The rise of the global internet satellite mega-constellation sector: opportunities and challenges for a sustainable transition
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Studies indicate that bringing reliable internet access to low-income countries can boost GDP and is necessary for aiding in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In recent years, private companies (e.g., SpaceX, Amazon, and OneWeb) are building Low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite mega-constellations to bring high-speed internet access to remote areas where conventional methods are difficult to install. However, these constellations would require thousands of satellites, causing congestion, which could threaten the safety of LEO. Currently, there are many different actors in the sector, each with their own interests. Given the orbital sustainability challenges, there is a debate whether the sector is under-regulated. A sustainable transition would require juggling the development of the sector to bridge the digital divide while simultaneously maintaining earth’s orbital viability. Therefore, this study aims to understand the factors that have shaped the rapid development of the internet satellite mega-constellation sector to identify opportunities and challenges for a sustainable transition. Recent studies define a transition as being purposeful and intended, with actors coordinating their work to reach a common goal. This study adopts an institutional logics approach to identify Actors’ values, goals, and visions in this sectors’ emerging socio-technical regime (i.e., the guiding principles). More specifically, this study applied a socio-technical configuration analysis (STCA) which used discourses from newspapers and government documents to map actors’ value orientations across three time phases. By applying the value-based proximity approach actors’ value orientations can be aggregated into field logics which give an indication as to the preferences of sectoral development by the corresponding actors. The results identified the core actors shaping the sector, the dominant field logics, and three potential trajectories for the sectors’ development. Currently, the sector is experiencing opposing clusters of interests. Actors of the Market Field Logic value profit and benefit from the sector remaining under-regulated, while the Ecology Market Field Logic contains actors who are interested in correcting orbital sustainability challenges. Additionally, the Community Market Field Logic is defined by actors’ mobilizing their discourses to bridge the digital divide. The sectors development trajectories will be dependent on which field logic gains (or maintains) dominance over time. Overall, the results of this study indicate that the infiltration of profit values throughout all field logics will cause increasing conflict for a quick transition to a Space sector which considers orbital and social sustainability.