Since the beta rollout of SpaceX’s high-speed satellite internet service known as Starlink began in October of last year, access has expanded to thousands of people globally across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, France, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia. An even broader rollout is expected soon, as the company actively seeks approval to operate in more than a dozen additional countries. We expect this number will continue to grow rapidly as the company scales its network and service capabilities.
Beyond consumer services, Starlink has the ability to create an entirely new market of enterprise services, including high-speed connectivity for airlines, ships, remote facilities, corporate networks and broadcast services. It appears the company is already working toward this goal as outlined in a March 2021 application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeking approval to operate its terminals “in moving vehicles, vessels, and aircraft.”
Why is Starlink different?
Starlink is already the largest satellite constellation ever and continues growing rapidly by leveraging SpaceX’s highly successful and reusable Falcon 9 rocket. Additionally, the constellation orbits at a much lower altitude compared to other satellite internet providers. The closer orbit reduces the total distance that the signal is required to travel, significantly improving internet speed and reducing latency. As a result, Starlink has achieved—even in the early stages of its development—the fastest and lowest latency satellite internet on the market.
Starlink stands apart because SpaceX is the first company to both develop and launch its own satellites. Launching payloads into orbit is not cheap, and satellite manufacturers have historically depended on only a few launch providers to deploy their constellations. NASA’s space shuttle program, during its tenure from 1981 to 2011, had a cost per kilogram of approximately $54,500 to launch to low earth orbit. SpaceX now advertises that same service for roughly $2,719 per kilogram.
Cost has dropped significantly because SpaceX revolutionized the aerospace industry. The company is the first to successfully launch and reuse the first stage of a rocket, the most costly component. It also continues to push the boundaries of reusability; in May of this year, it flew a first-stage rocket for a record 10th time. Additionally, SpaceX is in the late stages of developing and testing its newest rocket, known as Starship, designed to be fully reusable with a goal of achieving a cost per kilogram of $10 to launch to low earth orbit.
A very large satellite constellation is required for Starlink to be a comparable alternative to traditional broadband internet. SpaceX’s achievements in the aerospace industry have lowered the cost to a level that makes Starlink’s development an economically viable solution, a first for a constellation of this size. Starlink provides an affordable option to millions of Americans and people globally who still lack access to high-speed internet.
Rural broadband opportunities
A recent FCC progress report estimated that approximately 19 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband service at the agency’s defined minimum 25 megabit-per-second threshold speeds. Starlink currently advertises beta speeds of 50 to 150 megabits per second with latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds. Numerous Starlink users have already reported peak speeds more than twice that fast. Additionally, SpaceX founder Elon Musk in February stated Starlink internet speeds will double to 300 megabits per second with latency of about 20 milliseconds later this year. The long-term goal, as outlined in this report to the FCC, is to provide speeds up to 10 gigabits per second. That is 400 times faster than minimum broadband threshold speeds as defined by the FCC.
Globally, the opportunity is much larger. There are 4.66 billion active internet users, or 59.5% of the global population. Speeds vary significantly by region, but in most developed nations, broadband access in rural locations is still lacking. Rural broadband infrastructure is expensive and costly to maintain. Starlink’s global constellation provides an alternative—and potentially more economically viable—solution.
Broadband infrastructure is costly. Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan announced a dedicated $100 billion to support the development and rollout of high-speed internet. The administration likened the plan to the 1936 Rural Electrification Act—which set out to provide electricity to every American—given that high-speed internet is as essential today as electricity. However, there are still vast regions of the United States and the rest of the world where connectivity is lacking and likely will be for years to come.
The early promise of Starlink’s rollout shows it may be able to provide an important broadband alternative that allows people to connect remotely anywhere in the world, even while traveling. Depending on the speed of Starlink’s global growth, companies that rely on high-speed connectivity may soon have a faster internet option to optimize their business.