Everything We Know About SpaceX’s Internet Service

Everything We Know About SpaceX’s Internet Service

What Is Starlink? Everything We Know About SpaceX's Internet Service
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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!
Given the sheer number of satellites needed to accomplish this feat, it is now clear why SpaceX spent so much money and exerted so much brain-power to develop a completely new line of reusable rockets. Only such an approach can drastically reduce the cost of satellite deployment.

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 Availability

According 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.”
To compare these numbers to your own current internet speed and latency, use this speed test. As Starlink’s infrastructure develops, SpaceX envisions an eventual speed of up to 10 gigabits per second, faster than that of the coveted Google Fiber. This will be possible thanks to the use of lasers to transmit data between the satellites, enabling the data to travel the globe at the speed of light. If you have ever used pre-Starlink satellite internet, you know how atrociously laggy it is. These models use technology that requires the signal to travel 22,000 miles to the satellite, back to the internet server, back up again, and back to the end user. Given an alternative, no one in his right mind would sign up for internet satellite service with an average latency of 500 milliseconds to 600 milliseconds. With its laser-beaming, LEO satellites, Starlink is a game changer. So far, the company has launched over 1,000 satellites serving Starlink, about 2.3 percent of the total number that SpaceX plans to deploy: 12,000 satellites over the next five years and, eventually, 42,000 satellites.

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.
This price is as good as or better than the prices offered by other providers of internet satellite in Canada. With Starlink’s flat rate of $99 a month for unlimited data, it is poised to annihilate most of the competition. Moreover, SpaceX had already released Starlink apps for both iOS and Android. Employing an augmented reality feature, the app can show you the positions of satellites across the sky if you point your camera toward it. Just as we have come to expect from Elon Musk, nothing but cutting-edge technology will suffice.

Does Starlink Have Any Competitors?

Few global competitors can boast such a comprehensive plan with the same kind of prices and speed as Starlink. Among them is Amazon, whose Project Kuiper aims to deploy 3,236 LEO satellites to provide similar global coverage, high speed, and low latency. But as you can see from Amazon’s open jobs page, the project is not yet fully underway and is certainly not yet in the beta-testing phase. Another competitor is OneWeb, a global internet project supported by such titans of the industry as Hughes Network Systems, Intelsat, SoftBank, Virgin Group, and Qualcomm Inc. OneWeb is poised to launch 640 satellites dispersed across 21 rocket deployments. As of February 2021, OneWeb has over 100 satellites in orbit.

Takeaway

If you live in an urban area of a developed country, it is easy to assume that everyone enjoys regular access to the internet. But almost half of the world’s population does not. According to GSMA data, in 2019 about 7 percent of the world’s population was outside the coverage of even mobile networks. In developing nations, only 35 percent of people have internet access. If it achieves its mission, Starlink will help establish a level playing field in terms of the educational and economic opportunities that more universal access to the internet will bring. For societies around the world, Starlink will be a game changer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Starlink Like 5G?

One difference between 4G and 5G is that the former is ground-based and the latter is sky-based. In light of the controversy about 5G deployment and 5G’s possible effect on human health, many people wonder whether a system like Starlink can supplant 5G. However, 5G serves a different purpose from that of Starlink: 5G provides a short-range wireless infrastructure for the Internet of Things. In other words, it is suitable for small and mobile devices, whereas Starlink will provide a long-distance solution for larger objects like planes, homes, cars, trains, and ships. Starlink has received billions of dollars in support of its goal of covering remote rural areas. 5G focuses on urban centres. Think of Starlink and 5G as complementary communication systems rather than as direct competitors. Even so, given Starlink’s similarly low latency, the widespread availability of Starlink would undoubtedly have the positive effect of lowering the prices of 5G plans.

Will Starlink Work with Cell Phones?

No. Starlink is kind of like a landline . . . except that it is a space line. As you can see from the Starlink kit, it requires a phased-array antenna, a gizmo much too large to be connected to a standard mobile device, be it smartphone, tablet, or ultralight laptop. And Starlink’s antenna is very power-hungry; even if it weren’t so big, it would quickly drain the battery of a cell phone.

How Can Starlink Offer Such Low Latency?

Gaming on a competitive level via a satellite connection was not previously possible. Starlink hopes to make it routine through its system by deploying an array of low earth orbit satellites with five inter-satellite laser links per satellite to transmit data. The lower the orbit and the more efficiently data can be transmitted, the lower the latency.

Has SpaceX Announced a Formal Launch Date for Starlink Service?

No. The Starlink internet service is currently in the beta testing phase, and you can participate only if you live between the latitudes of 44 degrees and 53 degrees in Canada, the US, or the UK. If you meet those requirements, you can try your luck at Starlink’s sign-up page.
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