Starlink is fast becoming a frequently mentioned term, and rightly so. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploratory arm has a side hustle launching little satellites all over the world in order to provide Internet access to those on the ground. Is this just another of Elon’s crazy ideas, or is this a practical option going forward?
Since early 2018 SpaceX have been launching little satellites weighing in at around 250kg and the size of a table into outer space in order to provide reliable broadband Internet to us on the ground. They can launch 60 at a time from the Falcon 9 rocket – pretty amazing really! All you need to receive their service, is their hardware (a pizza-boxed sized satellite dish and a wireless router) and a subscription and away you go. As it stands, its not exactly cheap, with the hardware being a one-off cost of £493 (inc. shipping)and £89 per month.
So how many satellites have they launched now? Well as of earlier this week, they’d launched 1,445 against their target of launching 12,000 over the next decade. In the past few weeks, Starlink became available over parts of the UK and northern Europe (albeit in beta) but already people are seeing some excellent performance:
If you compare these speeds to those that people out in the more rural places are acheiving, even at beta performance, this could provide 10-fold speed increases. And although its expensive at the moment, there is little to no disruption to people’s land (as new fibre is laid), its quick to get up and running and over time, as more satellites are launched, prices should go down, and reliability and speed go up.
What I think is pretty cool about this is the SpaceX implementation. Satellite broadband has been around for ages using ground stations beaming radio signals to satellites 22,000 miles above the Earth. The problem with this: 22,000 miles is a long way. Starlink’s satellites are only 300 miles above the surface, meaning reduced latency and quicker speed – simple huh? Oh and eventually it plans on launching 40,000 of these…. The price is already competitive with existing competitors, many of which have data caps – so commercially Starlink stacks up.
Musk has already said by the end of the year, he plans to have doubled bandwidth to 300mbps and halved latency to about 20ms, this brings things such as online gaming, streaming and the likes of video conferencing to those who didn’t have the option.
So what about congestion on the network. Well, its kind of the elephant in the room isn’t it? A few experts have estimated that with 12,000 satellites, they will only be able to serve just short of half of a million users. A lot of this ‘research’ seems to be heavily linked (or dare I say funded), by businesses providing traditional rural broadband internet – those whose revenue would be heavily impacted by a successful Starlink.
The other question mark, is congestion not in bandwidth but in the skies above. If Starlink plan to launch 40,000 satellites, there is the potential for this to cause issues withother air or space bound bodies, such as planes or other spacecraft. Although there are regulations about airspace, its fair to say its not a mature as those on the ground so it will be interesting to see if there is much resistence from governments, competitors or airlines businesses.
As I’m based in the UK, my thoughts are often UK focused, but as a country we rely heavily on BT Openreach to run cables to rural areas, and in typically fashion those works are over budget and behind timeline. And honestly, I can understand why. Its expensive, disruptive and dominated by red tape if you want to dig up land or roads in order to lay fibre to improve that infrastructure. Is this type of technology a better way forward, for speed, cost and environmentally? It certainly looks like that from where I’m sitting.
Obviously many would say that 5G is already vastly improving internet speeds for people, but is it as reliable as a physical cable into your home, and commericially, most reasonably priced 5G contracts in the UK frequently come with bandwidth caps which, in my eyes, hinders the service somewhat. Would be interested to hear any opinions on Starlink and its future in the world of Internet connectivity