Luke McAomy, a cyber security specialist, lives completely isolated on a mountainside in Colorado, where there is no cell phone or fixed broadband connection. Yet he spoke about the lethality of drones at a recent convention in Japan. It was live via satellite – his personal internet connection via satellite.
With a constellation of hundreds of satellites and speeds comparable to broadband in the US, the Starlink service allows McAomy to work even when he’s in the middle of nowhere. He and his wife, Melanie McAmey, lead a lifestyle that could be the envy of pandemic-weary city dwellers: They raise chickens, keep an eye on the mountain lions and keep an eye on the forest floor.
The McOmies are part of a beta testing program for a new type of Internet service from
the rocket company SpaceX. So far, their experience has been phenomenal, they say. They regularly achieve download speeds of 120 megabits per second, and because the antenna gives off enough heat, they have been able to maintain the connection even in winter. But after the recent snowstorm, they had to clean it up.
It’s not clear what speeds Starlink will offer to millions of people, compared to the 10,000+ currently being tested in the US, Canada and UK. Depending on the number of people who sign up with SpaceX, future users may have to deal with much slower internet speeds than what is available during this demonstration phase. And even if Starlink and its closest competitors perform as advertised, their viability, let alone profitability, is threatened by many other potential problems. Sharing the radio spectrum and the threat of space debris are a problem.
But with at least three other serious and very expensive contenders on the internet from across the space, including
OneWeb and Telesat – fast, reliable internet with a clear view of the sky from anywhere in the world may soon seem less miraculous than a mobile phone signal. It can’t be much more expensive than that: The current price of Starlink is $499 to start and $99 per month for maintenance.
How the Internet works from space: Earth stations connected to the Internet communicate with satellites using radio signals. In the near future, these satellites will communicate with each other using lasers. The signal is then sent to the house antenna.
Illustration by Mario Zucchi
Internet from space has clear implications for potentially bridging the rural-urban digital divide, not just for Americans, but for the rest of the world as well. It could also encourage new ways of working and living that are not tied to cable and fiber internet connections. And the ability to offer a wider choice of Internet service providers to a large number of households, regardless of their geographic location, could lead to a shift in users, revenues and costs to the detriment of traditional telecommunications companies.
Nick Buraglio lives near Champaign, Illinois. There are many wired and wireless broadband options. Still, as a professional network engineer, he checks out Starlink out of curiosity.
Unlike popular ISPs that take care of the installation, with Starlink you have to do it yourself. But it was incredibly easy… Buraglio. He connected a pizza-sized Starlink antenna to the included router and power supply, and followed it to the Starlink smartphone app. He wanted a clear view of the sky, without overhanging trees, so he decided to install it on a sturdy roof. That, along with installing the antenna cable for data and power to his house, was the hardest part. Still, he says it was no more difficult at the time than installing a TV antenna on the roof.
However, if you want to repeat this experience, you will have to wait in line: The waiting list for Starlink is now a year long.
The user experience of the Starlink beta is delivered by the nearly 1,000 satellites launched by its parent company. That makes SpaceX the owner of about a third of all active satellites in orbit, but that’s just the beginning: Starlink has received approval from the FCC to launch nearly 12,000 satellites.
Many satellites are needed because each one flies very fast and relatively close to the Earth’s surface, up to about 1,200 miles, in what is called low Earth orbit. The advantage of this orbit is that signals can move quickly from Earth to the satellite and back again, allowing Starlink to offer a low-latency service, i.e. the time it takes for a signal to travel to and from the satellite. The McOmies say they can use their Starlink service to simultaneously destroy enemies in the challenging and fast-paced online first-person shooter Apex Legends.
Conventional communications and Earth observation satellites are generally located much farther from Earth, in what is known as geosynchronous orbit, about 22,000 miles above the equator. This allows them to cover many more parts of the planet at once, but the propagation time of the signal is so long that applications such as Internet telephony, video chat, and most types of games are virtually impossible.
One of the competitors in the race to bring the internet from space is British company OneWeb, which was founded in 2012 and went bankrupt in 2020. It was recently relaunched by a consortium of the UK government and Bharti Global. It has already launched 110 of the planned 648 satellites.
Roskosmos and the Vostochny Space Centre, CENK
OneWeb, a British company founded in 2012 that went bankrupt in 2020, was recently revived by a consortium of the British government and Bharti Global. The company has already launched 110 of the planned 648 satellites. The idea is that 588 is active at all times, he said.
The head of government of OneWeb. He expects the company’s network to provide internet coverage in northern latitudes by the end of the year and full global coverage next year.
Another competitor is the Canadian satellite company Telesat. Unlike others, it has more than 50 years of experience in satellite operations, the CEO said.
Telesat doesn’t want to give everyone an antenna like Starlink and OneWeb do. Instead, it will provide connectivity to ground stations owned by telecommunications companies, which will then connect to end users in the traditional way, such as through cellular networks or long-range Wi-Fi networks. Users no longer have to worry about how to access the Internet, and they can use their phones and other mobile devices instead of specialized equipment.
Telesat will begin launching a new constellation of 298 near-Earth broadband satellites in 2023 and expects to achieve full global coverage by 2024, Goldberg said. One reason the constellation is smaller than its competitors is that each of its satellites is larger and orbiting at a higher (but still lower) altitude, he explains. If the company’s plans go ahead, Telesat satellites will also have high-speed laser links between them, allowing them to relay internet traffic to each other in space before sending it back to Earth closer to its destination. (Starlink is also testing laser communication between its satellites).
View of Telesat’s planned broadband satellite constellation.
Amazon’s Project Cooper, for which the company has been relatively aloof, has announced $10 billion for the launch of a network very similar to Starlink. Although the company has not yet announced its satellite design or launch schedule, it must launch half of its planned network, or about 1,600 satellites, by July 2026 to comply with its FCC license.
In the future, there will be even more potential participants in the race for space networks: China has announced plans to launch its own network of 10,000 NEO satellites, and the EU is also considering such a network. Hardly a month goes by without a new startup announcing an attempt to connect to the Internet of Things, including more than a dozen startups looking to make use of small satellites.
It’s not clear if all of these companies will succeed in launching their networks or if they will survive if they succeed, he says.
Partner at Quilty Analytics, which tracks the space industry from a financial perspective. For example, its own analysis of Starlink’s viability shows that its monetary prospects depend largely on reducing the cost of the complex and expensive ground antennas sent to customers. The initial $499 fee to join Starlink does not cover the $2,000 to $2,500 that Quilty and other analysts estimate as the actual cost of each antenna.
However, in December, the FCC announced its intention to provide $885 million to Starlink under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to connect homes in the United States if the company meets certain conditions.
Countless other headaches await Starlink and its competitors. This includes the rights to use satellites with wireless spectrum to transmit data to Earth. OneWeb, SpaceX and another satellite communications company argue that they should be given priority rights to certain wireless spectrum in the United States. This could mean that satellites from one of these companies – or their future competitors – would have to change their transmissions when they detect possible interference, Bauer said. Guilty.
There’s also the dreaded Kessler syndrome, depicted in the movie Gravity, where flying space debris leads to a runaway space stack. Currently, there are recommendations but few binding rules for the use of LEO.
In anticipation of the space junkocalypse, Brian Jams, a network administrator at the University of Idaho, plans to continue enjoying his Starlink system. At his home near Moscow, Idaho, the satellite connection was 20 times faster than the local ISP, which connected to the Internet via long-distance Wi-Fi.
Jams, who spent 18 years at Hewlett-Packard and 32 years building networks, is looking forward to participating in the Starlink beta. However, he knows that whether such high internet speeds can be maintained will depend on how many satellites Starlink puts in the air and how popular the service becomes.
That’s what happened in the beginning with cable internet, he says, until the whole neighborhood was connected.
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Email Christopher Mims at [email protected].
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frequently asked questions
When can I see Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites?
As with most stargazing activities, your best chance of seeing Starlink is about 30 minutes before sunrise or 30 minutes after sunset. They should look like a string of pearls moving through the night sky.
What is Elon Musk’s advertisement for internet satellites?
Starlink is the Tesla CEO’s project to bring high-speed internet to areas outside of existing coverage through a network of 12,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.
Can we see Elon Musk’s satellites?
The satellites will look like trains of light and can be seen in the sky without binoculars or a telescope. To see them, you need a clear sky and as little light around you as possible. So it’s better not to look at your phone screen too much and turn off all outside lights.
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