Like The Avengers’ Tony Stark, Elon Musk has achieved enormous wealth by employing his unique ingenuity, always pushing the envelope of what is technologically and commercially viable. After establishing a financial foothold by founding the online bank X.com, the earliest form of what would become one of the world’s largest payment processors—PayPal—Musk expanded into luxury electric vehicles and power solutions—Tesla. The government-subsidized space company SpaceX represents his loftiest endeavour to date. Putting the space technology to good use, Elon Musk recently announced the Starlink satellite service, the goal of which is to cover the entire surface of the planet with thousands of satellites. Let’s consider how this ambitious project compares to more mundane internet coverage.
What Is Starlink?On February 4, 2021, Elon Musk’s SpaceX submitted a public filing to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is standard practice when business entities launch a new media or communication platform that requires access to the airwaves of US territory. In the filing, the space company disclosed that its new satellite internet service, Starlink, already had at least 10,000 users in the US. This means that the project had already matured beyond alpha testing and entered the stage of public beta testing. According to the filing: Starlink’s performance is not theoretical or experimental. Over 10,000 users in the US and abroad are using the service today. While its performance is rapidly accelerating in real time as part of its public beta program, the Starlink network has already successfully demonstrated it can surpass the Commission’s “Above Baseline” and “Low Latency” performance tiers. The lucky users selected to join the Starlink beta program must pay $99 a month for the subscription and had to pay another $499 up front for the device receiving the satellite signal, part of the Starlink kit. The package includes a Wi-Fi router and a user terminal. Starlink is an incredibly ambitious project.
- Starlink provides high-speed and low-latency internet service that will be facilitated by up to 12,000 miniature satellites—eventually, perhaps 42,000—deployed in a low earth orbit (LEO). Each satellite is about the size of a kitchen table and weighs about 500 pounds (227 kilograms).
- When the project is far enough along, the entire earth, from the South Pole to Antarctica, will have affordable high-speed internet access, ushering in a new era of civilisational infrastructure. Whether you’re in the depths of the Amazon or the depths of the Sahara Desert, you’ll be able to connect as easily as you can in a major urban centre!
How Will Starlink Internet Work?In addition to the deployment of thousands of satellites, an entire network of ground stations will have to be built. These will then relay signals from the satellites. As they traverse the low orbit, each satellite will link with four others through light-based data transmission—lasers. In turn, this data network will create Ku-band and Ka-band broadband connectivity. The Ku-band is the microwave frequency range between 12 gigahertz and 18 gigahertz, already in use by NASA to communicate with the International Space Station. Satellite television companies and the NATO military alliance also use this frequency for long-range transmissions. Ka-band is the microwave frequency range between 26.5 gigahertz to 40 gigahertz. Both the Ku-band and the Ka-band are necessary, since atmospheric water vapour varies in density between layers of the atmosphere. The Ka wavelength has been prominently used for the sake of its wider bandwidth—notably, by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and by Amazon’s Project Kuiper. Of course, the deployment of such a large number of satellites must take place in stages, with the first project threshold consisting of about 8,000 satellites at an orbit of about 500 kilometers. The remaining 4,000 satellites of the 12,000 satellites to be launched over the first five years of the project will be sent much higher to orbit at about 1,200 kilometers. It will be interesting to see whether such a vast satellite network proves vulnerable to the Kessler syndrome. NASA scientist Donald Kessler worried that increased “pollution” of satellites orbiting the earth would eventually cause a cascade of collisions. He thought that as satellites or other objects collided with other, the debris might increase the chances of further collisions, with the chain effect eventually rendering the low earth orbit unusable. Efforts to reduce the likelihood of such a cascade include making sure that all fuel is burned up in the rocket stage so that none is left over to cause an explosion during a collision. Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are also a concern. If large enough, these massive bursts of magnetized plasma from the sun’s corona or outer atmosphere can wreak havoc with electronic equipment. In 1859, the superstorm dubbed the Carrington Event disrupted telegraphy. If a CME in modern times happened on a comparable scale, it could cause a severe disruption of civilisation or even its collapse.
Starlink Internet Launch, Speed, and AvailabilityAccording to SpaceX’s public filing, over 10,000 people in the US, Canada, and theUK have so far enrolled in Starlink internet service. Naturally, these users had to be carefully selected for the still-ongoing beta testing. The filing also revealed what kind of service to expect. The speed and latency of Starlink are comparable to those of landline fiber optic cables.
- Download speeds are between 50 megabits per second and 150 megabits per second (or even higher, according to the reports of some users). The average download speed on a 4G network rarely exceeds 20 megabits per second, which is perfectly suitable for watching high-definition video. Starlink’s much greater download speed means that watching 4K shows and movies on your favourite streaming service is more than viable.
- Gamers should be pleased to see that, judging by user-reported data on internet consumption, Starlink’s latency can already be impressively low, ranging from 20 milliseconds to 94 milliseconds, and may become even lower. Elon Musk says that SpaceX is shooting for a “latency below 20 milliseconds, so somebody could play a fast-response video game at a competitive level.”
Can you sign up for Starlink right now?If you live in the US, UK, or Canada, you can indeed sign up, but only if you live between 44 degrees and 53 degrees latitude. If you do, visit Starlink’s website to get started. SpaceX reports that it may take up to 18 months for gaps in its satellite network to be filled in order to provide the most reliable possible internet service. Until then, beta users may see only “bare bones connectivity,” at any rate at least some interruption of service, depending on location. SpaceX hopes to maintain a deployment rate of 120 satellites per month.
How Much Will Starlink Internet Cost?COVID-19 lockdowns have drained an unprecedented amount of wealth. According to the International Labour Organization, global workers lost $3.7 trillion in earnings. As COVID-19 lockdowns continue, millions are struggling to make ends meet. If you are lucky enough to hold a job despite such extreme economic devastation, you can probably afford the USD$598 (CAD$758) price tag.
- USD$499 (CAD$633) for the Starlink Kit equipment, paid up front.
- USD$99 (CAD$125) for a monthly subscription.
- Galaxy Broadband: $15 per gigabyte
- XplorNet: A flat monthly rate from $59.99 to $99.99.
- Hakia (HughesNet): $59.99 for 10 gigabytes or $149.99 for 50 gigabytes.
- Canada Satellite: Costs vary depending on usage and type.
- Ground Control – six tiers, from $399 (3 GB) to $849 (12 GB)