With every new project comes expectations, uncertainties, questions, opposition and more. Elon Musk’s StarLink internet is one such project. Just last month on Nov. 24, SpaceX launched 60 StarLink internet satellites – making a total of more than 900 of its flat-panel satellites already on low earth orbit (LEO). This also marked the company’s 23rd space launch since the start of 2020. But just what is StarLink; why is it a big deal; and will it replace existing internet infrastructure? Follow along for information already in the public domain that will help answer some of these questions.
What is StarLink?
StarLink is an initiative by SpaceX that aims to provide internet from space. Its goal is to do this through a low earth constellation of micro-satellites that promise high speed and low latency internet access to all parts of the world. What this means is that you can access fast internet from any corner of the world, whether in the forest, in the middle of the ocean, or anywhere else.
How Does StarLink Internet Work?
First, a little history. Product development started in 2015, and by February 2018 two prototype test flights were launched. In May 2019, the first large deployment made up of 60 operational satellites was launched. Since then, it has been a continuous process to send more satellites into space. SpaceX intends to have launched 12,000 satellites by 2028, with an ambitious target of 1,440 per year. So how does StarLink internet work? Unlike other satellites that are placed in higher earth orbits, StarLink satellites are placed in low earth orbits. The high-placed satellites have to travel long distances, which leads to high latency – and this is what SpaceX intends to solve.
Will StarLink Replace ISPs?
Currently, service providers like Verizon and AT&T are already spending millions to reinforce their fiber infrastructure reach to cover more ground. In addition, 5G is already available in many areas and promises superior reliability, negligible latency and high speeds. Yet more StarLink satellites are being sent to space.
In fact, if the project is successful, there will be a constellation of satellites surrounding the earth as Musk plans to have an additional 30,000 added to the initial approved 12,000 (although this doesn’t go well with astronomers, who have raised concerns that this will ruin the night sky). So, will StarLink replace other ISPs? There is no telling the long-term plan that SpaceX has, but one thing that Musk has given an assurance on is that he intends to serve only remote areas and mobile applications, such as in planes, trains and ships.
If we were to compare StarLink and 5G, you would find that they do have different characteristics. However, it would cost a lot more for 5G to cover large areas while StarLink would be able to cover most of the world if all satellites are placed correctly. Nevertheless, the two may work together. For example, in situations where there is no internet connection, StarLink could provide internet backhaul to 5G remote towers. If you are in a densely populated city, you will still need your ISP. According to Musk, StarLink can’t work in cities with dense populations due to bandwidth limitations.
When Will StarLink be Available to the Public?
On Oct. 26, 2020, a public beta test was launched in select areas in the northern United States and Canada. StarLink internet is expected to be available in more regions in 2021. One of the few instances of when StarLink has publicly been reported on is by Washington emergency responders in early August when the organization offered internet to areas devastated by wildfires. Following an interview with CNBC, emergency telecommunications leader Richard Hall praised StarLink as being quick to set up and reliable.
As we wait for the internet to go public, one sure thing is that there are a lot of interested people. In March 2020, SpaceX got a license for up to one million user terminals from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). By August, there were already more than 700,000 people registering interest across the United States, and so the company asked for expansion for up to 5 million user terminals.
As already pointed out, the StarLink internet might not initially disrupt the monopoly of the telecom sector. Instead, it could be a beneficial project and even complement the telcos. Keeping in mind that the internet has played a great role in improving economic opportunities and easing communication, StarLink could be the bridge to help solve the digital divide by providing internet to remote areas.