Cell phones in even the most remote areas will soon be able to connect to the internet, using Starlink satellites.
In early 2014, SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Greg Wyler – founder of O3b Networks – were rumored to be working together to build a constellation of over 700 satellites. Called WorldVu, this constellation would be 10x larger than the size of the then largest satellite constellation, operated by Iridium.
These discussions didn’t last long and SpaceX secretly filed an ITU application courtesy of the Norway telecom regulator under the name STEAM. Later renamed Starlink, the mission was to provide high-quality internet bandwidth in the area where a fiber connection is unfeasible. This includes rural and remote areas all over the globe, including oceans, and even in the air for commercial and military customers.
Now, 8 years later, SpaceX and TMobile are promising to provide service in dead zones using the Earth-orbiting satellites, enough for texts and messaging apps to work. T-Mobile’s CEO Mike Sievert stated that operators of messaging apps like WhatsApp or iMessage will need to work with T-Mobile and Starlink for their services to recognize the satellite connection and work with it once it launches.
The move continues an aggressive debut of Starlink's service that has been making headlines around the world due to a rapid launch cadence, interventions in natural disasters, and the technology's critical role on the battlefield in Ukraine. While this article was being edited, SpaceX announced the TMobile deal, launched two Falcon 9 Starlink missions, activated the service in Norway, and announced a deal to provide Starlink on Royal Caribbean cruises.
The buzz might make it seem like Starlink is a new invention but beaming the internet using satellites isn’t a novel idea. Companies like HughesNet, Iridium, and Telesat already have satellites up in space servicing the unserviceable areas, but Starlink is fundamentally different from existing constellations. Traditional companies have just 4-5 huge satellites in geostationary orbit, where each of them services a large area of the globe. Geostationary orbit is a special orbit of Earth above 36,000 kilometers where the satellite’s orbit period is equal to the rotation of Earth, which allows the satellite to appear stationary relative to an observer on Earth.
Satellites in geostationary orbit allow planet-wide coverage with fewer satellites but the connection is usually spotty and the ping is very poor, mostly because of the large distance between the satellite and the receiver.
Starlink is attempting to fix these common issues by launching a large number of satellites—12,000—to Low Earth orbit. This not only significantly reduces the distance that the signal needs to travel from the receiver but also makes it easier to mitigate space debris as satellites in LEO can easily deorbit. Those in geostationary orbit are too far from the Earth to deorbit and have to be placed in a special orbit that lies away from common operational orbits, known as the graveyard orbit.
SpaceX first tested Starlink tech when they launched two identical test satellites named Tintin A and Tintin B in 2018. A year later, the company launched their first batch of 60 satellites. Used only for testing, SpaceX was able to communicate with all 60 but lost contact with 3. By October, Elon publicly tested the network when he sent his first tweet using Starlink.
The launch of the operational satellites began in November 2019. After the company placed sufficient satellites to provide internet in certain parts of the US, it introduced a paid beta service called “Better Than Nothing Beta,” charging $499 for the user terminal with an expected service of 50 to 150 Mbps and latency from 20 to 40ms. By January 2021, the beta service was extended to other countries, starting with the United Kingdom.
Washington is the home of Starlink’s research and development facility and was one of the first states to receive the beta services in the US. As part of that initiative, the Hoh Tribe became one of the first users of SpaceX’s broadband. Located in a remote part of the state, Starlink allowed the tribe of 28 households and 116 people to access a high-speed internet connection.
"It seemed like out of nowhere, SpaceX came up and just catapulted us into the 21st century," said Melvinjohn Ashue, vice chairman of the Hoh Tribe. "Our youth are able to do education online and participate in videos. Telehealth is no longer going to be an issue." At a time when the whole world was reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, reliable access to internet connection couldn’t have come at a better time.
At the same time as schools were being closed due to the COVID outbreak, the Wise County Public Schools in Virginia received Starlink terminals to connect the students with high-speed and low latency broadband. This enabled over 90 Wise County families to have access to online educational resources.
The word from Virginia spread and a similar effort took place in the Appalachian Region in the US as the Appalachian Council for Innovation raised capital through a public-private partnership to connect students in the American Central Appalachian Mountains who were underserved by the terrestrial internet providers.
As the company iteratively improved their services and increased its coverage area with every launch, they prioritized extending the beta service to the emergency responders and areas without internet. In September 2020 as west coast wildfires wrecked numerous rural areas, Starlink helped both locals and emergency workers. One of the towns was Malden in Washington, where Starlink was supporting emergency responders who helped rebuild the scorched town.
The impact was not limited to the US. Starlink partnered with the Brazilian Government to operate satellites in the Amazon rainforest to connect over 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas and monitor the forest. SpaceX’s satellite internet was also introduced in Tonga in February of this year when the teams provided emergency relief during the Hunga Tonga-Hunga eruption and tsunami disaster.
Starlink’s capability to provide internet isn’t limited to the ground. In 209, US Air Force Research Laboratory demonstrated that Starlink was able to clock over 610 Mbits/s of data rate onboard the Beechcraft C-12 Huron flight. They also successfully tested the terminal on a Lockheed AC-130 aircraft. In 2020, the Air Force used Starlink during a live-fire exercise to support their advanced battlefield management systems by connecting it to a variety of aerial and terrestrial assets, including the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.
Starlink became a critical asset in Ukraine as the Russians invaded, demonstrating how satellite internet can be used in a modern conflict. SpaceX was in talks to bring Starlink to Ukraine well before the war to improve connectivity in the vast rural regions, however, the war accelerated the process significantly when the vice prime minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted a request for Starlink terminals and the service to be activated in the country. In around 10 hours, Elon confirmed that the service was active in Ukraine with the first batch of terminals arriving after just 2 days.
We hosted engineer Oleg Kutkov on the Supercluster podcast to share his experience testing Starlink on the ground in Kyiv, Ukraine as the Russians attacked.
SpaceX continued to upgrade its services to better suit the war. A firmware update enabled terminals to be powered by a car’s cigarette lighter. The company also devised a solution to Russian attempts to interfere with the Starlink signals. Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare at the Pentagon, praised the speed with which SpaceX evaded that jamming with a software update. “How they did that was eye-watering to me,” he said at a conference on defence technology, lamenting that US military equipment was not so flexible. “We need to be able to have that agility.”
This speedy, widespread rollout of Starlink had been an unplanned experiment in providing connectivity to people suffering the privations of war or an authoritarian government. According to Fedorov, the fighting in the Chernihiv region northeast of Kyiv destroyed 10 kilometers of cable, however, a local ISP was able to bring all the people in the area online with a single Starlink terminal.
By April, SpaceX sent over 50k terminals to Ukraine to replace the internet services destroyed by Russia. Starlink played a key role in Ukraine’s new artillery fire coordination systems which gave Ukraine a surprising superiority in the initial months of the War. What enabled such reliable and low-latency high-speed service in remote and war-torn areas is the sheer number of Starlink satellites in orbit and SpaceX’s ability to get them to orbit as fast as possible.
As of the publishing of this article, SpaceX has launched over 3162 Starlink satellites to orbit. Out of this, only 2822 of them are operational or slowly raising themselves in the desired orbit. The launch of so many Starlink satellites in such a short amount of time is possible because of SpaceX’s high launch cadence and low turnaround time of its workhorse rocket: The Falcon 9.
On average, SpaceX is launching a Falcon 9 every 6.4 days, most of them being Starlink missions. In the first quarter of this year alone, SpaceX has placed nearly 1.16 tonnes of cargo in orbit, most of them being Starlink satellites.
The company aims to set up the Starlink constellation in two phases. Under phase 1, the satellites will be placed at 4 different altitudes—varying between 540 kilometers to 570 kilometers—with different inclinations to provide worldwide coverage, aiming to complete it by March 2027. The next phase will see Starlink satellites being launched to a lower orbit of around 330 - 340 kilometers, with an estimated time of completion being November 2027.
As of May, SpaceX had over 400,000 Starlink subscribers around the world, according to a company’s presentation which it shared with the FCC. This represents a whopping 100 percent increase from March and a 245 percent increase from the start of this year. This includes both individual consumers and businesses. The monthly cost for the Starlink connection is $110 a month, an increase from $99 due to inflation, however, new customers also have to pay an upfront fee of $599 for the hardware.
Apart from the standard offering, Starlink has also recently begun offering their premium option which costs $500 monthly, plus $2500 for the hardware. The company charges an additional $25 per month for the users who relocate their satellite antenna and an option for RVs, ideal for customers traveling to locations where the connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable, however it is not designed for use while in motion. Supercluster's Chief Photographer Erik Kuna just received a Starlink for his RV that he'll utilize when covering Starship's orbital launch from Texas.
Starlink is also looking to enter the inflight WiFi market and signed deals with Hawaiian Airlines and private jet operator JSX to add Starlink antennas on their aircraft. Pending approval from the FCC, SpaceX expects to begin delivering service to commercial aircraft in about a year.
With such fantastic results and speedy development of the internet constellation, in 2020, the FCC under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, provided SpaceX with over $886 million in subsidies over 10 years to deliver high-quality broadband services to hardest-to-reach rural Americans. However, on August 10, the FCC rescinded the said subsidies, citing the high cost of the terminals and decrease in speeds over the last year. While Ookla speed tests showed a 38 percent increase in the download speeds, the median upload speeds have fallen from 16.29 Mbps to 9.33 Mbps. FCC said that it does not feel confident to fund a still-developing technology, even after the company demonstrated its worth in adverse situations.
So what’s next for Starlink? The company is currently filling in their 2nd shell of the constellation which exists at an altitude of 540 kilometres at a 53.2 degrees inclination. Currently, all Starlink satellites in orbit are either Starlink 1.0 or 1.5, but the company wants to get their next-generation satellites up to orbit as soon as possible. Dubbed Starlink 2.0, these satellites are more capable and are significantly heavier, weighing around 1.25 tonnes, compared to 300 kilograms for the previous generation satellite. The substantial increase in mass makes these satellites hefty for Falcon 9 to launch in large batches. Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have neither the volume nor the mass-to-orbit capability required for Starlink 2.0 satellites and thus the company is banking on Starship to be up and running as soon as possible.
As this superheavy launch vehicle gets to orbit, it won’t be deploying the satellites using a retractable door which we’ve seen in numerous Starship presentations. Engineers have come up with a clever solution to use a narrow slit to allow a satellite at a time to exit the launch vehicle, like a gigantic shiny Pez dispenser.
"Maybe we should make an actual Starship model that dispenses Pez for our merch store,” tweeted Elon when he shared a 2-minute deck from a company’s all-hands update.
Currently, Starship is under development in SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas and is gearing up for its first orbital flight in the next coming months, pending approval from the FAA. The payload for the maiden flight could be the first batch of the Starlink 2.0 satellites which have already been delivered to Starbase.
However, with the looming uncertainty of its Superheavy booster’s testing campaign–which involves multiple static fires of all 33 Raptor v2 engines–let alone its first successful orbital launch, SpaceX has modified their plans to deploy version 2 satellites which now involves the launch downsized v2 satellites on their workhorse launch vehicle Falcon 9 to accelerate deployment of the constellation. This modified version is technically identical to the v2 satellites but the physical structures are tailored to meet the physical dimensions of the Falcon 9.
Utilizing Starship has the potential to drastically reduce the cost of deploying satellites in orbit and might make the service cheaper for consumers, but SpaceX continues to emphasize the need for both launch vehicles to complete the constellation.