- SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, is pursuing a high-speed satellite internet business called Starlink.
- To explore the capabilities of its growing network, SpaceX is currently seeking beta testers via an email form at Starlink.com.
- Though SpaceX founder Elon Musk is championing Starlink as a potential high-speed, low-latency, and affordable public web service, the project faces multiple hurdles.
- In addition to showing the US government that Starlink can meet requirements for a big subsidy program, Musk has said it could take years to make high-tech user terminals affordable.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
SpaceX may need your help getting its potentially transformative space-based internet business, called Starlink, up and running.
When Business Insider signed up, we received an email moments later that said (with our emphasis added):
“Thank you for your interest in Starlink!
“Starlink is designed to deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. Private beta testing is expected to begin later this summer, followed by public beta testing, starting with higher latitudes.
“If you provided us with your zip code, you will be notified via email if beta testing opportunities become available in your area. In the meantime, we will continue to share with you updates about general service availability and upcoming Starlink launches.”
SpaceX did not respond to Business Insider’s request for more information about the Starlink beta program.
The road to establishing Starlink as an actual moneymaking business could take several years and billions of dollars.
On Saturday — and to stunning effect — SpaceX launched its eighth batch of its latest version of the desk-size, 500-pound satellites into low-Earth orbit. Using built-in ion propulsion engines, each spacecraft will slowly ascend to a final orbit of about 340 miles above the planet. That’s about 64 times closer than a typical internet-beaming satellite — and thus, ostensibly, capable of near-lagless service.
Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, told Irene Klotz of Aviation Week that the company would “probably do some beta rollouts” in the near future.
“After we get 14 launches, we’ll roll out service in a more public way,” Shotwell said, or roughly a fleet of 840 spacecraft.
Counting two very early satellites, an experimental batch of 60 launched in May 2019, and the Starlink-1 through Starlink-8 missions that have flown since, SpaceX has slipped 540 of its own satellites into orbit — making the company the world’s largest satellite operator.
However, SpaceX has permission from the US government to fly nearly 12,000 Starlink spacecraft, and it’s seeking to launch about 30,000 more than that from the Federal Communications Commission. (There are about 2,700 satellites currently orbiting Earth, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.)
SpaceX is currently leading the field of internet-beaming competitors, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper and OneWeb, which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (though it appears to be pressing forward after a restructuring).
But Starlink has several large obstacles to clear before its profitable
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is looking to Starlink as a colossal revenue stream to help fund SpaceX’s planned conquest of Mars.
“For the system to be economically viable, it’s really on the order of 1,000 satellites,” Musk told Business Insider of Starlink during a press call on May 15, 2019. “If we’re putting a lot more satellites than that in orbit, that’s actually a very good thing. It means there’s a lot of demand for the system.”
Musk is ultimately hoping to grab just a few percent of the trillion-dollar telecommunications market, which he said could net SpaceX $30 billion to $50 billion per year. Morgan Stanley research said the gambit could make SpaceX, still a private company, worth up to $120 billion.
But while Starlink may conduct and finish both private and public betas within a matter of months, then pivot into a public service before the end of 2020, evolving the project into a moneymaker could take much longer.
As Musk told Aviation Week in May, bringing down the cost of devices called user terminals — which would connect subscribers to orbiting Starlink satellites — remains a major hurdle. Such devices would use phased-array panels to almost instantly switch connections from one satellite to another and might look like a “UFO on a stick,” Musk has said.
“I think the biggest challenge will be with the user terminal and getting the user terminal cost to be … affordable,” he told Aviation Week. “That will take us a few years to really solve.”
SpaceX also faces regulatory hurdles with Starlink, since it wants to use portions of the electromagnetic spectrum that a variety of other companies want to use for their communications businesses. In particular, SpaceX is hoping to get awarded part of a $20.4 billion FCC grant program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which aims to “bridge the digital divide” in remote US areas where high-speed internet is limited or unavailable.
Low latency, or low lag, is a big requirement of the auction in order to make livestreaming video and other time-sensitive uses of the internet more seamless. The FCC requires 100 milliseconds or less. Earth-based internet usually have a latency of 15-60 milliseconds, and traditional internet satellites (though much farther than Starlink satellites) typically have about 600 milliseconds of lag, according to a 2016 report by the FCC.
However, as Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica reported on June 11, the FCC said in its public notice about the auction that commissioners have “serious doubts that any low-Earth orbit networks will be able to meet the short-form application requirements for bidding in the low-latency tier.”
The deadline to apply for funds from the program’s Phase I auction is July 15, as Steve Dent reported for Engadget. SpaceX must by then convince the FCC it can provide service at less than 100 milliseconds.
On Sunday, Musk tweeted Starlink’s current network can provide internet connections with a latency of around 20 milliseconds, or five times speedier than the FCC requirement.
“It’s designed to run real-time, competitive video games. Version 2, which is at lower altitude could be as low as 8ms latency,” Musk added of the Starlink network.
If SpaceX wants Starlink to be eligible for billions in government subsidies, though, it may only have a month to show the FCC it can beat 100 milliseconds — and an early private beta test may give the company the data it needs to prove its case to commissioners.
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