These companies try to go after an estimated 4 billion people without internet access as well as companies that operate in remote areas such as airlines and cruise ships.
It’s still not clear how these big plans will eventually change, but Starlink already exists and serves about 90,000 customers around the world. In the past, others have tried and failed to do what SpaceX and Amazon OneWeb hope to achieve. Teledesic, a company funded in part by Bill Gates in the mid-1990s, failed after costs soared into the billions. Attempts by Iridium and Global Star failed after they ended up in bankruptcy. OneWeb also filed for bankruptcy before its debut last year. Musk said he was aware of this history and that Starlink’s success was not guaranteed. But it does have the advantage of being able to launch satellites on reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.
As lawmakers work on how to extend broadband internet to parts of the country that need it most, a new generation of satellites may be able to help keep some rural families connected and educate their children — for a price.
Here’s what you need to know about how these new internet services work.
Satellite Internet services have been around for a long time and the US Census Bureau estimates in 2019 that about 8 million Americans rely on them to stay connected. But the experience may be far from enjoyable. In many cases, satellite internet is much slower than the cable company can offer and many service providers impose strict limits on the amount of data you can comfortably use. Why do people use it? For many, especially those who live in rural or hard-to-reach areas, this is because they have no other options.
Incumbents like HughesNet and Viasat have been tossing satellite internet into the US for years and park their satellites in high, geostationary orbits — think 22,000 miles or so from Earth. This means that fewer satellites are needed to cover a lot of Earth, but there is a problem. The signals sent to these satellites and back are related to the speed of light, and the kinds of round trip distances included here mean latency, otherwise known as lag, is inevitable.
Meanwhile, startups like Musk’s Starlink project are taking a different approach; Instead of relying on a few high orbit satellites, it uses a lot of low orbit satellites — some as high as 340 miles above your head. Since they are physically closer to Earth, it won’t take long to transmit data from your home to a satellite to a wired ground station and back.
And by “a lot of satellites,” we mean thousands. Starlink currently has more than 1,700 satellites orbiting the planet and aims to illuminate about 10,000 additional ones. Meanwhile, Amazon is planning a similar approach with its Kuiper project and hopes to get a total of 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit, but so far none of them have ever lifted off from Earth.
Let’s make one thing clear, though: Services like Starlink aren’t really meant to be used in densely populated towns or cities. Wired, reliable internet connections are more common there, and while this population has its own issues — more than 80 million Americans only have access to one high-speed internet service provider, according to a study published by the Local Self-Reliance Institute — they generally don’t have a problem. Great to connect to the internet. In the end, it will be people in rural and sparsely populated areas who will benefit most from these new satellite towers.
Services like Starlink have huge potential to help people who don’t have a reliable internet connection take advantage of all that the web has to offer. But they are not without their drawbacks.
First, they are still subject to some natural limitations that other satellite internet companies have to contend with. Heavy rain or wind can cause some disruption to the service, and Starlink has recommended in the past that people take their 23-inch bowls indoors if the winds are seriously frightening. Scientists – especially astronomers – have raised concerns about the impact of putting tens of thousands of satellites into orbit on their ability to stare into space.
But for people who really need better internet access, there’s at least one big blow against services like Starlink: waiting. About 90,000 people currently use Starlink to access the Internet, many of whom live in the United States, according to an unofficial survey conducted on Reddit. But there is also demand from potential customers abroad, and it’s hard to know how quickly the service will expand its reach to serve everyone who wants it. Some people who have pre-ordered their Starlink dishes have been told that their regions will have service in late 2021, while others will have to wait until sometime in 2022 or 2023. Meanwhile, those looking to Amazon to apply for Their services will be in an equal position. Wait a little longer – it will be some time before Project Kuiper is like a viable alternative.
How do services stack up
HughesNet, the largest provider of satellite internet in the United States, charges about $450 for the necessary equipment, although customers can rent it for a lower monthly fee. And before promotions start, the company’s plans range from $60 per month for 10GB access to $150 per month for 50GB.
There are a few issues here. First, these data limitations can make life difficult, especially in this age of remote learning and frequent video calls. The company says that once you get past these data limits, you won’t be cut off completely – your speeds drop from the advertised 25 Mbps (Mbps) to between 1-3 Mbps. This could be better than DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) in some high-end cases, but it’s quite icy by 2021. (In fairness, HughesNet gives its customers 50GB of extra data to use each month, but only between 2am and 8am ).
Viasat is slightly different in that it offers customers levels of service based on speed. In general, the more you pay, the faster your internet will be. (What makes things confusing is that Viasat offers different internet speeds and plans depending on where you live.) But it’s similar to HughesNet in that those speeds can be slowed down, or “watered down,” if you download, stream, or play too much. How much depends on your exact plan, but the message is still clear: You still need to be mindful of what you and your family use the internet for.
By comparison, Starlink feels like a breath of fresh air. The SpaceX division says customers can expect download speeds of between 100Mbps and 200Mbps from the single service plan, which costs $99 per month. Customers also have to pay $499 for a base station that they will have to set up themselves. (Fortunately, the Starlink companion app seems to walk people through the process without much of a fuss.)
These advertised speeds are much faster than what the incumbents offer, but there’s another big difference here: Starlink doesn’t have a cap on the amount of high-speed data you can use. That could change as more people start accessing the network. For now, though, this lack of restrictions could make the service seriously attractive to anyone who doesn’t have access to a more reliable wired connection.
So far, the speed test by Starlink. Network test company Ookla reported in August that the service’s average speed was 97.23Mbps — that’s plenty for streaming, gaming, video chatting, and more. Meanwhile, average scores from HughesNet and Viasat were less than a quarter of Starlink’s results and slower than what the FCC would define as broadband internet.
Amazon, for its part, has not confirmed what it plans to charge for internet access via Project Kuiper, or whether people will have to sign up directly or through a reseller. The company indicated in some of its tests that download speeds were as high as 400Mbps, which could lead to more reliable video calls and remote learning sessions. However, there are two things to consider here. First, once people start using the Kuiper service, you will almost certainly not see consistently high speeds. And secondly, Kuiper as a service doesn’t exist yet, and likely won’t be around for at least a few years.
Christian Davenport contributed to this story.