Whether you knew it or not, the new space race that is unfolding is about Internet access.
Since 2019, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched more than 1,000 of its Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit as part of a plan to provide broadband to underserved communities around the world. And just this week, Amazon announced that it plans to launch its first prototype Project Kuiper satellites into orbit by the end of 2022 with a similar goal in mind.
These companies are trying to target an estimated 4 billion people without the Internet, as well as companies operating in remote areas, including airlines and cruise ships.
It’s still unclear how those big plans will ultimately pan out, but Starlink, with a research and development center in Redmond, is already live, serving approximately 90,000 customers around the world. As lawmakers figure out how to extend broadband internet to parts of the United States that need it most, a new generation of satellites may help keep some in rural areas connected and educate their children — at a price.
Here’s what you need to know about how these new Internet services work.
Satellites vs Cables
Satellite Internet services have been around for a long time, and estimates from the US Census Bureau in 2019 suggest that about 8 million Americans rely on it to stay connected. But the experience can be far from pleasant. In many cases, satellite internet is much slower than cable, and many providers have strict limits on how much data you can comfortably use. So why do people use it? For many, especially those in rural or hard-to-reach areas, it’s because they have no other options.
What makes this new type of internet service different is where these companies place their satellites.
Established companies such as HughesNet and Viasat have been using satellite Internet services in the United States for years and have parked their satellites in high, geostationary orbits — about 22,000 miles off the ground. That means fewer satellites are needed to cover a lot of land, but there’s a catch. Signals beamed to these satellites and back are tied to the speed of light, and the types of return distances involved mean that delay is inevitable.
What makes this new kind of service different is where these companies place their satellites. They use many satellites in lower orbits – some are as low as 340 miles above your head. Because they are physically closer to Earth, it doesn’t take that long for data to travel from your home to a satellite to a wired ground station and back.
And by “many satellites” we mean thousands. Starlink currently has more than 1,700 satellites orbiting the planet and is aiming to add another 10,000. Meanwhile, Amazon plans a similar approach with its Project Kuiper and hopes to launch a total of 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit, but so far none have taken off.
Services like Starlink are really not intended for use in densely populated cities. Reliable, wired Internet connections are much more common there, and while those residents have their own problems, more than 80 million Americans only have access to one high-speed Internet provider, according to a study published by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance — they generally don’t. so hard to get online. Ultimately, it is people in rural and lightly inhabited regions who can make the most of these constellations of new satellites.
What’s the catch?
Services like Starlink have huge potential to help people without reliable internet access. But they are not without their drawbacks.
First, they are still subject to some of the natural constraints that other satellite internet companies have faced. Heavy rain or wind can cause some service disruption and Starlink has recommended in the past that people take their 23-inch dishes inside when the wind gets scary. Scientists — especially astronomers — have also expressed concerns about the impact placing tens of thousands of satellites in orbit could have on their ability to see into space.
But for the people who really need better internet access, there’s at least one big blow to services like Starlink: the wait. According to an informal poll on Reddit, about 90,000 people currently use Starlink for internet access, many of whom live in the United States. But there is also demand from potential customers abroad, and it’s hard to say how quickly the service will expand to serve everyone who wants it. Some people who signed up to pre-order their Starlink dishes were told their areas would be served by the end of 2021, while others would have to wait until sometime in 2022 or 2023. Meanwhile, those looking for Amazon to wait for to act even longer – it will be a while before Project Kuiper even looks like a viable alternative.
How the services compare
HughesNet, the largest satellite Internet service provider in the United States, charges about $450 for the necessary equipment, although customers can lease it for a lower monthly fee. And before the promos kick in, the company’s plans range from $60 per month for 10 GB full-speed access to $150 per month for 50 GB.
Those data limits can make life difficult, especially in the age of distance learning and frequent video calls. The company says that once you tiptoe over those data limits, you won’t be completely cut off — your speeds just drop from the advertised 25 megabits per second (Mbps) to between 1 and 3 Mbps. That’s downright icy for 2021 standards.
Viasat is a bit different in that it offers customers service levels based on speed. In general, the more you pay, the faster your internet. But it’s similar to HughesNet in that those speeds can and will be slowed down, or “throttled,” if you download too much. How much exactly depends on your subscription, but the message is still clear: the internet ahead.
In comparison, Starlink feels like a breath of fresh air. The SpaceX division says customers can expect download speeds of between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps from the single service plan, which costs $99 per month. Customers also have to pay $499 for a base station that they must set up themselves.
Those speeds are much faster than what the incumbents offer, but there’s another big difference: Starlink has no usage limit. This may change as more people access the network. For now, though, that lack of throttling could make the service seriously appealing to anyone who doesn’t have a more reliable, wired connection.
And so far the speed test is on Starlink’s side. Network testing company Ookla reported in August that the service’s median speed was 97.23 Mbps — that’s enough for streaming, gaming, video chatting and more. Meanwhile, HughesNet and Viasat’s median results were less than a quarter of Starlink’s and slower than what the Federal Communications Commission would define as broadband internet.
Amazon, for its part, has not confirmed what it plans to charge for Internet access, or whether people will have to sign up directly or through a reseller. The company has pointed out in some of its tests that download speeds were as high as 400 Mbps, which could make for more reliable video calls and distance learning sessions. However, there are two things to keep in mind here. First, once people start using Kuiper’s service, you’re almost certainly not going to see such high speeds constantly. And secondly, Kuiper as a service does not yet exist and probably will not be in a few years.