Starlink is about to bind everyone together

Have you ever heard about Starlink? It is the name of the project, conceived by Elon Musk a few years ago only, which consists of providing global satellite internet service across the globe in the long term. Next month, this aim will be nearly achieved, for the first time in human history, according to the South African entrepreneur. Let’s take a closer look at this.

Daniel Oberhaus

Elon Musk has got us accustomed to making us many promises, some of which we did not eventually realize, but we have to recognize few people in the world have achieved so many important challenges in their lifetime so far.

During a Tuesday keynote on the 29th of June at the Mobile World Congress, an annual trade show dedicated primarily to the mobile communications industry, Elon Musk officially announced another of his brilliant achievements that is the providing of global satellite internet service coverage of the world by the project Starlink in the course of next month. This achievement consists in the scattering of hundreds of satellites that supply internet service for people who live in remote or rural areas and who do not yet possess high-speed broadband. It also meets needs for broader and more varied uses of the internet worldwide, such as networked video games or video conference calls.

So far, Space X – the name of the society in charge of this project – has launched more than 1.500 satellites in low Earth orbit and provides internet to about twelve countries. That’s low, but according to Elon Musk, “We’re on our way to having possibly over 500.000 users within 12 months”.  For the moment, there are only around 69.000 people who use Starlink broadband service, but Starlink is getting operational in “more added countries every month,” he said. Asked about the aim of his project during the Mobile World Congress, Musk underlined the difficulties associated with it as well as its tremendous potential: “We target the most difficult-to-reach three percent, possibly five percent of the global population. Think of Starlink as filling in the gaps between 5G and fiber. We’re really getting to the parts of the world that are the hardest to reach”.

Because of the large “spot size” of the satellite beams, Starlink is “really meant for sparsely populated regions,” Musk said. “In high-density areas, we will be able to serve a limited number of customers.”

Musk and Starlink executives have never pretended at anything else. But the mystique around Musk and his companies has led to a widespread misunderstanding of Starlink’s capacity, some people believing that the service was destined to all human beings on the Earth, which is far beyond Space X’s current capabilities. Besides, if Starlink’s high-speed broadband will be operational worldwide in the next weeks, regulators in individual countries must approve Starlink before people there can use it. Starlink broadband won’t also be immediately available in the north and south poles, but it will normally take another six months for these poles to be connected (according to a tweet Elon Musk wrote on the 25th of June).

So far, Starlink’s story has been a short and successful one as the first two prototype test-flight satellites were launched only three years ago, in 2018. Then, additional test satellites and sixty operational satellites were deployed in May 2019 for an implementation that took place as soon as 2020. To achieve its business objectives, Space X plans to maintain 12,000 operational minisatellites in low Earth orbit in the long term, towards 2025. Starlink is also characterized by a reduced latency compared to current offers supplied by internet satellite providers, which rely on big satellites located in geostationary orbit. The envisioned latency would be between 25 and 35 milliseconds, to compare with 600 ms for satellites in geostationary orbit, but according to Elon Musk, it could be inferior to 20 ms or even faster.

The satellite internet field is, however, littered with companies that have been through bankruptcy or changes in ownership, and “step number one for Starlink is, don’t go bankrupt,” Musk said. The cost of the decade-long project to design, build and deploy the constellation had been estimated by Space X in May 2018 to be at least US$10 billion. Newer satellite and launch vehicle technology will help costs, with Starlink’s upcoming “version 1.5” satellites able to network to each other to extend coverage across the Poles, and its starship vehicles able to bring more satellites into orbit at once. Musk also intends to sink $5 to $10 billion into the company even before it hits positive cash flow. Getting there will involve bringing equipment and launch prices down. Starlink loses money on its $499 user terminals, each of which cost the company more than $1,000. Musk’s proposition to remedy this is the following: “selling terminals for half price being not super compelling at scale [so] we would like overtime to reduce the terminal cost from $500 to $300 or $250”.

Among the challenges that Starlink might face in the future is the argument that maintaining such a high number of satellites in low Earth orbit increases the risks of collisions. Satellites have never been so numerous as today, and with the progressive privatization of space, space traffic is likely to intensify.

                                                                                                                              Yvan Barbeau

Sources: Elon Musk targets august for global starlink coverage
Business Insider Elon Musk suggests Starlink will be available worldwide from August – a month earlier than planned

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