The richest man in the world, South African multibillionaire Elon Musk, wants to take root in Brazil — or rather, in the country’s skies. The businessman, responsible for the electric car brand Tesla and the space aviation company SpaceX, plans to expand his constellation of low-orbit satellites (up to 2,000 km from Earth) here, known as the Starlink network. In November, the Minister of Communications, Fábio Faria, met with the businessman in the United States. At the heart of the agenda was the proposal to use Musk’s satellites to bring wireless internet to remote locations that fiber optics and mobile telephony have difficulty accessing. And, to top it off, monitoring deforestation in the Amazon — something that doesn’t seem like a priority for the Bolsonaro Government, given the successive records of forest devastation. “We are eager to be able to provide connectivity for the less connected,” said the businessman.
The network is expected to start operating in Brazil in 2022. In late November, Musk filed a request to carry out the first test in the country, with the aim of connecting students from a student center in the Savoyzinho community, in the East Zone of São Paulo, to a high-speed network operated by satellites. The demonstration does not yet have a deadline to take place. This type of operation does not require bidding, in accordance with the resolution of Anatel’s Board of Directors that eliminated auctions of orbital positions. Due to the high complexity and technology of the systems involved, the implementation of the satellite network depends only on an authorization from the regulatory agency —Anatel itself—, which has already given the green light for part of Starlink’s infrastructure.
The company currently has 4,200 satellites in orbit (1,600 of them aimed at providing internet). By 2027 the goal is to reach a total of 42,000 units, making Musk the lord of heaven. In October, Chile became the first Latin American country to rely on the Starlink network to bring connectivity to rural or isolated areas. The company was responsible for distributing the kits for satellite signal reception (antenna and router), and the service will be offered free of charge for one year. After this period, the city halls of the cities served will have to bear the costs, and the service will also be offered to consumers in general. According to company information, the Starlink network already operates in the United States and in several European countries, such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
The preponderance of the entrepreneur in this field worries authorities and regulatory entities around the world. In an interview with the newspaper Financial Times, Josef Aschbacher, director of the European Space Agency (ESA), criticized the speed with which governments open the doors for Starlink. “You have one person who owns half of all active satellites in the world. It’s scary. In fact, he makes the rules. [do setor]. The rest of the world is not responding with adequate speed,” he said. He also defended fair conditions of competition in the market: “European states should collectively be interested in offering equivalent opportunities for European providers in this segment.”
Coming soon, @elonmusk will be in Brazil to connect rural schools and protect the Amazon using SpaceX/Starlink technology.
we do not @govbr there is no optimism and no pessimism, we make it happen!!!
I believe in Brazil!!🇧🇷 pic.twitter.com/qjEUAPAlBc
— Fábio Faria 🇧🇷🇧🇷🇧🇷 (@fabiofaria) November 16, 2021
Regardless of the voracity with which Musk seeks to grab a huge share of this market — and the skies — it is a fact that in some parts of the country and the world, orbital networks such as Starlink’s are the only chance to access the internet. “Brazil is satellite friendly [amigável a satélites], as we say. In several regions of the country, the only solution, when physical means is not enough [de conexão], they are satellites,” says Juarez Quadros, an engineer specializing in telecommunications, minister of Communications during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB) and former president of Anatel for two terms. Even defending the need for these “constellations” of satellites, as they are known, he preaches caution: “All this requires a lot of attention, not only on the part of Brazil, but on the part of the nations. It is something that is still not so pacified from a regulatory and technological point of view. It is important to say that Anatel has a team specialized in this issue, and they are still dealing with it”.
Musk’s Starlink isn’t the only low-altitude satellite company wooed by Faria. Also in November, he met in Glasgow, during COP26, with a representative from OneWeb, a competitor of Musk’s company. On social networks, the minister celebrated: “A meeting with the company OneWeb, which has 350 low-orbit satellites, plans to reach 500 and is launching two control centers in Brazil. They are very interested in collaborating to serve rural localities and schools, as well as helping to protect the Amazon.” OneWeb and three other companies have also applied for licenses from Anatel to operate low-orbit satellites in Brazil.
There is another type of impact arising from these satellite constellations. Part of the scientific community criticizes the initiatives of Musk and rival companies, since the exponential increase in orbiting objects can make astronomical observations difficult. These satellites reflect sunlight, obscuring the glow of other celestial bodies. Telescopic observations and electromagnetic measurements may also be affected. “This affects me a lot, but it can cause problems for those who are dedicated to looking for comets, stars and other stars through telescopes, it’s really serious for science,” astrophotographer Daniel López explained to the reporter Javier Salas.
Starlink may be just one of the ends of Faria’s interest in dealings with Musk. The minister said in an interview with the magazine Look who invited the businessman to open a semiconductor factory in Brazil. Currently, the world suffers from the scarcity of these circuits, used in electronic devices such as cell phones, antennas and cars. In February of this year, Tesla even partially suspended the production of vehicles due to the lack of semiconductors. “He told me he wasn’t part of the core business [negócio central] Investing in a semiconductor factory, after all, he likes to invest only in technologies that don’t yet exist, but he recognized that he needs semiconductors for everything. A Tesla car, for example, needs 10,000 parts,” said Faria. The minister even proposed a location for the construction of the facilities: “The Northeast has everything to become a hub innovation, which can sell to all of Latin America (…) the Northeast is like California. It was this parallel that I drew for him”.
The report sought out the Ministry of Communications to find out about deadlines, costs, size of the beneficiary population and possible compensation for Musk’s company. The folder replied that the meeting “was an initial contact, in which possible solutions to issues of common interest were discussed”. In addition, the note states that only after all authorizations from Anatel “companies can seek to establish partnerships with the Federal Government”.
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