Look to sky to lift caps on American innovation

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Millions of Americans have no internet at home or internet so slow that they’re effectively left offline. The result is a cap on America’s entrepreneurial potential and innovation. So long as Americans struggle to Zoom, stream, download and perform basic internet activities, our nation’s innovative potential will be significantly dampened.

That’s why everyone from fiscally conservative Republicans to progressive Democrats should support immediate solutions to closing our digital divide. More specifically, that’s why the Federal Communications Commission should expedite projects to beam broadband from space.

The need for space-based internet has been heightened by the pandemic. COVID-19 has further depressed the already low cap on American innovation imposed by a lack of broadband deployment and access. The exchange of ideas is critical to innovation. For that reason, campuses, cities and other dense areas — let’s call them innovation zones — are startup hubs.

Social distancing has made the chance encounters that seed startups almost impossible. President Donald Trump recently nearly made the odds of innovation even lower by attempting to impose visa restrictions on international students. (Thankfully, these restrictions won’t come to fruition due to suits filed by elite universities). If fewer international students call our country home, then our pool of creativity will shrink. Cumulatively, the pandemic and unfortunate immigration policies are hindering the ability of Americans to identify like-minded colleagues, collaborate on big, bold ideas and connect via the internet.

All of this begs the question, posed by Eric Eldon of TechCrunch, “How many startups will never exist because the right people didn’t happen to be at the right place at the right time together?” The precise answer is unknowable but the overall direction is certain: American ingenuity will decline. The extent of that decline, though, can be changed by policy interventions. Efforts to facilitate more internet access can lift the cap and increase the odds of innovation by bringing rural Americans and others disproportionately likely to lack adequate internet into now-exclusively digital innovation zones.

Tech giants are racing to fill the sky and space with new means for emitting broadband. Amazon, for example, received approval from the Federal Communications Commission to place 3,236 broadband-emitting satellites into space as part of Project Kuiper. SpaceX has already launched hundreds of such satellites and plans to add to its own constellation in the coming months. Eventually, SpaceX plans to have as many as 12,000 satellites as part of a so-called megaconstellation of connectivity. Loon, a product of Alphabet’s moonshot factory, will facilitate millions accessing digital innovation zones in Kenya, where the company deployed many of its broadband-blasting balloons.

Though they certainly sound like it, these are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. Sure, there are still doubts as to whether satellite-based broadband is sufficiently fast and reliable. But these innovations are nevertheless improvements over the status quo. In contrast to terrestrial efforts to increase broadband deployment to rural areas, which have been hampered by partisan bickering and hamstrung by high infrastructure costs, tech giants have offered tangible solutions to closing the digital divide in the short run via the sky and space.

It’s hard to believe that America could be facing a shortage of innovation, but it’s true. Even before COVID-19, a lack of universal access to innovation zones frequently meant that startups lacked diverse perspectives and participants. Too few rural Americans as well as Americans who identify as people of color are members of the startup communities that tend to be heavily correlated with privileged spaces such as college campuses and coastal cities. What’s more, student debt has squelched the innovative spirit of younger Americans who are forced to pursue the most lucrative job rather than their passion project.

The move to digital innovation zones could be a boon to American ingenuity by increasing the odds of more Americans exchanging ideas with one another. As the seeds of startups — chance encounters — move online, there’s nothing stopping someone in Montana from joining together with someone in San Francisco to work on something transformative. For those seeds to have the opportunity to flourish into successful startups, more Americans will need access to adequate internet. Space- and sky-based solutions offer some of the most promising ways to ensure that access to innovation occurs sooner rather than later.

Kevin Frazier is a student at UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of No One Left Offline.