Academic journal article American University Business Law Review

Welcome to the Space Jam: How United States Regulators Should Govern Google and Facebook's New Internetproviding High Altitude Platforms

Academic journal article American University Business Law Review

Welcome to the Space Jam: How United States Regulators Should Govern Google and Facebook's New Internetproviding High Altitude Platforms

Article excerpt


The Internet is an electronic communications network that connects computers, other electronic devices, people, and businesses.1 It was the Internet that pushed the 2011 Arab Spring across the Middle East.2 People across twenty countries used the Internet to unite, and the different countries' inhabitants posted thousands of tweets, Facebook messages, and YouTube videos to further their cause in toppling powerful existing governments.3 This is just one of the many instances showcasing the power of the Internet.

The Internet has grown significantly since its mainstream inception in the 1990s.4 Tim Berners-Lee brought his "World-Wide Web" to life in 1990, and Marc Andreessen launched "Mosaic," the first Internet browser, in 1993.5 By 1995, the Internet had an estimated 16 million users.6 Today, the Internet allows us to store, to communicate, and to compute information much easier than ever before.7

Though communications technologies have developed significantly, there are parts of the United States and of the world that still do not have access to broadband wireless Internet. In August 2014, McKinsey & Company, a multinational managerial consulting firm, and Facebook, Inc. ("Facebook") created a report to quantify what the global offline population looks like.8 The report estimated that there are over 7-billion people alive today but that more than half are offline.9

Since it appears that nearly two-thirds of the world remains unconnected,10 companies such as Google, Inc. ("Google") and Facebook, whose services run on the Internet, are losing out on current and future revenue streams. Amongst its other profit-making services, Google makes a good portion of its revenue through its AdWords service,11 and similarly, Facebook earns a percentage of its profits through its advertising service.12 To grow their revenue streams and to expand these particular online services, the two companies, along with others, are trying to extend broadband wireless services for customers across the United States and the world. Future growth for these companies will come from those lacking a proper Internet connection today.

To alleviate this Internet shortage, the private sector is beginning to create Internet-providing vehicles or High Altitude Platform Stations ("HAPS," "HAPs," or "high altitude platforms").13 These alternatives to traditional satellites can provide weather imagery and disaster relief in addition to Internet connectivity.14 Additionally, these newer Internet-providing alternatives provide environmental assistance because all of the materials used to make these new vehicles are retrievable, meaning that the remaining debris will not remain in the atmosphere after usage as is the case with traditional satellites.15 All in all, these new vehicles provide more services and appear to be more cost-effective than the normal commercial satellites that are in the marketplace.16

These HAPs are unique because they operate similar to airplanes for shorter periods of time than traditional satellites, are lower in the atmosphere than traditional satellites, and have communication capabilities. This Comment will analyze which regulator(s)-the FCC, FAA, or NOAA- should have control over these new Internet-providing high altitude vehicles, and it will also discuss the associated problems accompanying such regulation. It then recommends that no one agency take full jurisdiction over these Internet-providing HAPs and that the agencies should work together to complete the collective goal of ensuring safety in the air and on the ground and of preventing harmful radio interference.

I.Google and Facebook's Internet-Providing Vehicles

Federal regulators need to determine whether Google and Facebook's HAPs are Unmanned Aircraft Systems ("UAS," "UAVs," or "drones"), satellites, or something else.17 To comply with international and domestic obligations, regulators in the United States will look to ensure the health and safety of those spacecraft in the air already and those on the ground when regulating these HAPs. …

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