SpaceX Starlink Broadband Services in Mid-2020


SpaceX’sStarlink division is on track to offer
satellite-broadband service in the United States in mid-2020, the company’s president
and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said Oct. 22. Getting there will require the company to
launch six to eight batches of satellites, Shotwell told reporters during a media roundtable. SpaceX also has to finish the design and engineering
of the user terminals, which is not a minor challenge, Shotwell acknowledged. SpaceX’s proposed Starlink constellation
of thousands of satellites, which are designed to orbit at low altitudes above the Earth
and beam internet coverage to the surface below. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk posted two tweets that
show he’s testing the broadband service. Elon Musk has a Starlink terminal at his house
and he used it to send a tweet early on Oct. 22. ”Sending this tweet through space via Starlink
satellite,” Elon Musk tweeted to his 29 million followers. Two minutes later, Musk sent a follow-up tweet
that said, “Whoa, it worked!!” In this video Engineering Today will discuss
SpaceX’s plan to provide internet coverage with Starlink constellation as soon as mid-2020. Let’s get started. “Mid-2020” is slightly more specific than
the timing provided in previous SpaceX statements, but we already knew Starlink service was projected
to arrive sometime in 2020. SpaceX previously said it plans to deploy
satellite broadband in the northern United States and Canada as soon as next year. Shotwell said SpaceX will need to complete
six to eight Starlink launches — including the one that already took place in May — to
ensure continuous service in upper and lower latitude bands. “We need 24 launches to get global coverage,”
she said. “Every launch after that gives you more
capacity.” SpaceX launched 60 satellites in May this
year to test the system before preparing for a wider deployment. SpaceX has so far secured licensing from the
Federal Communications Commission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites into orbit and is
seeking permission to launch as many as 30,000 more. The company caused a stir last week when it
submitted another request to an international regulator, the International Telecommunication
Union (ITU), asking for radio frequencies to communicate with an additional 30,000 SpaceXStarlink
satellites. That means the company wants the ability to
launch an estimated 42,000 satellites into orbit to build the world’s largest low-Earth
orbit broadband constellation. “As demand escalates for fast, reliable
internet around the world, especially for those where connectivity is non-existent,
too expensive or unreliable, SpaceX is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total
network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs,”
a SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement in reference to the new ITU filing. But Shotwell said SpaceX is not certain that
will need that many satellites. Far fewer are needed for global coverage but
the company wants extra spacecraft to be able to offer customers customized service options. SpaceXStarlink is a mesh network of satellites
connected to each other by space lasers. “We’ll continue to upgrade the network
until mid to late next year,” said Shotwell. “We’re hoping for 24 launches by the end
of next year.” SpaceX wants to offer Starlink both to home
Internet users and the US government. Shotwell said many of the Starlink features
are being tested by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory under a program called Global Lightning. SpaceX in December 2018 received a $28 million
contract to test over the next three years different ways in which the military might
use Starlink broadband services. So far, SpaceX has demonstrated data throughout
of 610 megabits per second in flight to the cockpit of a U.S. military C-12 twin-engine
turboprop aircraft. SpaceX wants to offer the service to the U.S.
government but is now focused on how it will serve the consumer market. Many of the details of how the service will
be rolled out remain to be worked out, she said. When possible it will be offered directly
to consumers following Musk’s Tesla model for selling cars. It’s possible the service will be offered
directly to customers, while in some countries, the company will be required to partner with
local telecom firms to offer the service. Customers will need to sign up for the service
through a telecom service provider, according to Shotwell. She said Starlink is considered “additive
to our business,” meaning that it will not replace space launch services as SpaceX’s
primary source of revenue. Selling directly to regular consumers will
be a new challenge for the company, requiring new sales, tech support, and product engineering
staff. Shotwell acknowledged that “this is very different
business for SpaceX.” She recognized a lot of this is uncharted
territory for SpaceX. She said “It’s leveraging space technology
but it’s a consumer business.” SpaceX will have to hire a whole new workforce
to deal with sales, tech support and product engineering. User terminals are a major concern. “The more engineering we do on the user
terminal, the less service people we will have to hire,” said Shotwell, Terminals
are one aspect of the Starlink business that the company has to “get right,” she said. When consumers sign up, “they are going
to receive a box from SpaceX” with a user terminal and a cord, said Shotwell. How that gets connected and where the terminals
should be placed in someone’s home? SpaceX is still ironing out the technology
for user terminals. “We still have a lot to do to get that right,”
said Shotwell. “Knowing Elon, he wants everything to be
beautiful. So the user terminal will be beautiful.” Once up and running, satellite internet can
provide access to a much wider range of people than today’s fibre and cable-based networks
can. One of the only disadvantages for widespread
use is latency: satellite systems have a latency of 638 milliseconds, which is roughly 20 times
slower than wired. Data can be downloaded on these high-latency
networks at similar speeds to regular connections, but response times for gaming and other reaction-sensitive
uses could be disappointing. While SpaceX has said it intends to provide
gigabit speeds and latency as low as 25ms, a big unanswered question is how much it will
cost. SpaceX is apparently still trying to figure
that out. The price point is also being studied. Shotwell said millions of people in the U.S.
pay $80 per month to get “crappy service.” She didn’t say whether SpaceXStarlink will
cost more or less than $80 per month but suggested that would be a segment of the public the
company would target as well as rural areas that currently have no connectivity. Outside the United States, SpaceX is working
nation by nation to get authorization to offer the service. “Every country has its own process,” said
Shotwell. The terminals today are being produced at
SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California. But mass manufacturing in the future will
move to a different location Shotwell declined to name. As more Starlink launches are planned, SpaceX
wants to use previously flown Falcon boosters as much as possible, said Shotwell. “I think we’ll manage the fleet how best
we manage the fleet,” she said. “Our intent is to use Starlink to push the
capability of those boosters and see how many missions they can do.” A single Falcon booster was designed for 10
flights. The next SpaceXStarlink mission scheduled
in mid-November will be launched by a booster on its fourth flight. Since SpaceX started returning boosters in
2015, 44 first stages were recovered: 26 at sea and 18 on land. So far 23 of the recovered boosters have flown. SpaceX is racing to get Starlink in operation
as several other companies continue to build competing broadband constellations. Shotwell said there is probably room in the
market for at least two competitors. “If we do well and make money, there will
be competitors.” Satellite internet firm OneWeb and satellite
operator Kepler Communications have work underway on their own constellations and have also
filed against Starlink, claiming that it could cause signal interference at the lower elevation
and potentially even pose a collision risk. When the FCC approved the project, it found
that “the modification proposed by SpaceX does not present significant interference
problems and is in the public interest.” That’s promising. Beaming down internet from satellites sounds
like a terrific idea with a lot of perks, but numerous other companies have run into
problems with similar projects. Facebook’s Project Athena, after failing to
get its drones to work properly, turned to satellites with the aim of launching an internet
constellation by early 2019 which the company hasn’t yet. Similarly, Google is working on Project Loon,
which aims to provide 4G internet (LTE) to remote regions of the world using hot air
balloons. It, too, has run into numerous obstacles,
a major patent lawsuit among them. Amazon, too, has also announced Project Kuiper,
its own project for satellite internet services. There’s reason for SpaceX to hurry, if SpaceX
takes too long, it risks losing customers to rivals that would be more than happy to
fill the gap

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