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The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifting off from Kennedy Space Center in May last year.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images
When you think of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, chances are good that you think of his electric car company Tesla or his space-exploration venture SpaceX (to say nothing of his history of stirring up controversy on social media, or smoking weed with Joe Rogan). Maybe you just know him as the second-richest person on Earth (Jeff Bezos retook the top spot earlier this week).
Before long, though, something else might come to mind when you think of Musk: a venture called Starlink that seeks to sell internet connections to almost anyone on the planet by way of a growing network of private satellites orbiting overhead.
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After years of development within SpaceX — and after securing nearly $885.5 million in grant funds from the Federal Communications Commission at the end of 2020 — Starlink’s progress seems to be accelerating in 2021. In January, after about three years’ worth of successful launches, the project surpassed 1,000 satellites delivered into orbit. Earlier in February, Musk’s company disclosed that Starlink now serves more than 10,000 customers. Now, the service is in the process of expanding preorders to even more potential customers, with people currently living without access to high-speed internet as one of the top priorities.
All of that makes Starlink well worth keeping an eye on in 2021. For now, here’s everything you should know about it.
Now playing: Watch this: Starlink space-based internet, explained
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 over 1,000 Starlink satellites into orbit across more than 20 successful launches. In January, for its first Starlink mission of 2021, SpaceX launched 60 satellites into orbit from Kennedy Space Center using the landable, relaunchable Falcon 9 orbital rocket. Subsequent launches, including four more in February — two of which have already been completed successfully — will bring the total number of satellites launched to 1,265.
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’s Starlink hardware includes a satellite dish and router, which you’ll set up at home to receive the signal from space.
“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. Starlink offers an 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 at this point, but the service now boasts more than 10,000 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.”
What does Starlink cost?
Starlink has begun accepting preorders from customers interested in joining the company’s “Better Than Nothing” beta program. 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.
Starlink says that it’s taking orders from customers on a first-come, first-served basis and that some preorders could take as long as six months to fulfill.
Where is Starlink available?
For now, service is limited to the northwest US, adjacent parts of Canada, parts of the UK and select other areas, but the coverage map will grow considerably as more satellites join the constellation. There’s still a ways to go — Starlink will likely need at least 10,000 satellites in orbit before it can claim to cover a majority of the globe (and SpaceX has shown signs that it wants as many as 30,000 satellites in the constellation). Right now, it’s only about 10% of the way there at best, with coverage focused on regions sitting between 45 and 53 degrees North latitude.
Musk has told customers that he expects the service to hit worldwide availability in 2022, but that will be contingent on a steady streak of successful launches.
Why satellites, anyway? Isn’t fiber faster?
Fiber, or internet delivered via ground-laid fiber-optic cable, offers upload and download speeds that are indeed much faster than satellite internet — but, as companies like Google will tell you, there’s nothing fast about deploying the infrastructure necessary to get fiber to people’s homes. That’s not to say that there’s anything simple about shooting satellites into space, but with fewer sharp-elbowed competitors — and with a lot less red tape to cut through — there’s every reason to believe that services like Starlink will reach the bulk of underserved communities long before fiber ever will. Recent FCC filings also suggest that Starlink could ultimately double as a dedicated phone service, too.
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. That’s a mighty advantage in the commercial space race. On top of that, Musk said in 2018 that Starlink will help provide SpaceX with revenue needed to fund the company’s long-held ambition to establish a base on Mars.
If that day arrives, it’s also likely that SpaceX will try to establish a satellite constellation on the red planet, too. That means that Starlink customers are potentially doubling as guinea pigs for the Martian wireless networks of the future.
“If you send a million people to Mars, you better provide some way for them to communicate,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in 2016, speaking about the company’s long-term vision for Starlink. “I don’t think the people who go to Mars are going to be satisfied with some terrible, old-fashioned radios. They’ll want their iPhones or Androids on Mars.”
Starlink’s terms of service includes a Mars clause — users must agree that Mars is a free planet unbound by the authority or sovereignty of any Earth-bound government.
Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET
“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.”
Still, with top speeds currently pegged at 150Mbps, Starlink’s satellite internet won’t be anywhere near the gigabit fiber speeds people on Earth are used to anytime soon — and that’s due to the sheer distance each transmission needs to travel on its round trip from your home to the stratosphere. It’s a factor that also jacks up latency, which is why you’ll often notice awkward lulls in the conversation if you’re talking to someone over a satellite connection.
That said, Starlink promises to improve upon existing expectations for satellite connections by placing satellites into orbit at lower altitudes than before — 60 times closer to the Earth’s surface than traditional satellites, per the company’s claims. This low-earth orbit approach means that there’s less distance for those Starlink signals to travel — and thus, less latency. We’ll let you know how those claims hold up once we’re able to test the Starlink network out for ourselves.
What about bad weather and other obstructions?
That’s definitely one of the downsides to satellite internet. Per Starlink’s FAQ, the receiver is capable of melting snow that lands on it, but it can’t do anything about surrounding snow build-up and other obstructions that might block its line of sight to the satellite.
“We recommend installing Starlink in a location that avoids snow build-up and other obstructions from blocking the field of view,” the FAQ reads. “Heavy rain or wind can also affect your satellite internet connection, potentially leading to slower speeds or a rare outage.”
Are there any other issues with Starlink’s satellites?
There’s plenty of concern about the proliferation of privately owned satellites in space, and controversy in astronomical circles about the impact low-orbiting satellites have on the night sky itself.
This long-exposure image of a distant galaxy group from Arizona’s Lowell Observatory is marred by diagonal lines from light reflecting off Starlink satellites, shortly after their launch in 2019.
Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory
In 2019, shortly after the deployment of Starlink’s first broadband satellites, the International Astronomical Union released an alarm-sounding statement warning of unforeseen consequences for stargazing and for the protection of nocturnal wildlife.
“We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten both,” the statement reads.
Since then, Starlink has begun testing a variety of new designs intended to reduce the brightness and visibility of its satellites. At the start of 2020, the company tested a “DarkSat” satellite that included a special, nonreflective coating. Later, in June of 2020, the company launched a “VisorSat” satellite that features a special sunshade visor. In August, Starlink launched another batch of satellites — this time, all of them were equipped with visors.
“We want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure little kids can look through their telescope,” Shotwell said. “It’s cool for them to see a Starlink. But they should be looking at Saturn, at the moon … and not want to be interrupted.”
“The Starlink teams have worked closely with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the specifics of their observations and engineering changes we can make to reduce satellite brightness,” the company website reads.
OK. 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 profile of Starlink — among other issues, it takes a close look at the project’s goals and challenges, as well as the implications for underserved internet consumers, and for astronomers concerned with light pollution obstructing views in the night sky.
Beyond that, we expect to begin testing Starlink’s network for ourselves at some point later this year. When we know more about how the satellite service stacks up as an internet provider, we’ll tell you all about it.