What’s up with Elon Musk’s satellite-delivered Internet service?
When Bryan Clutz received an invitation to subscribe to a new satellite broadband service called Starlink, he didn’t hesitate. He immediately put in an order.
Clutz knew all about Starlink, the ambitious undertaking of business magnate Elon Musk and his aerospace company SpaceX. Not long after he bought a house in Castleton last year, Clutz signed up to be notified when Starlink service would be available in Rappahannock. That notice came last week to him and others in the neighborhood.
Castleton is one of the areas scattered around the county that SpaceX committed to serve as part of its application for a grant from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Ultimately, SpaceX was awarded more than $885 million over 10 years to build out its Starlink network to serve 35 states. That includes $1.7 million to make the service available to sections of Rappahannock.
That’s what Clutz was waiting for. He works for a healthcare company and splits his time between working in D.C. and his home here. His primary connection to the internet is through the HughesNet satellite service.
“I’ve been trying to problem-solve and find a solution that allows me to do my job while also enjoying everything Rappahannock has to offer,” he said. “So many of us need access to robust IT infrastructure — to engage in video calls and download larger files — that is beyond the capabilities of DSL of standard satellite internet service.”
He’s been told his Starlink equipment should arrive within a month.
So what’s the story on Starlink? Here’s an FAQ:
How does Starlink work?
It’s based on the strategy of deploying a “constellation” of satellites around the Earth to provide high-speed broadband service. So far, SpaceX has launched slightly more than 1,000 satellites, with a goal of having 12,000 circling the Earth within the next five years. Eventually, SpaceX could have as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit. It already owns about one-third of the active satellites in space.
How big are the Starlink satellites?
They’ve been described as looking like a flattened car with each one weighing about 500 pounds. SpaceX has been launching them in batches of 60 at a time.
How is Starlink different from other satellite broadband services?
For starters, the Starlink satellites follow a low orbit — some as low as 340 miles above the Earth, compared to roughly 22,000 miles away for the two existing American satellite services, HughesNet and Exede. That translates to a much shorter — and faster — trip for data to be sent and returned. And it means average download and upload speeds at least four times faster than HughesNet, according to Speedtest Intelligence, a firm that tracks broadband performance.
What would Starlink service cost?
Presently, the monthly fee for its internet service is $99, but the charge for the necessary hardware — WiFi router, power supply, cables and mounting tripod — is significantly higher, $499. Industry experts note that unless that equipment cost comes down, it could limit subscriptions in the rural areas SpaceX says it wants to serve. Orders are being filled on a first-come, first-serve basis, and limited to a select number of users in designated coverage areas.
What has been the customer response?
According to SpaceX, about 10,000 homes in the U.S. and Canada have been beta-testing the service since last October. So far, the response of users has been largely positive. Testers have been particularly impressed with Starlink’s latency — the lag in the transfer of data from its source to its destination. It has been measured as being dramatically shorter than what’s typical of traditional satellite broadband service. That’s seen as a big plus when it comes to online gaming. Also, currently, there’s no cap on data usage on Starlink, although it’s not clear if that will be a long-term policy.
What have been the criticisms of Starlink?
There can be relatively brief periods of downtime when gaps occur between the Starlink satellites. SpaceX acknowledges this, but contends that it should stop happening once more satellites are in orbit. Competitors have been more disparaging. They are challenging the big RDOF award for Starlink. Jim Matheson, chief executive officer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, has described Starlink as a “completely unproven technology,” adding, “Why use that money for a science experiment?” And last week, the Fiber Broadband Association and the Rural Broadband Association presented a study to the FCC contending that by 2028, many Starlink subscribers will “experience service degradation” during peak times due to congestion. For its part, SpaceX has told the FCC that “Starlink’s performance is not theoretical or experimental.”
Is there a risk with launching so many satellites?
Given how large the Starlink constellation eventually will be, some scientists have expressed concern about the risk of satellites colliding. This could cause an explosion that would produce thousands of pieces of space debris. SpaceX has pointed out that the satellites are equipped with an automated system that enables them to dodge other satellites. However, in September, 2019, the system failed, leading to a close call with a European science satellite. Also, astronomers have complained that the SpaceX satellites are especially bright, and can show up as streaks in telescope images, while also tainting the natural beauty of the night sky. SpaceX says it has begun coating its satellites with a darkened paint to lower their visibility.
What are Starlink’s prospects?
Elon Musk certainly is thinking big. He has said that he wants the satellite broadband service to one day help finance human missions to Mars. But in a tweet last week, Musk acknowledged that he faces a big challenge. “SpaceX needs to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow over the next year or so to make Starlink financially viable,” he wrote. “Every new satellite constellation in history has gone bankrupt. We hope to be the first that does not.”