The government has failed miserably in building out internet networks, sticking municipalities and taxpayers with astronomical debt without improving digital access. But at the very least, previous attempts to build government-owned networks (GONs) have happened here on Planet Earth. This may soon change as NASA oversees the taxpayer-funded construction of an internet network … on the moon.
But “lunar LTE” is a pipe dream that will push taxpayers into a black hole of wasteful spending while diverting critical resources away from millions of underserved Americans. Policymakers should focus on reducing regulatory barriers to help the private sector’s efforts to provide rocket-speed internet here on Earth, instead of shooting taxpayer dollars into the cold, costly vacuum of space.
It’s always reassuring to hear that federal agencies have their priorities in order. As the budget deficit for this year tops $4 trillion (or more than $30,000 per household), the Trump administration and NASA think it’s a good idea to build out an internet network on the lunar surface. On Oct. 19, Quartz contributor Nicolás Rivero reported, “NASA has selected Nokia as the official cellular provider to the moon. The Finnish telco won a $14.1 million contract to build a 4G LTE base station on the moon by 2022 as part of the Artemis program, NASA’s effort to establish a sustained human presence on its nearest celestial neighbor.”
This, of course, is just the cherry on top of a larger mission to bring Americans back to the Moon after nearly 50 years.
America’s space agency is slated to spend $28 billion over five years in its effort to ferry astronauts 240,000 miles to the lunar surface. But there are already troubling signs that taxpayers will be on the line for more than NASA bargained for. In March, NASA’s inspector general examined the agency’s management of the space launch system heavy-lift rocket tasked with launching the future moon crew into outer space. The watchdog notes, “the program exceeded its agency baseline commitment (ABC) by at least 33% at the end of FY 2019, a figure that could reach 43% or higher if additional delays push the launch date for Artemis I beyond November 2020.”
While the agency’s initial green run rocket test will likely launch according to plan this month, it’s all-but-inevitable that delays down the road will cost the agency (read: taxpayers) a pretty penny. Delays and cost overruns are par for the course for the agency, which recently announced that it would be holding back the launch of the James Webb space telescope due in part to technical challenges from contractor Northrop Grumman. NASA’s wide field infrared survey telescope has encountered similar issues with timeliness and cost control.
But somehow, taxpayers are supposed to believe that the Artemis program and the corresponding lunar LTE network will happen on time without draining taxpayer dollars. Judging by the government’s experience in contracting out GONs here on Earth, fiscal accountability is unlikely. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s recent report on taxpayer-funded broadband projects finds that GONs break the bank without providing reliable internet. The city of Salisbury, North Carolina, had to borrow $40 million to construct its GON project but was able only to recoup about $8 million from broadband operations. Meanwhile, the broadband project was only used by 16.7% of residents.
Across the country, GONs reach only about a third of potential broadband consumers living in the municipalities that have built these networks. Granted: on the moon, subscribership likely wouldn’t be an issue – since Nokia’s network would be the only game in town. But the failure of GONs speak to serious cost and reliability issues that surely wouldn’t be any better on the lunar surface than down here on Earth.
Now is a particularly tough time to ask taxpayers to foot large bills for space endeavors that probably won’t even lead to much in the way of scientific discovery. Instead of blowing hard-earned taxpayer dollars on lunar LTE, policymakers should clear the way for the private sector to close the digital divide here on Earth and help truly unserved Americans get the access they need to the digital domain. Watching Netflix or ordering an Uber on the moon can wait.
Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.