is cost. A Starlink subscription is $99. Speeds can vary greatly, but the average user should expect 50 to 150 megabits per second. You’d have to pay traditional satellite internet companies like Viasat (which operates geostationary satellites) double that amount to get the same speeds. Not bad.
It’s the upfront expense that will hit you hardest with Starlink, however. Costs for things like the satellite dish and router come out to a whopping $499—and that equipment is sold to customers at a loss. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has previously said he hopes these costs can come down closer to $250, but it’s unclear when or if that might happen. For much of the rural world, in America and elsewhere, the price is simply too high.
So who will the first Starlink users be? The physical and financial demands of building satellites and launching them into orbit (though cheaper than ever, still a very expensive enterprise) mean Starlink will be operating at a loss for some time, says Derek Turner, a tech policy analyst at Free Press, a nonprofit that advocates for open communication. And getting costs down will mean looking at customers beyond just unconnected individuals in the countryside.
Instead, the early customers are more likely to include the US military, which when operating in remote areas often relies on geostationary satellites plagued by congested service and high latency. Both the Air Force and the Armyare interested in testing Starlink. Some intelligence experts have pointed to the troubled pullout from Afghanistan as an example of where the service could have helped.
Airlines that want to offer passengers faster and more stable in-flight Wi-Fi are also looking into Starlink. Other commercial businesses in rural areas might also find value in it. And of course, there are techies and curious customers in the suburbs and cities with the money to try it out.
In Turner’s view, adding those customers could help bring prices down for everyone, but it also means less bandwidth to go around. Starlink can offset this problem by launching more satellites—which it eventually plans to do, but that’s assuming it has enough subscribers.
Musk has said it will take tens of billions of dollars in capital before Starlink has enough capacity to generate a positive cash flow. It’s launched 1,600 satellites so far with no problem, but the eventual goal of 42,000 is an entirely different matter. “It doesn’t scale as favorably as wired broadband does,” Turner says. It’s not at all clear yet how many satellites Starlink will need in order to deliver reliable high-speed internet to hundreds of thousands or even millions of subscribers logging on at the same time.
And for many customers, especially commercial businesses, there are cheaper alternatives to Starlink that can still fulfill their needs. A farmer who’s using smart sensors to track things like local weather and soil conditions doesn’t need broadband internet to connect these devices. That’s where smaller companies like the US-based Swarm come in: it uses a fleet of over 120 small satellites to help connect IoT devices for such use cases. Swarm (recently acquired by SpaceX) offers a data plan starting at just $5 a month. And of course, if you’re in a well-populated area, spending $99 a month with another ISP will likely get you speeds closer to 1,000 mbps.
On the surface, the FCC’s RDOF award to Starlink would suggest that rural America is an essential part of how Starlink will grow. But Turner says this is a misconception, and that SpaceX should not have been allowed to put down RDOF bids in the first place, because it will be building out the Starlink network anyway. “I think the FCC would have been better to direct its resources toward bringing future-proof broadband to areas where it doesn’t make sense economically to deploy,” he says.
Acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel spearheaded a review late last year of how RDOF subsidies were awarded under her predecessor, Ajit Pai, and found that billions were doled out to companies to have them bring broadband internet to places where it was unnecessary or inappropriate, like “parking lots and well-served urban areas.” A report by Free Press estimated that about $111 million of SpaceX’s own award would be going to urban areas or places with no real infrastructure or need for internet connections, like highway medians. The FCC is asking those companies, including Starlink, to essentially give back some of the money. (SpaceX did not respond to questions or requests for comment.)
Turner acknowledges that LEO satellites are “going to be a very important innovation in the telecommunication space.” But he still thinks services like Starlink will be a niche product in the US, even in the long term—and sees the general trend continuing toward fiber. Even an emerging technology like 5G relies on very dense networks of antennas that can connect back to fibers as quickly as possible. Cable broadband has improved consistently over time because companies are pushing fiber networks deeper and closer to customers.
Underdeveloped parts of the world might find Starlink to be a boon, since many of these places do not have physical networks like the cable system that the US laid out in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. But beta testing so far is exclusive to the US, Canada, parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. It’s too early to tell what kind of impact it could have in the developing world, especially if subscription and equipment costs stay high.
Woodward’s experience is the kind the company would like to replicate for all its customers. But Woodward knows he’s fortunate to be able to afford Starlink, and that it’s able to meet his needs. For now, at least. “It will be interesting to see how Starlink holds up when they get 200,000 users,” he says. “Prices will have to come down, but speeds and service will have to remain the same. That’s all to be determined.”
A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry
China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.
The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.
The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals.
In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma.
Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas.
The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.
The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.
Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.
We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”
The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.
A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there.
This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.
Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor, and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes.
In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”
However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.
In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.
We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.
Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity.
Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.
Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.