Starlink: Everything you need to know about Elon Musk’s satellite internet venture
SpaceX CEO and billionaire is planning to launch satellites into orbit, promising high-speed broadband internet access to as many people possible.
If you think about Elon Musk as a billionaire entrepreneur, there’s a good chance you think of Tesla, his SpaceX space-exploration venture, or Saturday Night Live. Not to mention his history of stirring up controversy via social media and smoking marijuana with Joe Rogan. Perhaps you know him simply as one of the most wealthy people on Earth.
You might not be familiar with a Musk venture called Starlink. This venture aims to sell internet connections almost anywhere on the planet via a growing network private satellites orbiting overhead.
After many years of SpaceX development and nearly $885.5m in grant funds from Federal Communications Commission at 2020’s end, Starlink’s progress appears to be increasing in 2021. After three years of successful launches, the project had more than 1,000 satellites placed into orbit. SpaceX reported that the number is around 1,800. Musk’s company announced in February that Starlink was currently serving over 10,000 customers. After expanding preorders to more potential customers Musk now claims that the company has shipped more then 100,000 satellite internet terminals to customers in 14 countries.
SpaceX claims that Starlink will be available globally sometime in the fall, though regional availability will depend upon regulatory approval. In June, Musk spoke at Mobile World Congress and said that Starlink would be accessible worldwide, with the exception of the North and South Poles which will begin in August. Musk tweeted in September that Starlink would be ending its initial beta phase in October. This indicates that the service continues to grow and ramp up.
There are many controversies surrounding the budding internet service. Starlink’s low earth orbit satellites have been criticized by members of the scientific community for their impact on night sky visibility. Viasat and HughesNet, as well as Amazon’s Project Kuiper, have also taken note of Starlink’s momentum. This has prompted plenty of regulatory jousting, and attempts to slow down Musk.
Starlink is worth following in 2021 because of all this. Here’s all you need to know about Starlink for now.
Okay, let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is Starlink?
Starlink, technically a division of SpaceX is the name of the growing network of orbital satellites. Starlink was established in 2015. The first satellite prototypes were launched into orbit in 2018.
SpaceX has successfully launched dozens of Starlink satellites to orbit in the years that have followed. SpaceX launched 60 satellites to orbit in January 2021 for its first Starlink mission. It used the landable, relaunchable Falcon 9 orbital rocket. The subsequent launches, which brought another 60 satellites into orbit have increased the number of satellites in the constellation to 1,737. However, some of those satellites are prototypes and non-operational units that aren’t part of the network.
Can these satellites connect me to the internet from my home?
Yes, that’s the idea. The website states that Starlink is “ideally suited to areas of the world where connectivity has often been a problem.” The satellites will be able to deliver high-speed broadband internet without the need for traditional ground infrastructure.
You only need to set up a satellite dish at home to receive the signal, and then pass the bandwidth to your router. Starlink has an app for Android or iOS which uses augmented reality to help customers choose the best position and location for their receivers.
Starlink’s service currently only exists in certain regions of the USA, Canada, and internationally. However, the service boasts more that 100,000 satellite terminals sent to customers . The coverage map will continue growing as more satellites are added to the constellation. Starlink plans to eventually cover the entire globe with a high-speed, usable internet.
What is the speed of Starlink’s internet services?
Starlink warns that users can expect data speeds to vary between 50 and 150 megabits per sec, latency to be 20 to 40 milliseconds in many locations over the next few months. However, they also warn of short periods without connectivity. Data speed, latency, and uptime will increase dramatically as we launch more satellites and install more ground stations, and improve our networking software.
Musk stated in February that he expected the service’s top speeds to increase to 300Mbps before the end of 2021.
How much does Starlink cost?
Starlink is now accepting preorders from customers who are interested in joining its beta program. The service costs $99 per month plus taxes and fees. There is also a $500 initial payment for the mountable satellite dish, router, and antenna that you will need to install at your home.
They also state that customers can place orders on a first come, first served basis. Some preorders may take up to six months to be fulfilled.
Musk believes that $99 per month for an internet connection is too high, especially if it is not as fast as a fibre connection . However, Musk is betting that people who have lived without reliable internet access will find that the price is worth it.
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president, recently stated at a forum about satellite technology that Starlink has no plans for pricing tiers. The intention is to keep the pricing simple. Shotwell also stated that the initial $500 cost of the receiver dish will decrease in the next years.
Where is Starlink available at the moment?
Starlink service currently covers only a few regions of the globe, despite its promise to cover the whole world by fall. However, the coverage map will expand as more satellites join this constellation. According to Musk, the countries currently served by the growing network low-earth orbit satellites include the US, Canada and the UK. Starlink’s preorder arrangement allows you to request service in other countries such as Chile, Spain, Italy, and Spain.
Starlink still has a long way to go. It will likely require at least 10,000 satellites to be in orbit before it can offer full service to the majority of the world (and SpaceX has indicated that it would like 42,000 satellites to the constellation).
Musk remains bullish on the timeline. Musk stated that Starlink would be available worldwide except for the North and South Poles beginning in August during a interview at 2021’s Mobile World Congress. Shotwell had expressed similar sentiments earlier in June and stated that Starlink would be available worldwide sometime this fall.
She stated that 1,800 satellites have been successfully launched. Once all of them are in orbit, we will have continuous global coverage.
A Twitter user asked Musk in September when Starlink’s beta phase would end. “Next month,” Musk responded.
Satellites? Why is fiber not faster?
Fiber is internet that is delivered by ground-laid fiber optic cable. It offers faster upload and download speeds than satellite internet. But, companies like Google will tell you that it takes time to deploy the infrastructure to bring fiber to homes. It’s not easy to launch satellites into space. However, Starlink services are more likely to reach underserved communities than fiber. There are fewer competitors and less bureaucracy to navigate. Recent FCC filings suggest that Starlink could eventually double as dedicated phone service, too.
Remember that we are talking about Elon Musk. SpaceX is the only company with a landable, modular rocket that can deliver payload after payload to orbit. This is a huge advantage in the commercial space race. Musk stated in 2018, that Starlink will provide SpaceX the revenue it needs to finance its long-held ambition of establishing a Mars base.
SpaceX may also attempt to establish a satellite constellation in the Red Planet if that day comes. Starlink customers could be doubled as guinea-pigs for future Martian wireless networks.
Shotwell stated that “if you send a million people on Mars, you better provide some means for them to communicate” in 2016 when she spoke about Starlink’s long-term vision. I don’t believe the people who travel to Mars will be content with old-fashioned radios. They will want their Androids and iPhones on Mars.”
Starlink’s satellite internet speeds are currently at 150Mbps. This is due to the distance that each transmission must travel to reach your home from the stratosphere. This factor also increases latency. If you are talking to someone via satellite, you will often experience awkward lulls.
The company claims that it will exceed all expectations regarding satellite connections and place satellites in orbit at lower altitudes than ever before, 60 times closer than traditional satellites. Low-earth orbit means less distance for Starlink signals to travel and therefore less latency.
Starlink is reliable?
Early reports from outlets such as Fast Company, CNBC indicate Starlink’s first customers are happy with the service. However, warns that there may be “brief periods without connectivity at all” in beta.
DownDetector.com lists four service disruptions to Starlink between 2021. One each in January, February and April. The most recent outage occurred on May 6. DownDetector lists no major service outages for HughesNet and one for ViaSat in 2021.
This is definitely one of the drawbacks to satellite internet. Starlink’s FAQ states that the receiver can melt snow that has landed on it but cannot do anything about snow accumulation or other obstructions surrounding it.
The FAQ states that Starlink should be installed in a place that prevents snow accumulation and other obstructions from blocking your field of vision. Heavy rain and wind can affect your satellite internet connection. This could lead to slow speeds or rare outages.
Are there other problems with Starlink’s satellites?”
There is a lot of concern over the proliferation of private satellites in space. Also, there has been astronomical controversy regarding the effects of low-orbiting satellites on the night sky.
Starlink began testing new designs to decrease the brightness and visibility its satellites. The company also tested a “DarkSat” satellite with a special, non-reflective coating at the beginning of 2020. In June 2020, Starlink launched a VisorSat satellite with a sunshade-visor. Starlink launched another set of satellites in August. This time, they were all equipped with visors.
Shotwell stated, “We want make sure we do everything right to ensure that little children can see through their telescope.” They should look at Saturn and the moon, and not be distracted.
Starlink’s website states that their teams worked closely with leading astronomers worldwide to understand the details of their observations, and to make engineering changes to lower satellite brightness.
It is clear what benefits the service can bring. But like anything else, we will only see the impact of the downsides over time.