Elon Musk Wants to Offer Wi-Fi, Anywhere

By Elijah Labby Saturday, October 10, 2020

In what may come to be considered his most ambitious project to date, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX is attempting to roll out low-orbiting satellites that have the potential to offer high speed Wi-Fi to anyone on the planet.

The project, dubbed Starlink, has already deployed over 700 satellites, and wants to send as many as 42 thousand into orbit. Starlink planned to launch 60 more satellites last week, but had to postpone to October 6 due to weather. Currently, the service covers regions of the northwestern United States, including Washington.

Numerous users, including Richard Hall of the Washington State Military Department’s IT division, report drastically increased internet speeds with Starlink. Such speeds may spell trouble for traditional broadband internet companies, whom Hall says are significantly slower.

“I have never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable,” he said. “...Starlink easily doubles the bandwidth… I’ve seen lower than 30 millisecond latency consistently.”

However, Starlink originally drew criticism from astronomers when they noted that the satellites’ brightness could interfere with stellar observation. A report published in August by researchers at Satellite Constellation 1 (SatCon1) warned that, if the tens of thousands of satellites are deployed, “nighttime images without the passage of a Sun-illuminated satellite will no longer be the norm.”

In response, Musk assured astronomers that the orientation of the satellites would be tweaked and that new satellites would feature a sun visor to decrease glare. Despite this, responses have been mixed, with some astronomers grateful for the changes and others claiming observation will be changed irreparably.

“If the 100,000 or more LEOsats proposed by many companies and many governments are deployed,” the report read, “no combination of mitigations can fully avoid the impacts of the satellite trails on the science programs of current and planned ground-based optical-NIR astronomy facilities.”

Starlink’s Financial Future

Despite criticism, the company has had success in its relatively short life. Since its inception in 2015, the company has grown to an estimated valuation of above $30 billion. The company is predicted to earn $10 billion a year by 2025.

Musk has said that Starlink will make an initial public offering several years in the future when the company has steadier revenue, and that retail investors will get first dibs.

“We will probably IPO Starlink, but only several years in the future when revenue growth is smooth & predictable,” Musk tweeted on Monday. “Public market does *not* like erratic cash flow haha. I’m a huge fan of small retail investors. Will make sure they get top priority. You can hold me to it.”

Starlink’s mission has taken on a continued relevance amid the coronavirus, when millions of Americans are working and learning remotely. Despite the virtual ubiquity of Zoom, Google Meet, Blackboard, and other videoconferencing and remote learning technologies, there exists a wide technological gap between connected and unconnected individuals that can make remote work and education difficult.

"Millions of Americans with broadband connections have been able to navigate these difficult times by keeping connected," wrote the wireless communications organization CTIA in a report. "Those without broadband have faced more challenges, and Congress, policymakers and industry can and should do more. That means… ensuring Americans have equitable access to online opportunities."

Starlink’s aim of universal wireless access has the potential to erase the inequities that can accompany traditional broadband providers. In April, SpaceX tweeted that the goal of Starlink is to “deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable.”

But while the Federal Communications Commission has approved the deployment of numerous Starlink satellites, members of the agency are skeptical of Musk’s low-latency claims.

“We are… unaware of any low earth orbit network capable of providing a mass market retail broadband service to residential consumers that could meet the Commission’s 100 ms round-trip latency requirements,” the FCC wrote in a recent report. “...We therefore have serious doubts that any low earth orbit networks will be able to meet the short-form application requirements.”

This disqualification puts Starlink at a disadvantage for the FCC's broadband funding program, making it less likely to receive substantial funding from the agency.

However, SpaceX says that its network “easily clears the commission's 100ms threshold for low-latency services, even including its 'processing time' during unrealistic worst-case situations.”

When available, Musk said that Starlink’s broadband services would be about $80 a month. Currently, users can receive updates from Starlink on beta testing, which could be available as soon as this fall.

About the Author

Headshot of Elijah Labby

Elijah Labby is a graduate of the National Journalism Center. He has previously written for Broadband Breakfast, a technology and internet policy website.

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