Starlink Explained: Everything you need to know about Elon Musk’s Satellite Project over the Internet

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SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in May last year.

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When you think of billionaire businessman Elon Musk, chances are high that you think of him Electric car company Teslafor him SpaceX space exploration project or the time he spent Saturday Night Live Hosting (To say nothing of A history of causing controversy on social media or Smoking weed with Joe Rogan). You probably know him as one of the richest people on earth.

One thing you may be less familiar with is a project called Starlink, which aims to sell internet connections to almost anyone on the planet via a growing network of private satellites orbiting around it.

After years of development inside SpaceX – and almost secured $885.5 million in grant money from the Federal Communications Commission At the end of 2020 – Starlink was able to accelerate its pace in 2021. And in January, after three years of successful launches, the project exceeded 1,000 satellites delivered into orbit. One year and dozens of successful launches later, Starlink boasts more than 2,000 functional satellites in orbit.

Starlink’s business is also accelerating. In February last year, Musk revealed that Starlink has been serving more than 10,000 customers. now after Expand pre-orders for more potential customersrelease 2nd generation home internet satellite dish and explore the possibility Providing Wi-Fi on passenger planesMusk says Starlink has shipped More than 100,000 satellite internet stations For customers in 14 countries. That list includes Ukraine, where Musk says Additional satellite internet stations are now on the way amid the Russian invasion.

So, has Starlink gone global? The full scope of the service is unclear, but the company appears to be on its way. During a talk at the Mobile World Congress last June, Musk told the audience that Starlink would be available worldwide (except for the North and South poles) Starting from August, although regional availability will depend on regulatory approval. In September, Musk tweeted that Starlink will exit its initial beta phase in October, indicating that the service was continuing to increase and expand. However, the nascent broadband provider still faces a backlog of potential customers waiting to receive equipment and start service.

Starlink isn’t without its controversies either. Members of the scientific community have raised concerns about the effect of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit Seeing the sky at night. at the same time, Satellite Internet Competitors Including visaAnd the Hughes Net And the Amazon Kuiper Project They noticed Starlink’s momentum as well, which led to organizational duels and attempts to slow Musk.

We will continue to monitor Starlink’s progress in 2022. For now, here’s everything you should know about it.


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OK, start at the beginning: What is Starlink, exactly?

Technically a division within SpaceX, Starlink is also the name of the spaceflight company’s growing network — or “constellation” — of orbital satellites. The development of that network began in 2015, with the first prototype satellites launched into orbit in 2018.

In the years since, SpaceX has deployed thousands of Starlink satellites into the constellation across dozens of successful launches, the most recent of which took place on Mar. 3 and delivered another 47 satellites into low-earth orbit. That brings the total number of functional satellites in the constellation above 2,000, though some of those satellites are prototypes or nonoperational units that aren’t functioning parts of the network.

And those satellites can connect my home to the internet?

That’s the idea, yes.

Just like existing providers of satellite internet like HughesNet or Viasat, Starlink wants to sell internet access — particularly to people in rural areas and other parts of the world who don’t already have access to high-speed broadband.

spacex hardware kit

SpaceX’s Starlink hardware includes a satellite dish and router, which you’ll set up at home to receive the signal from space. The newest version of the dish, seen here, is less expensive for SpaceX to produce, and further improvements to the design could be on the way in 2022 — but for now, the initial equipment cost is still a steep $499.


SpaceX

“Starlink is ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge,” the Starlink website reads. “Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable.”

All you need to do to make the connection is set up a small satellite dish at your home to receive the signal and pass the bandwidth on to your router. The company offers a number of mounting options for rooftops, yards and the exterior of your home. There’s even a Starlink app for Android and iOS that uses augmented reality to help customers pick the best location and position for their receivers.

Starlink’s service is only available in select regions in the US, Canada and abroad at this point, but the service now boasts more than 100,000 satellite terminals shipped to customers, and the coverage map will continue to grow as more satellites make their way into the constellation. Eventually, Starlink hopes to blanket the entire planet in a usable, high-speed Wi-Fi signal.

How fast is Starlink’s internet service?

“Users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds in most locations over the next several months,” Starlink’s website says, while also warning of brief periods of no connectivity at all. “As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically.”

To that end, Musk tweeted in February of last year that he expects the service to double its top speeds to 300Mbps by the end of 2021. Now, in 2022, claims like those are difficult to evaluate, as speeds will vary depending on time and location.

Last year, CNET’s John Kim signed up for the service at his home in California and recently began testing it out at a variety of locations. At home, he averaged download speeds around 78Mbps, and latency around 36ms. You can see more of his first impressions in the video posted above, or by clicking here.

How much does Starlink cost?

Starlink is now accepting orders on a first-come, first-served basis, so you’ll need to request service and then wait your way through the backlog. During its beta in 2021, Starlink said that some preorders could take as long as six months to fulfill. The cost of the service is billed at $99 per month, plus taxes and fees, plus an initial payment of $499 for the mountable satellite dish and router that you’ll need to install at home.

$99 per month is a lot for an internet connection, especially one that isn’t nearly as fast as a fiber connection, but Musk is betting that the cost will be worth it for people who have thus far lived without access to a reliably fast connection at all. 

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said that she expects the $499 upfront cost of the receiver dish to come down in the coming years as SpaceX refines its dish design to lower production costs. The newest version of the dish, introduced with FCC approval in November, is smaller and less expensive to produce than the previous version, though customers will still need to pay an upfront fee of $499 to use it.

In April last year, Shotwell also said that Starlink wanted to keep pricing as simple and transparent as possible, and had no plans to introduce service tiers into the mix. However, that approach seems to be changing in 2022, with the introduction of a new premium tier with a scan array that’s twice as big as the standard plan and with download speeds ranging from 150-500Mbps. That tier costs $500 per month, plus an initial payment of $2,500 for the equipment. Starlink is taking orders for that tier now, and plans to launch the service later in 2022.

Where is Starlink available?

starlink-coverage-map-december-2020.png

This FCC coverage map shows areas serviced by Starlink as of December 2020, when Starlink was first starting as beta. Future FCC releases in 2022 will give a better look at how much the service grew in 2021. For now, note that the initial coverage held close to a set latitude across the northern US. As the constellation of satellites grows, that serviceability should expand. 


FCC/Mapbox

Despite promising to blanket the entire globe in coverage by this fall, Starlink service is currently limited to select regions in select countries. Still, the coverage map will grow considerably as more satellites join the constellation. 

Per Musk, the list of countries currently serviced by the growing network of low-earth orbit satellites includes the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. Starlink’s preorder agreement includes options for requesting service in other countries, too, including Italy, Poland, Spain and Chile.

There’s still a ways to go — Starlink will likely need at least 10,000 satellites in orbit before it can claim to offer full service to a majority of the globe (and SpaceX has shown signs that it wants as many as 42,000 satellites in the constellation). Right now, it’s only about 20% of the way there, at best, with coverage focused on regions sitting between 45 and 53 degrees north latitude.

Still, Musk has been bullish about the Starlink timeline. During an interview at 2021’s Mobile World Congress, Musk said that Starlink would hit worldwide availability except at the North and South Poles starting in August. Earlier in June, Shotwell expressed a similar sentiment, and said that Starlink would reach global serviceability sometime this fall.

“We’ve successfully deployed 1,800 or so satellites, and once all those satellites reach their operational orbit we will have continuous global coverage so that should be like [the] In September.”

In September, Twitter user Musk asked when Starlink would end its beta phase. “next month,” Musk replied.

According to the FCC, which recently added Starlink to its database of broadband providers, the service was available to 0.08% of Americans as of December 2020, when Starlink was just releasing its beta version. At that point, 100% of customers had access to maximum download speeds of 100Mbps and upload speeds of 10Mbps. Future FCC releases will give us a good look at how the service will grow during the busy year of 2021 – we’ll update this post when these releases arrive in 2022.

Why satellite anyway? Isn’t the fiber faster?

Fiber, or internet delivered over a terrestrial fiber-optic cable, provides upload and download speeds that are already much faster than satellite internet – however, As companies like Google will tell youThere’s nothing quick about deploying the infrastructure needed to get fiber to people’s homes. That’s not to say there’s anything simple about launching satellites into space, but with fewer sharp-elbow competitors — and far fewer red tape to cut — there is every reason to believe services like Starlink will reach the bulk of the world. Underserved communities long before fiber services. Recent FCC filings also suggest that Starlink could eventually double as a dedicated phone service as well.

And don’t forget that this is Elon Musk we’re talking about. SpaceX is the only company on the planet with a landable, reusable rocket capable of delivering payload after payload into orbit. This is a great advantage in the commercial space race. Moreover, Musk said in 2018 that Starlink would help provide SpaceX with the revenue needed to fund the company’s long-term ambition to establish a base on Mars.

If that day arrives, it’s also possible that SpaceX will try to create a satellite constellation on the Red Planet as well. This means that Starlink customers will likely double as guinea pigs for Mars wireless networks in the future.

“If you send a million people to Mars, you better give them some way to communicate,” Shotwell said in 2016, speaking of the company’s long-term vision for Starlink. “I don’t think people who go to Mars will be satisfied with some horrible old radios. They will want their iPhone or Android devices on Mars.”

Starlink’s Terms of Service include a clause on Mars – Users must agree that Mars is a free planet not bound by the authority or sovereignty of any government tied to Earth.

Starling / screenshot by Ry Crist / CNET

As CNET’s Jesse Orral pointed out in a recent video about Starlink, you’ll find hints of Musk’s plans for Mars in the Starlink Terms of Service, which at one point states:

“For services rendered on Mars, or during transit to Mars via spacecraft or other colonial spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Mars activities.”

However, with top speeds currently pegged at 150Mbps, Starlink satellite internet won’t be anywhere near the gigabit fiber speeds people on Earth are accustomed to anytime soon – due to the sheer distance each transmission needs to travel On the round trip from your home to the stratosphere. It’s also a factor that increases latency, which is why you’ll often notice awkward lulls in conversation if you’re talking to someone over a satellite connection.

However, Starlink promises to improve current expectations for satellite communications by putting satellites into orbit at lower altitudes than before — 60 times closer to the Earth’s surface than conventional satellites, the company claims. This LEO approach means there is less distance for these Starlink signals to travel – and therefore, lower response time. We’ll tell you how those claims stand up once we can test the Starlink network ourselves.

Starlink May 6 power outage

The Starlink outage on May 6, shown here on DownDetector and reported by Reddit users, appears to have affected users for a few hours.

DownDetector

Is Starlink reliable?

Early reports from outlets such as Fast Company and CNBC appear to suggest early Starlink customers are satisfied with the service, though the company warns of “brief periods of no connection at all” during the trial period.

DownDetector.com, which tracks service outages, lists four Starlink disruptions in 2021, one each in January, February and April, with the most recent outage occurring on May 6. HughesNet, and one in February for ViaSat.

Starlink users extending from Arizona to Alberta, Canada noticed a Reddit outage in May — for most users, service seemed to resume in a few hours.

What about bad weather and other obstacles?

This is definitely one of the downsides of satellite internet. According to Starlink’s FAQ, the receiver is capable of melting the snow it lands on, but it can’t do anything about surrounding snow buildup and other obstructions that might block its line of sight from the satellite.

“We recommend that the Starlink be installed in a location that avoids snow buildup and other obstructions that block the field of view,” states the FAQ. “Heavy rain or winds can also affect the satellite internet connection, which can lead to slower speeds or rare outages.”

Are there other problems with the Starlink satellites?

There is a lot of concern about the proliferation of privately owned satellites in space, and Controversy in astrological circles About the effect of low-orbiting satellites on the night sky itself.

This long-exposure image of a distant galaxy cluster from Lowell Observatory in Arizona is marred by diagonal streaks of light reflected off the Starlink satellites, shortly after its 2019 launch.

Victoria Gerges Observatory / Lowell

In 2019, shortly after the deployment of the first Starlink broadband satellites, The International Astronomical Union issued a statement sounding the alarm Warning of unexpected consequences for the stars and protection of nocturnal wildlife.

“We do not yet understand the impact of the thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky, and despite their best intentions, these constellations may threaten both,” the statement read.

Since then, Starlink has begun testing a variety of new designs aimed at lowering the brightness and clarity of its satellites. At the beginning of 2020, the company tested the DarkSat, which included a special non-reflective coating. Later, in June of 2020, the company launched a “VisorSat” satellite that features a special sunblock. In August, Starlink launched another batch of satellites – this time, they were all equipped with masks.

“We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing to make sure young children can look through their telescope,” Shotwell said. “It’s great for them to see Starlink. But they must look at Saturn, at the Moon… and they don’t want to be cut off.”

“Starlink teams have worked closely with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the properties of their observations and the engineering changes we can make to reduce the satellites’ brightness,” the company’s website reads.

Yeah. Where can I learn more about Starlink?

We’ll continue to cover Starlink’s progress from a variety of angles here on CNET, so stay tuned. You should also be sure to read Eric Mack’s excellent file on Starlink – among other things, it takes a close look at the goals and challenges of the project, as well as the implications for underserved Internet consumers, and astronomers concerned about light pollution obstructing night-sky views. .

Furthermore, we expect to continue testing the Starlink network for ourselves throughout this year. When we know more about how satellite service stacks up as an Internet provider, we will tell you all about it.