Elon Musk's Innovative Starlink: Cost, Alternatives, Is It Worth It?
While not the most famous of Elon Musk's projects, Starlink has made headlines recently as its beta test attracted over 10,000 users. With rumours that it could soon be traded publicly and that it will expand its service to cover the globe, what is Starlink, how much does it cost, and where can you get it?
We've condensed all you need to know about Starlink into one place.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a company renowned for its reusable and revolutionary aerospace technologies, which aims to provide global high-speed, low-latency (quick data transfer), broadband to the globe.
Rather than relying on conventional ground-based broadband through cables and fibre optics, Starlink is employing a satellite constellation; an interconnected network of satellites which can provide coverage to the entire planet.
With its first satellites launched in May 2019, the network has rapidly expanded with over 1,000 now in orbit. A recent beta scheme, which opened in October 2020, has already seen 10,000 customers sign up to the service in just four months.
In terms of scale, it is unprecedented, with Elon Musk estimating that it will operate the majority of the world’s satellites within a year. Starlink alone will increase the number of artificial satellites by 15x the current level.
Benefits of Starlink
Estimates suggest that Starlink may offer 1Gb/s download speeds once the system is fully operational, far exceeding the beta’s speeds of 50-150Mb/s. Even at the lowest speeds, Starlink's beta is still able to provide 10x the minimum requirements for HD streaming.
Starlink’s satellites will be in low Earth orbit, just 550km above the Earth’s surface, 60x lower than existing networks, greatly reducing the distance signals need to travel. A lower orbit ensures drastically lower latency (the time it takes for a signal to be sent and received), with Starlink expecting just 20-40ms of latency, compared to the 600ms of traditional satellites. Low latency brings with it the ability for video calls and online gaming for those in areas without reliable internet.
Starlink has the potential to bring broadband to billions, as it doesn’t rely on ground infrastructure Starlink can bypass geographic and economic boundaries which typically constrain the expansion of broadband. The network will have a potential customer base spanning not only the developing world but also the developed world, as many in rural regions still struggle with poor quality internet connections. Broad swathes of the United States only have access to speeds of 3Mb/s a figure dwarfed by Starlink’s beta test which saw speeds between 50-150Mb/s.
Starlink has applications far beyond home use, potentially providing reliable broadband for ships, aeroplanes, and even Arctic research stations. It has the potential to make the World Wide Web truly worldwide.
Starlink has already received approval for operations in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Greece and Australia, paving the way for greater expansion.
Criticisms of Starlink
Starlink cannot compete with fibre optic or cable broadband connections, both of which typically provide far higher upload and download speeds as well as lower latencies. If you already have high-speed broadband it is unlikely that you would see any benefit from switching to Starlink. The service is primarily targeted at those with either poor or no internet connection.
With increasing satellite numbers come fears that crashes will become a greater risk. With a potential fleet of 42,000 satellites, increasing overall numbers by 15x, Starlink could pose a threat to existing and future orbital projects. The European Space Agency reported in September 2019 that it had performed evasive manoeuvres, for the first time, to avoid a Starlink satellite. However, SpaceX has sought to relieve fears by incorporating an automatic avoidance system using data provided by NORAD, to prevent any further incidents.
Alongside traffic, debris left by damaged or retired satellites, poses an increasing threat to orbital safety. The emergence of ‘space junk’ has the potential to obliterate the world's orbital capabilities through exponential chain reactions. SpaceX promises that Starlink’s low orbiting altitude will prevent debris, as 95% of the satellite is designed to burn up in the atmosphere once decommissioned. SpaceX has also made it clear that future Starlink satellites will burn up completely.
Brightening the Night Sky
Astronomers are particularly concerned that the scale and low orbit of the project will fill the night sky with reflections, ruining stargazing conditions. SpaceX has responded to this criticism, seeking ways to reduce the visibility of their satellites, such as an experimental system called DarkSat, which involved blackening as much of the satellite's reflective surfaces as possible. While DarkSat did result in a 55% reduction in visibility it has proved unsustainable due to conduction problems. Future Starlink designs are set to feature visors, limiting the amount of reflected light.
When can I get Starlink?
Four months after the beta began, Starlink has opened it up to the broader public.
You can now pre-order for early access on Starlink’s website, however, it is important to note that it is currently only available for US, UK, and Canadian residents.
There is also an estimated 2-4 week delivery delay due to high demand.
What's included in Starlink?
- The Starlink itself (a device very similar to a satellite dish)
- A Wi-Fi router
- A power supply
- Additional cabling
- A mounting tripod (for ground-level installation).
It is important to be aware that the satellite dish requires a 100° field of view so that it can maintain a reliable connection. As a result, it may be unsuitable for people living in heavily forested areas, or those living near tall buildings.
It is always recommended to mount the dish on a rooftop rather than at ground-level.
However, SpaceX has made it clear that the required field of view will decrease as more satellites are added to the network.
It is also possible to calculate your field of view using the Starlink app and should you find your connection unstable you are eligible for a full refund within 30 days of delivery.
How Much Does Starlink Cost?
At present, the cost is $499 for the equipment, plus $99 per month for access to the network.
- Equipment: $499
- Network Access: $99 / month
However, Elon Musk has announced that prices will reduce in the future as the network expands. There are also expectations that the costs for those living in less developed and more remote areas will be significantly reduced.
Furthermore, competition with alternate services, such as OneWeb, may drive down future prices for users.
"Fantastic system/service. Finally able to use the Internet like a regular person. (They) won't update 50 year old copper lines in my state. This is a life saver" - Jody M, Wisconsin
"Now that we are set up, we are in awe of the power of your service." - Tanya B, Washington
"Starlink continues to exceed my expectations in every way" - Daniel S, Washington
Alternatives to Starlink
Starlink is by no means the first satellite-based internet service and is set to directly compete with several other companies.
Hughes Network Systems
Currently the most popular satellite internet provider in the US, HughesNet has over 1 million customers. The company operates a fleet of satellites at an altitude of 35,000km and offers download speeds of 25Mb/s and uploads of 3Mb/s. This is notably slower than Starlink’s beta speeds.
While HughesNet emphasises that it has no hard data limits; however, once you exceed your data plan, you will be capped at speeds of 1-3Mb/s. Starlink by comparison has no caps of any kind.
However, it is latency where Starlink comes into its own, due to its low Earth orbit. A study undertaken by PCMag found that Starlink’s latency was roughly 17x less than that of HughesNet.
However, HughesNet is significantly cheaper. The 20GB plan costs $69.99 per month, $30 cheaper than Starlink’s service.
British based OneWeb is one of few services also planning a low Earth orbit satellite constellation. Despite bankruptcy in March 2020, OneWeb secured funding from the British government and Bharti Global, amounting to $1bn, in November.
With plans to launch 648 satellites in their first phase, the company hopes to offer coverage to 95% of the globe. However, with an orbital altitude of 1,200km, the latency of their service is estimated to be roughly 1.5-3x higher than that of Starlink.
OneWeb is currently far behind Starlink, with just 110 satellites in orbit, roughly a tenth of SpaceX’s fleet. Due to their higher orbit, they face a far greater likelihood of adding to the already growing amounts of ‘space junk’ once they have completed their orbital life-spans.
After additional investments, including from HughesNet, OneWeb aims to have the first phase of their network complete by 2022.
While smaller in scale than Starlink, OneWeb represents the potential for direct competition with Starlink, perhaps paving the way for alternate service providers, which may help to drive down costs for users.
Can I Invest in Starlink?
As a project of SpaceX, which is not publicly traded, it is not currently possible to invest.
However, both Elon Musk and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell have made clear overtures that they plan to separate Starlink so that it can be traded. On 9th February 2021, Musk tweeted that:
“once we can predict cash flow reasonably well, Starlink will IPO [Initial Public Offering]”
The Wall Street Journal also revealed internal financial documents from SpaceX in 2017 which suggested that the company was expecting $30bn in revenue from Starlink by 2025.
Is Starlink really worth it?
Despite competition and technical challenges, Starlink appears to be poised to provide a revolutionary global service, offering high-speed broadband across the globe. The use of SpaceX’s reusable rockets is seeing 60 satellites put into orbit per mission, rapidly expanding the network’s size and capabilities.
The growth potential is huge, provided SpaceX successfully manages to scale up the network and reduce prices.
However, it is important to note that Starlink is not intended to replace existing ADSL, Fibre Optic, or Cable services, as it simply cannot compete in terms of speed or latency.
Instead, Starlink is aimed at connecting those without access to these services, a potential game-changer for remote areas and the developing world.