What is Starlink: Do I Want or Need it?

Starlink is a satellite Internet constellation being constructed by SpaceX – an Elon Musk company.  SpaceX is launching small satellites that orbit the earth lower than other satellite internet providers.  The lower orbit requires more satellites, but the advantage is the satellites will be closer to the end-users.  The low orbit satellites are expected to provide internet as fast, or faster, than traditional terrestrial internet options such as cable modems and even 5g cellular.  

What is Starlink? Starlink is a satellite-based internet service provider that is owned by SpaceX an Elon Musk company. The objective of Starlink is to provide high-quality internet everywhere on the Earth.

Starlink Plan and Current State

SpaceX is currently planning on launching 12,000 Starlink satellites into orbit over the next few years.  The large number of satellites will cover most of the earth with internet — providing high-quality affordable internet to essentially the entire planet.  

As of August 18, 2020, there are 655 Starlink satellites in orbit.  I have not been able to test the internet throughput speed numbers yet, but Musk has spoken about his performance objectives.  He expects Starlink to deliver one gigabit per second upload and download speeds with a latency between 25 and 35 milliseconds.  Musk’s goal is to push the network to sub 20-millisecond latency initially and then 10 milliseconds or below as the network is built out. Achieving these performance goals will make Starlink one of the fastest consumer internet providers.

Why does Starlink Need so Many Satellites?  

Starlink needs thousands of satellites because they are in low orbit that is approximately 35,800 kilometers above the earth.  They are closer to the earth than Hughes NET and most communication satellites.  The advantage of low orbit is that the distance between the end-user and the satellite is closer than their competitors.  

Shorter distance between end-users and a satellite lowers latency. Latency is the time it takes to get a message from a ground antenna to the satellite and back.  

The challenge with low orbit, however, is the antennas on the Starlink satellites cannot see as much of the earth.  Each satellite is small and only weights 500 LBS.  The small size of the satellite reduces the size of the antenna, electronics and power that can be on board.  The result is they need more satellites to sufficiently cover an area with high-quality reception.

The Starlink satellites are always moving.  They are not in a fixed position like most communication satellites.  The Starlink satellites must stay in constant motion to offset the pull of gravity.  The constant movement means that a satellite must always be passing overhead for the system to work.  To accomplish this feat, Starlink needs to have thousands of satellites to cover the planet with internet without service interruption.  

Most traditional communication satellites are in a Geosynchronous orbit, which is a fancy name for staying in one spot in space (they match the Earth's rotational speed). Providers like DirecTV have their constellation Geostationary so ground based antennas point in one direction to see them. The disadvantage of sacking is that the satellites have to be further out in orbit to maintain a precise location. Redundancy is also an issue with geostationary clusters. There is limited space and not a lot of room to park satellites that are only needed if another one fails.

Check out the CNN article discussing what happened when one of DirecTV's satellites had a catastrophic battery failure. Starlink satellites will decommission themselves in situations like this.

Starlink Initial Testing

Starlink has been testing the performance of the Starlink network with the US Air Force.  The testing program is called Global Lightning that is performing both stationary and in-motion tests from aircraft.  

The Global Lightning initial testing results are impressive.  The Air Force is seeing an average of 610 megabits per second from the Starlink network when flying across the country.  As satellites are added to the constellation, it is reasonable to presume that 1GB download speeds are realistic.  

In August 2020, Starlink opened their beta testing program to end-users.  The first set of users are in Washington State, but they will be opening to more states in the coming weeks and months.  The primary limiting factor holding back large-scale testing is the number of satellites in orbit.  They are currently orbiting between Canada and the US.  As the network expands, they will be able to cover more of the country and world.  

Starlink Cost & Installation

One may think that fast and reliable satellite-based internet must be outrageously expensive, but everything we have seen so far indicates that the pricing of Starlink Internet will be competitive with earth-based internet providers.

The Starlink network will, in fact, be easier to get working than installing a cable modem. A tech will not need to be dispatched to install Starlink like is needed for other satellite providers like DirecTV and HughesNET.  The ease of installation will reduce cost by not needing to hire thousands of installers around the world and it will increase roll-out speed.  

Pricing for Starlink Internet has not been released yet, but Gwynne Shotwell who is the President of SpaceX said during an interview, “Is anybody paying less than $80 bucks a month for crappy service…Nope…That’s why we are gonna be successful.”   Her statement has the community speculating that the monthly service fee will be somewhere around $80 per month.  I expect that they will have different pricing tiers.  Faster plans to get to Gigabyte speeds will likely cost more.  Base plans could cost less.

When will Starlink be Opened to the Pubic? 

Starlink has been shipping their ground antennas to the Beta testers.  They are testing installation of the ground antennas and performance of the network.  The Beta program is currently only open to people living in Washington State, but they will likely be expanding to other states over the next few months.  

Starlink Antenna. Source @flcnhv

SpaceX is launching 60 Starlink satellites every two weeks.  If the launches stay on schedule, they should have around 1,000 satellites in the constellation by the end of 2020.  1,000 satellites should provide adequate coverage of the US and Canada in low density areas.  I expect they will open enrolment to consumers that are in qualified areas by the end of 2020.  If they stay on the 60 satellite every other week program, they will have over 2,000 satellites by the end of 2021.  2,000+ satellites will enable Starlink to open worldwide coverage to those in rural areas.  

Will Starlink Always be a SpaceX Company?   

Currently Starlink is owned and operated by SpaceX.  Musk said in an interview that they will eventually move Starlink into its own operating business with the objective to take the business public.  Musk started Starlink to help raise capital to fund the SpaceX intergalactic exploration program with the goal of sending humans to Mars.  Musk said that capturing a significant portion of the estimated 1-trillion dollars spent worldwide on internet connectivity is a good place to be.  

Starlink has big ambitions and is growing fast.  They initially filed documents with the FCC to place 4,000 satellites into low orbit.  That number quickly changed to 12,000.  Musk has said they may send up as many as 30,000 satellites into the Starlink constellation.  This is an incredible number!  According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, only 9,000 man-made satellites have ever been launched into space with only 2,000 of them active now.  

Musk has a reputation for making big things happen.  Based on their accomplishments to date, they will be well positioned to be a self-sustaining busines by 2021.  They need SpaceX to deliver the satellites to space.  The business needs SpaceX now, but when they start generating revenue and have subscribers the business will be in an excellent position to go public. 

How Does the Starlink System Work? 

Starlink satellites are powered with a Krypton thruster that enables them to stay in precise position as they move around the globe.  SpaceX claims that their satellites are the first Krypton powered spacecraft.  Musk has said that Krypton powered engines are the future of space travel.  

The advantage of Krypton gas is less expensive to procure than Xenon that has typically been used in space. A key to being able to operate thousands of satellites is keeping the manufacturing cost low and the operational efficiency high.  

Each Starlink satellite is equipped with four powerful phased array antennas with each being capable of handling an enormous amount of radio wave throughput.  The antenna design enables very efficient transfer of information.  Delivering internet via satellite is significantly more efficient than by wire because the signal travels 47 percent faster as a wave through the vacuum of space than it does traveling along a fiber optic cable.  

  • The easiest way to explain how Starlink system works is to compare it to a relay race where a baton is handed from one runner to another
    • An end-user will request a web page from their computer.  
    • The message from the computer is transmitted from their antenna to a Starlink satellite that is passing overhead. 
    • The Starlink satellite that receives the request will direct the request toward another satellite that is closest to the destination website. 
    • The second Starlink satellite can hand the request to another who can hand it to another, etc. until it reaches a satellite that is over a ground station closes to the destination website. 
    • The final satellite will send the request to a ground station that is physically connected to land-line internet to carry for the last mile to the web host.  
    • The return messages come back as a relay exactly the same, but the satellites will be different on the way back. 
  • The Starlink constellation is set up with nodes that work similarly to the web we are using today
    • A home router, for example, will hand off to a cable modem.  
    • The cable modem will pass through several hops getting out of a neighborhood until it gets to the Cable Company Data Center.  
    • The local Cable Company will then either hand off the message to a local internet connection or they will carry it through their private network to get it closer to the destination. 
    • The return path via a Cable Company works the same in reverse

Starlink has Significant Advantages Over a Cable Company  

For starters, there is nothing except for clouds between the end-user and the Starlink network that can take the internet out of service. Cable Company networks rely on complex wiring in neighborhoods, under roads, through basements of buildings, along railroad tracks, etc. to get to their data center.  Cable Company networks also require power at every collection point to keep the signal at precise levels.  Water getting into a cable box or a power outage can take an entire neighborhood internet out of service.  Localized maintenance by the Cable Company will often take service down as well.

Starlink mitigates the issues of traditional internet providers by eliminating the complexity of getting a message to and from the constellation (e.g. Data Center in Space).  It is a direct network connection between the end-user and satellite network that also has redundancy built in.  Redundancy does not exist for a Cable Modem user. There is typically only one path in and out of a home. 

When Starlink has 4,000+ satellites, there will always be multiple stations flying overhead most points of the earth 24x7x365.  If one satellite is busy, down for maintenance, repositioning, etc., there will be others nearby that can accept the request.  The more Starlink satellites that are orbiting the earth, the higher the redundancy and bandwidth to handle large data requests from a dense population of users.  This is why Starlink has amended their request to launch up to 30,000 satellites.  Their goal is to provide fast, high throughput and reliable internet for everyone on earth.

Starlink Satellite Upgrades

Upgrades of the Starlink network is easier than traditional terrestrial networks.  Each satellite can receive and schedule firmware updates during off peak hours.  Updates will happen in small groups at a time so the overall throughput of the network will not be impacted.  If an update does not go according to plan, the satellite will autonomously roll-back its software even if it has lost connectivity with the Starlink network.  

The Starlink grid is interconnected and controlled via a proprietary encrypted messaging protocol through the SpaceX command center.  SpaceX only needs to send a command to one satellite and that satellite will pass the message to all of the others in the constellation.  This communications configuration enables SpaceX to manage satellites that are not orbiting directly over an area where they have ground-based antennas.  

The Starlink satellites are designed to be replaced every 8-10 years.  They engineered the satellites to have a short life span so new hardware can be sent up to replace outdated technology.  This is a completely different mission than traditional satellites that were never designed to be upgraded or maintained.  At the end of the useful life of a Starlink satellite, it will slowly decelerate into the earths atmosphere and completely incinerate.  The end-of-life process keeps the orbital space free of junk and is environmentally safe.  

Starlink Disadvantages & Complaints

The main complaint about Starlink has been from Astronomers.  They have expressed concerns about how bright the satellite chains are and how the light pollution is compromising their observations.  The researchers believe the light pollution may negatively affect their future images of outer space.  Radio astronomers are also expecting to encounter interfearance from Starlink’s radio-based antennas.  

SpaceX also received backlash in late 2019 when the European Space Agency announced they had to undertake evasive maneuvers with one of their satellites to avoid crashing into Starlink 44 one of the first 60 satellites in the mega constellation.  

SpaceX has stated that they are working with many agencies and space organizations to mitigate any potential issues and they are actively working towards several solutions to make their satellites less visible.  Recently SpaceX has been applying a darkening treatment to the satellites they have been launching that should lessen the satellite’s reflectivity.  

Jim Kerr

Jim Kerr is a entrepreneur that has founded several businesses including Orbitz, Team Convergence, Assure Flight, and Passion Highway. He is an airplane pilot, PADI SCUBA Dive Master and adventure traveler. Along with his wife Lisa, they travel North America in their 2020 Grand Design Momentum 397TH Toy Hauler with their cat Dexter. To find out more about Jim, visit JamesNKerr.com

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