is a satellite-based internet service and a division of SpaceX. Once the Starlink “constellation” is fully deployed, SpaceX claims that every place on the surface of the earth will have access to high-speed, low latency internet service demanded by today’s real-time applications.
"We’re really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space."
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX
The division began in 2014 and launched its first operational satellites in 2019. Ultimately, Starlink plans to have as many as 42,000 satellites encircling the globe. As of December 2021, there were more than 1,200 satellites
providing internet service in more than 20 countries.
Starlink has the potential to be disruptive to the ISP industry, competing not only with other satellite internet providers such a HughesNet and Viasat, but even less performant wired technologies like DSL.
The Challenge of Satellite Communications is Latency
Starlink’s advantage is its low latency. HughesNet, which controls about 60% of the satellite internet market, flies its satellites in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO), approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. The long distance up to the satellite and back to the ground station introduces latency of between 500 and 800ms just to cover the distance to the satellite. This is acceptable for internet browsing and streaming video, but it is unworkable for WebRTC applications such as gaming and video conferencing.
The impact of such long latency is obvious when watching a news broadcast with a remote reporter. When a reporter is in the field and linked to the studio via satellite, there is a noticeable pause between the time that an anchor asks a question and the reporter answers. That pause is the lag introduced by routing the communication through a satellite in GEO.
Starlink, by comparison, places its satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at 340 to 750 miles above the surface. The shorter distance adds only 10ms of latency, which is a lag easily tolerable by most real-time applications. This could be a game changer for rural residents who don’t have access to wired broadband and provide even more options for home workers
In Space Bandwidth is Also a Limiting Factor
Bandwidth is usually not a problem for wired broadband communications. Zoom video conferencing only requires around 3Mbps for HD video calls. Many interactive competitive games require about the same. For example, Fortnite requires 3Mbps while Call of Duty requires 4Mbps. HughesNet offers 25Mbps and Viasat has plans that go to 100Mbps. While these can’t compete with Gigabit fiber connections, 25Mbps should be adequate for streaming a movie and attending a Zoom meeting at the same time.
The bandwidth problem comes in when users exceed their monthly allotments. If a user exceeds their monthly bandwidth limits, both HughesNet and Viasat drastically throttle the speed, down to as little as 1Mbps for the remainder of the month. That’s not enough for a Zoom call, let alone enough to do anything else at the same time. This throttling happens because HughesNet and Viasat have a limited number of satellites to service all their users. Viasat only has one satellite covering all of its subscribers in the US while HughesNet only has two.
During Starlink’s beta test, they had approximately 70 satellites connected to 50 ground stations to serve the US and that number is projected to increase by tenfold by 2026. By using many smaller satellites, Starlink is able to offer more usable bandwidth to each customer with no usage limits. In addition, Starlink’s flexible constellation can be increased to meet demand as it grows. Speedtest.net reports
that the actual download speed for Starlink is 97.23Mbps compared to 19.73Mbps and 18.13Mbps for HughesNet and Viasat respectively.
How Does Starlink Work?
Starlink is a constellation of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), between 340 and 750 miles above the surface. The satellites connect to a consumer’s home network through a satellite dish, a little smaller than a typical satellite TV dish, and a Starlink modem.
The satellites communicate with the ground using the -Ka and -Ku radio bands
. The shorter frequency -Ka band is faster while -Ku is better at penetrating weather and objects that may obstruct the line of sight between the satellite and the ground. Starlink uses the -Ku band to communicate with user terminals and the faster -Ka band to connect with ground stations.
The satellites communicate with one another via laser. The consumer’s message is passed from satellite to satellite until the message reaches the nearest ground station. The message is then passed to the nearest Starlink Point of Presence (PoP) on the terrestrial internet where it is handled like any other internet traffic.
Starlink has an agreement
to have a ground station and PoP at every Google data center, closely tying Starlink to the terrestrial internet. Laser-equipped satellites can also be used to transmit data over long distances. A laser in the vacuum of space can transmit data up to six times faster than fiber optic cable. Laser-equipped satellites in LEO could substantially outperform undersea fiber optic cable for trans-oceanic communications.
"Laser links in orbit can reduce long-distance latency by as much as 50%, due to higher speed of light in vacuum and shorter path than undersea fiber."
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX
Each satellite in the constellation is about the size of a large dining table—about nine feet long and weighing 560 pounds. The surface of the solar panel is substantially larger than the satellite body at around thirty feet long and nine feet wide. Each satellite is equipped with a Krypton Hall effect thruster
The thruster uses electricity to ionize krypton molecules and then directs a plasma stream using a magnetic field to create thrust. The thruster is used to maintain altitude, maneuver the satellite and deorbit at the end of the satellite’s life. The Hall thruster is so efficient that the satellite’s krypton fuel will last for years. The satellites are launched sixty at a time onboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
How is Starlink Different From Other Satellite Internet Companies?
Starlink has competitors in the consumer satellite internet business. In addition to HughesNet and Viasat, which have been offering satellite-based internet for decades, a new competitor—Project Kuiper
—is trying to catch up with Starlink. Kuiper is an Amazon initiative. It plans to launch two prototype satellites in late 2022. That makes Kuiper more than three years behind Starlink. Kuiper plans to start service once it has launched 578 satellites and to eventually have 3,236 satellites in its constellation.
In November 2021, aerospace giant Boeing entered the satellite internet business
with FCC approval of its 147-satellite constellation offering broadband internet in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Boeing has not released a schedule, but its FCC permit requires the company to launch half of its satellites before 2028. Boeing satellites will operate in the V-Band, which is a higher frequency range than either -Ka or -Ku bands used by Starlink, potentially providing more bandwidth but at the cost of more interference.
What Does This Mean for the Future of the Internet?
LEO satellites, such as Starlink, will revolutionize high-speed internet for those outside of major cities. Where wired broadband internet is not available, consumers’ choices are limited. Currently, the most popular option in the US is HughesNet, which adds nearly a second of lag, far more than most WebRTC applications can tolerate.
Starlink seems likely positioned to avoid a key problem that has plagued early offerings of internet and mobile phone technology. For internet service, DSL was the first broadband infrastructure brought to a wide consumer market. DSL was the leader in an emerging market. As other, faster options started to become available, DSL providers found themselves saddled with an expensive investment in an infrastructure that was difficult to upgrade.
The same thing has happened in successive waves of cell phone technology. Soon after one early adopter invested in 2G, the next provider was offering its customers 3G, then another had 4G.
Starlink satellites have a five-year projected lifespan and the design of new satellites being launched is improved with each successive deployment. This strategy means that by the time Starlink’s next competitor launches its first generation satellite, Starlink will be on its third or fourth generation and the entire fleet will be renewed every five years. That ensures the Starlink service will always run using the latest technology.
Starlink has big ambitions. Its current user contract includes a Mars Provision
. No other internet service provider has a contract clause for Mars.
"For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement."
From Starlink consumer contract, as reported by UniverseToday.com
Starlink fills an important gap in internet service by going were cables cannot and do not exist. It also has a strategy that has brought a solution to market first and could future-proof it against competitors. This all converges with a mass social trend that disperses workers away from centralized offices
and increases the demand for high-speed internet in more and more places. It is an exciting time for the internet and maybe bringing bigger changes than the dot com boom of te early 2000s.
Starlink is Primarily a Last Mile Solution
The primary purpose of Starlink is to link a business or household to the internet via a low orbiting satellite. This is revolutionary technology that will expand high-speed internet to millions of underserved customers all over the world, but it is a last mile solution
. Once the user’s message reaches the ground station, it is still at the mercy of middle mile problems that all public internet users experience—latency, jitter, and packet loss. The public internet just wasn’t designed for today’s real-time applications
such as video conferencing, VoIP, and gaming.
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