I have a chance to find out.
Starlink is satellite internet access from SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s other companies. If it lives up to its hype, it will cure the problem of broadband availability in rural areas although affordability will still be an issue.
Most satellite-based Internet access sucks (that’s a technical term). If based on geostationary satellites (ones you can point a dish at), the distance to the satellite is so great that the round-trip time for data is forever; this problem is called latency. High latency doesn’t matter much if you’re uploading or downloading files; it’s incredibly annoying if you’re web surfing; and pretty much unusable for VoIP and especially for Skyping and Zooming. Technical details at Satellite Broadband Access – OK If You Have To.
Services like Iridium use LEOS (Low Earth Orbit Satellites) so they don’t have a latency problem; but, for technical reasons they have speeds that you thought you left behind when you stopped doing dialup – and they’re very expensive to boot. Way better than nothing if you’re in the middle of the ocean and need to see a weather forecast or send an SOS but not a reasonable alternative for home or office use.
Starlink also uses LEOS but has much, much greater bandwidth than any other low-orbit service, at least in part because SpaceX has used its rockets to launch swarms of tiny satellites. And, according to an email I just got today (an Inauguration Day present?), Starlink is now available in limited supply in my service area (North Central Vermont).
“During beta users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be 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. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.”
A latency of 40ms is acceptable for almost all uses except very high-speed gaming and stock trading. 16-19ms (milliseconds) is what you’d expect from cable.
The speed is considerably less than the GB/s service advertised by some fiber providers. Most of us don’t need anywhere near that speed today. But uses will be found for it (3D conferencing with avatars?) because it exists. Remains to be seen if Starlink can scale to these speeds,
Reliability should be better than cable or even service from a wireless ISP. So long as you have electricity from some source, you’re not going to lose your Internet access because of a storm or other local emergency.
So what’s the rub? Price, at least for now
To take part in the Beta, I had to buy a $499 dish and other equipment (actually $581.94 with tax and shipping) and agree to pay $99/month plus taxes for service. However, that’s less than the price of most smartphones and not much more than cellphone monthly charges. There is no contract and there is 30-day nofault money back guarantee on the equipment. I expect there will be higher and lower prices available for different tiers of service and that competition will bring the equipment cost down. Richard Branson is also launching tiny satellites although has no service based on them yet
If this all works and service is available nationwide, there should be no reason why any child in rural areas can’t go to school online or why any of us can’t benefit from telemedicine. Affordability is a problem we can afford to fix – not by subsidizing SpaceX and eventual competitors but with direct aid to low income households. Many users will have offsetting savings from canceling their old-fashioned phone service and from cancelling satellite TV since streaming video will rock at these speeds.
Rural economies are already benefitting from urban-flight – at least those rural areas which have decent broadband. The cost of this service is miniscule if you’re already buying a house in Vermont to work from. If you’re an early adopter moving to a rural area, you’ll save lots of money overall because houses are cheaper where there is no good broadband today. Welcome to Vermont!
If Spacelink pans out (and it’s still an if), it will be a greater contribution to the common good than Teslas. I’ll let you know how the Beta goes.
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