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 year).
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.
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.
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, have brought the total number of satellites launched up to nearly 1,300.
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. There’s even a Starlink 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 in the US, Canada, and abroad 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.”
To that end, Musk tweeted in February that he expects the service to double its top speeds to 300Mbps by the end of 2021.
CNET’s John Kim signed up for the service at his home in California and recently began testing it out at a variety of locations. At home, he averaged download speeds around 78Mbps, and latency around 36ms. You can see more of his first impressions in the video posted above, or by clicking here.
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 $500 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.
$99 per month is a lot for an internet connection, especially one that isn’t nearly as fast as a fiber connection, but Musk is betting that the cost will be worth it for people who have thus far lived without access to a reliably fast connection at all.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell recently told a forum on satellite technology that Starlink had no plans to add speed or pricing tiers, with the intention of keeping the service’s pricing as straightforward as possible. Additionally, Shotwell said that she expects the $500 upfront cost of the receiver dish to come down in the coming years.
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.
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