SpaceX’s satellite internet service: Starlink

Image Source: T-Online

When you think of Elon Musk, you think of Tesla, SpaceX or his eccentricity! However, for the uninitiated, Starlink is another of Musk’s ventures, which aims to sell internet connections to almost everyone on the planet through a growing network of orbiting satellites.

Technically speaking, Starlink is a satellite internet system but for the average internet user, it is a potential godsend! It is capable of delivering 150Mbps of internet speed to theoretically any place on the planet with a clear view of the sky. Sounds easy, right?

Let’s deep-dive!

  • Starlink is a division within SpaceX and represents the growing network of orbital satellites. The development of these satellites began in 2015, with the first launch in 2018.
  • Since then, SpaceX has launched over 1,000 satellites across dozens of successful launches. The most recent launch was on May 26, 2021, bringing the total number of satellites to 1,737.
  • However, most of these satellites are prototypes or non-functioning parts of the network.

Starlink wants to provide internet access, particularly to people who don’t have access to high-speed broadband.

“Starlink is ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge,” the Starlink website reads: “Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable.”

Starlink’s internet service is FAST?

Starlink users can expect internet speed between 50–150 megabits/second* and latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds in most locations. The company expects the data speed to increase as more satellites are deployed and with improvement in the network software.

At the moment, Starlink services are available in the northwest USA, parts of Canada and the UK. Elon Musk expects that by 2022 the service should be available worldwide (an ambitious target, but we’re talking about Elon Musk here)!

*For context, India’s current average broadband speed is 53.9 Mbps as per the Speedtest Global Index 2021.

Satellite vs. Fiber

Most of the internet that we use is through fiber (internet delivered through underground fiber cable) at speeds much faster than what is provided by satellite internet. However, it’s an extremely tedious activity that also requires high capital expenditure. On the other hand, it is definitely easier to install satellites (less competition, less red-tape) and serve the bulk of never-before reached remote areas of the world.

Where there’s Elon Musk, there’s always a way!

We know the good, what’s the bad?

The top speeds are currently pegged at 150 Mbps, nowhere close to gigabit fiber that we Earthlings are used to. This is due to the sheer distance the transmission has to travel to reach the Earth, also the reason for the latency that users experience (think of latency as: awkward pauses in a conversation when no one’s speaking).

More of the bad…

Starlink satellites are low-orbiting satellites. They are clearly visible in the night sky, threatening the natural constellations and nocturnal wildlife.

Starlink satellites spotted over Turkey’s skies | Image Source: Business Insider

In 2019, the International Astronomical Union raised an alarm, warning of unforeseen consequences to stargazing. To combat this, Starlink released a number of satellites:

  • DarkSat: Launched in the beginning of 2020, this satellite has a special, non-reflective coating.
  • VisorSat: Launched in June 2020, this satellite has a special sunshade visor.

The team is also working continuously with astronomers to understand their problems and incorporate required engineering changes.

What’s next?

  • SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently told a forum on satellite technology that Starlink has no plans to add speed or pricing tiers, with the intention of keeping the service’s pricing as straightforward as possible.
  • Shotwell said that she expects the USD 500 upfront cost of the receiver dish that customers have to pay to come down in the coming years.
  • Recent FCC (Federal Communications Commission) filings suggest that Starlink could ultimately double as a dedicated phone service, too (wow!).

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