Starlink Explained: Everything You Need to Know About Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Company





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The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in May last year.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

When you think of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, chances are you think of him Tesla electric car company, to be space exploration company SpaceX or his stint hosts Saturday Night Live (not to mention him) history of controversy on social media or smoking weed with Joe Rogan). Maybe you just know him as one of the richest people on the planet.

Something you may be less familiar with is a Musk venture called Starlink, which aims to sell Internet connections to almost everyone on the planet through a growing network of private satellites circling overhead.

After years of development within SpaceX — and after securing nearly $885.5 million in grant funding from the Federal Communications Commission at the end of 2020 — Starlink’s progress appears to be accelerating in 2021. In January, after about three years of successful launches, the project surpassed 1,000 satellites orbited — in June, SpaceX said the number at about 1800. In February, Musk’s company announced that: Starlink serves more than 10,000 customers. Now, na extend pre-orders to even more potential customers, Musk says Starlink has been sent over 100,000 satellite internet terminals to customers in 14 countries.

SpaceX said it expected Starlink to global usability sometime this fall — although regional availability will depend on regulatory approval. During a speech at Mobile World Congress in June of this year, Musk told an audience that Starlink would be available worldwide except at the North and South Poles. from August. In September, Musk tweeted that Starlink would leave the first beta phase in October, indicating that the service continues to grow and expand – although the nascent broadband provider still faces a backlog of potential customers waiting to receive equipment and start their service.

Starlink is not without controversy. Members of the scientific community have expressed concern about the impact of Starlink’s satellites in low Earth orbit on night sky visibility. In the meantime, satellite internet competitors including viasat, HughesNet and Amazon’s Project Cooper have also taken note of Starlink’s momentum, leading to much regulatory jousting and attempts to slow Musk down.

All of that makes Starlink worth keeping an eye on in 2021. For now, here’s everything you need to know about it.


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Testing out SpaceX Starlink satellite internet



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OK, start at the beginning: What is Starlink, exactly?

Technically a division within SpaceX, Starlink is also the name of the spaceflight company’s growing network — or “constellation” — of orbital satellites. The development of that network began in 2015, with the first prototype satellites launched into orbit in 2018.

In the years since, SpaceX has deployed over 1,000 Starlink satellites into orbit across dozens of successful launches. In January, for its first Starlink mission of 2021, SpaceX launched 60 satellites into orbit from Kennedy Space Center using the landable, relaunchable Falcon 9 orbital rocket. Subsequent launches, the most recent of which delivered another 51 satellites into orbit on September 13, have brought the total number of satellites in the constellation up to 1,791, though some of those satellites are prototypes or nonoperational units that aren’t functioning parts of the network.

And those satellites can connect my home to the internet?

That’s the idea, yes.

Just like existing providers of satellite internet like HughesNet or Viasat, Starlink wants to sell internet access — particularly to people in rural areas and other parts of the world who don’t already have access to high-speed broadband.

spacex hardware kit

SpaceX’s Starlink hardware includes a satellite dish and router, which you’ll set up at home to receive the signal from space. The newest version of the dish, seen here, is less expensive for SpaceX to produce, and further improvements to the design could be on the way in 2022 — but for now, the initial equipment cost is still a steep $499.


SpaceX

“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.”

All you need to do to make the connection is set up a small satellite dish at your home to receive the signal and pass the bandwidth on to your router. The company offers a number of mounting options for rooftops, yards and the exterior of your home. There’s even a Starlink app for Android and iOS that uses augmented reality to help customers pick the best location and position for their receivers.

Starlink’s service is only available in select regions in the US, Canada and abroad at this point, but the service now boasts more than 100,000 satellite terminals shipped to customers, and the coverage map will continue to grow as more satellites make their way into the constellation. Eventually, Starlink hopes to blanket the entire planet in a usable, high-speed Wi-Fi signal.

How fast is Starlink’s internet service?

“Users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds in most locations over the next several months,” Starlink’s website says, while also warning of brief periods of no connectivity at all. “As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically.”

To that end, Musk tweeted in February that he expects the service to double its top speeds to 300Mbps by the end of 2021.

CNET’s John Kim signed up for the service at his home in California and recently began testing it out at a variety of locations. At home, he averaged download speeds around 78Mbps, and latency around 36ms. You can see more of his first impressions in the video posted above, or by clicking here.

How much does Starlink cost?

Starlink has begun accepting preorders from customers interested in joining the company’s “Better Than Nothing” beta program. The cost of the service is billed at $99 per month, plus taxes and fees, plus an initial payment of $499 for the mountable satellite dish and router that you’ll need to install at home.

Starlink says that it’s taking orders from customers on a first-come, first-served basis and that some preorders could take as long as six months to fulfill.

$99 per month is a lot for an internet connection, especially one that isn’t nearly as fast as a fiber connection, but Musk is betting that the cost will be worth it for people who have thus far lived without access to a reliably fast connection at all. 

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently told a forum on satellite technology that Starlink had no plans to add speed or pricing tiers, with the intention of keeping the service’s pricing as straightforward as possible. Additionally, Shotwell said that she expects the $499 upfront cost of the receiver dish to come down in the coming years as SpaceX refines its dish design to lower production costs. The newest version of the dish, introduced with FCC approval in November, is smaller and less expensive to produce than the previous version, though customers will still need to pay an upfront fee of $499 to use it.

Where is Starlink available?

Despite promising to blanket the entire globe in coverage by this fall, Starlink service is currently limited to select regions in select countries, but the coverage map will grow considerably as more satellites join the constellation. Per Musk, the list of countries currently serviced by the growing network of low-earth orbit satellites includes the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. Starlink’s preorder agreement includes options for requesting service in other countries, too, including Italy, Poland, Spain and Chile.

There’s still a ways to go — Starlink will likely need at least 10,000 satellites in orbit before it can claim to offer full service to a majority of the globe (and SpaceX has shown signs that it wants as many as 42,000 satellites in the constellation). Right now, it’s only about 20% of the way there at best, with coverage focused on regions sitting between 45 and 53 degrees north latitude.

Still, Musk has been bullish about the Starlink timeline. During an interview at 2021’s Mobile World Congress, Musk said that Starlink will hit worldwide availability except at the North and South Poles starting in August. Earlier in June, Shotwell expressed a similar sentiment, and said that Starlink would reach global serviceability sometime this fall.

“We’ve successfully deployed 1,800 or so satellites, and once all those satellites reach their operational orbit we will have continuous global coverage so that should be like [the] September time frame,” she said.

In September, a Twitter user asked Musk when Starlink would finish its beta phase. “Next month,” Musk replied:.

Why satellites? Isn’t fiberglass faster?

Fiber optic, or Internet delivered over a fiber optic cable laid on the ground, offers upload and download speeds that are indeed much faster than satellite Internet — but, as companies like Google will tell you, it is not going quickly to roll out the infrastructure that is needed to get fiber to people’s homes. That’s not to say it’s easy to launch satellites into space, but with less keen competitors – and with far less red tape – there’s every reason to believe that services like Starlink could serve most of understaffed communities long before fiberglass will ever do. Recent FCC filings also suggest that Starlink could eventually act as a dedicated telephone service as well.

And remember, this is Elon Musk we’re talking about. SpaceX is the only company in the world with a landable, reusable rocket that can launch payload after payload into orbit. That is a huge advantage in the race for commercial space. Additionally, in 2018, Musk said Starlink will help SpaceX generate revenue needed to fund the company’s long-held ambition to establish a base on Mars.

When that day comes, it’s likely that SpaceX will also attempt to establish a satellite constellation on the red planet. That means Starlink customers may act as guinea pigs for the wireless Martian networks of the future.

“If you’re sending a million people to Mars, you better provide them with a way to communicate,” Shotwell said in 2016, speaking of the company’s long-term vision for Starlink. “I don’t think the people going to Mars are going to be satisfied with some awful, old-fashioned radios. They’re going to want their iPhones or Androids on Mars.”

Starlink’s terms of service contain a Mars clause – users must agree that Mars is a free planet not bound by the authority or sovereignty of any government tied to Earth.

Starling/screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

In fact, as CNET’s Jesse Orral noted in a recent video on Starlink, you’ll find hints of Musk’s plans for Mars in the Starlink terms of service, which at one point reads:

“For services rendered on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no government on Earth has authority or sovereignty over the activities of Mars.”

But with top speeds currently capped at 150Mbps, Starlink’s satellite internet won’t come close to the gigabit fiber speeds people on Earth are used to in the near term – and that’s due to the sheer distance each transmission has to travel. on its round trip from your home to the stratosphere. It’s a factor that also increases latency, which is why you’ll often notice awkward pauses in the conversation when talking to someone over a satellite connection.

That said, Starlink promises to improve existing expectations for satellite connectivity by placing satellites in orbit at lower altitudes than before — 60 times closer to Earth’s surface than traditional satellites, according to the company’s claims. This low-Earth orbit approach means there’s less distance for those Starlink signals to travel — and thus less latency. We’ll let you know how these claims hold up once we can test the Starlink network ourselves.

starlink-may-6-failure

A Starlink outage on May 6, mapped here on DownDetector and reported by Reddit users, appeared to affect users for a few hours.

Downward Detector

Is Starlink reliable?

Early reports from outlets like Fast Company and CNBC seem to indicate that Starlink’s early customers are happy with the service, although the company warns of “short periods of no connection at all” during the beta.

The DownDetector.com website, which tracks service outages, lists four outages for Starlink in 2021, one in January, February and April, with the most recent outage on May 6. In comparison, DownDetector lists no major outages in 2021 for HughesNet and one in February for ViaSat.

Starlink users from Arizona to Alberta, Canada noticed the outage on Reddit in May — for most, service appeared to resume in a few hours.

What about bad weather and other obstacles?

That is certainly one of the drawbacks of satellite internet. According to Starlink’s FAQ, the receiver is able to melt snow that lands on it, but it can’t help the surrounding snow build-up and other obstacles that could block its line of sight to the satellite.

“We recommend installing Starlink in a location where snow accumulation and other obstacles do not block the field of view,” reads the FAQ. “Heavy rain or wind can also affect your satellite internet connection, potentially resulting in slower speeds or a rare outage.”

Are there any other issues with Starlink’s satellites?

There is much concern about the proliferation of privately owned satellites in space, and controversy in astronomical circles about the impact satellites in low orbit have on the night sky itself.

This long-exposure image of a distant galaxy group from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona is marred by diagonal lines of light reflected from Starlink satellites shortly after their 2019 launch.

Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

In 2019, shortly after the deployment of Starlink’s first broadband satellites, International Astronomical Union has released an alarming-sounding statement warning of unforeseen consequences for stargazing and for the protection of nocturnal animals.

“We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations could threaten both,” the statement reads.

Since then, Starlink has begun testing several new designs intended to reduce the brightness and visibility of its satellites. In early 2020, the company tested a “DarkSat” satellite with a special, non-reflective coating. Later, in June 2020, the company launched a “VisorSat” satellite with a special sunshade. In August, Starlink launched another series of satellites – this time they were all equipped with sights.

“We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing to ensure that little kids can see through their telescope,” Shotwell said. “It’s cool for them to see a Starlink. But they should be looking at Saturn, at the moon…and not be disturbed.”

“The Starlink teams have been working closely with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the specifics of their observations and technical changes we can make to reduce the satellite’s brightness,” the company’s website reads.

OKAY. Where can I find out more about Starlink?

We’ll continue to cover Starlink’s progress from different angles here on CNET, so stay tuned. You should also be sure to read Eric Mack’s excellent profile of Starlink — it covers, among other things, the goals and challenges of the project, as well as the implications for underserved internet consumers and for astronomers dealing with light pollution that obscures the view. in the night sky.

In addition, we expect to continue testing the Starlink network for ourselves throughout the year. When we learn more about how the satellite service fares as an internet service provider, we’ll tell you all about it.




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