Reduced costs and increased service performance are the drivers for today’s satellite internet systems. Innovation in the U.S. manufacturing and launch industries is making this possible. There is a stark difference when comparing Iridium of the 1990s to today’s Starlink. The setup cost for Iridium’s original 77 satellites, which began launching in 1997, was about US$5 billion. Starlink’s first 77 satellites deployed at a cost of around $75 million. Today, Starlink is being deployed at approximately $800,000 per satellite compared to the early 2000s, when it costs Iridium $65 million per satellite.
Subscribers stand to benefit from the vast cost reductions SpaceX has implemented across the board, but SpaceX is not alone in the pursuit to increase global broadband access on a massive scale. Amazon’s Kuiper is in development, and OneWeb is coming back from bankruptcy. A Chinese company, identified only as “GW” (most likely, China Great Wall Industry Corporation -CGWIC), in recent 2020 filings with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is requesting spectrum access for 12,992 satellites that will be spread across two separate LEO constellations, GW-A59 and GW-2.
Currently, most broadband services operate from geostationary orbit (GEO). The higher GEO altitude provides for a greater service footprint—the geography a satellite can cover—meaning fewer satellites are needed to provide global coverage. As companies innovate and reduce launch costs and ramp up mass satellite production, however, new low Earth internet companies are planning constellations with thousands of satellites to support uninterrupted global connectivity, and they are doing so with dramatic results.
End user costs and latency speeds are primary factors subscribers will consider when determining which internet provider they will choose. Today, Viasat, operating in GEO, costs around $170 per month depending on the services. Starlink in LEO will cost a flat rate $99 per month, plus $499 for a satellite dish, mounting tripod, and a router. SpaceX has stated it hopes to half that with a $40 per month rate. International companies such as GW in China have yet to publish pricing information for their “in-development” systems. But with half the world’s population, China has a much larger initial starting market with which to offer services.
Latency, or the amount of delay that occurs in a round-trip data transmission, is the primary difference between orbital distances. And now, companies are beginning to compete globally for the broadband end user. Combine those efforts with the rapidly progressing technology of optical inter-satellite links (OISL’s), which use laser light to move information, and latency speeds will diminish dramatically.
Higher Earth orbits will have a longer latency, which is measured in milliseconds. For example, GEO satellites, located about 35,000 kilometers or 22,000 miles from the Earth’s surface, have latency times of around 240 ms. SpaceX is reporting its Starlink internet system, which operate in LEO at a distance between 210 to 750 miles from the Earth, has achieved 20 ms latency speeds. These tests were conducted when Starlink had only 500 operational satellites in orbit, almost 400 fewer than it has in orbit today. According to Speedtest.net, the average latency for fixed broadband in the U.S. is 25 ms and the rate on mobile networks is 48 ms. Starlink recently achieved a 18-19 ms latency but is reporting their initial service package will include latency speeds as low as 20 ms – 40 ms.
Over the next few years satellite broadband end user services will dramatically change the way digital communication will be accessed by both individual users, and business and governments alike. The incredible velocity of broadband technological innovation, driven by private companies looking to reduce cost and improve functionality, is producing change at an unprecedented rate. Recent studies 1 conducted on the total internet users around the world reported, of the 7.79 billion people on the planet, only 4.57 billion have access to internet services, leaving 3.22 billion without. In the very near future, this burgeoning industry will bring affordability to worldwide communications at a whole new speed.
Update as of November 5, 2020:
Last month marked the beginning of SpaceX’s public “Better Than Nothing Beta” beta testing. With over 900 satellites in operation, testers in the northern U.S. are already reporting remarkably high download speeds, reaching Starlink’s highest yet, 205 Mbps. Speeds are reportedly averaging much higher than expected at over 150 Mbps for most users. Beta testing in a U.S. national forest, where little to no cell coverage exists, was successful after one tester used the Starlink dish to make video calls and conduct other various tests.
Latency speeds are reported within the expected range originally suggested by SpaceX, around 30 ms – 35 ms. Musk told reporters that Starlink is set to begin trials in Canada without increasing cost to the Canadian subscriber.
Nine hundred satellites may seem like more than enough coverage to offer completely uninterrupted streaming uploads and downloads. Yet, Starlink beta testers are still experiencing some of the downsides. Uploads speeds are still relatively low in some cases, reporting to be between 33Mbps to 15Mbps. Along with the slow upload speeds, some testers have noted, disruptions to their internet connections are frequent but resolve themselves rather quickly after that.
Users can expect uninterrupted connectivity and faster upload speeds as Starlink expands its network to include thousands of operational satellites in 2021. SpaceX’s current Starlink challenges remain terrestrial. According to Elon Musk, to reduce the $499 package (not including $99 monthly service), including a wifi router, a tripod, and the terminal necessary for receiving the signals beaming down from Starlink, SpaceX will have to solve some very technical challenges.