Elon Musk and SpaceX are lighting up the internet world with their newest of developments: Starlink. But what is it?
Starlink is the satellite internet service offered by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Using low-earth orbit satellites, Starlink offers many rural internet users their first opportunity ever to get high-speed, low-latency broadband internet. The service is still in beta but is expanding and improving very rapidly.
Elon Musk has brought many tech innovations through Tesla and SpaceX that didn’t directly affect the general population. But the innovations brought through Starlink are at the same time out of this world and touching the average person where they live. Many people living in rural areas have long dealt with a frustrating lack of internet service options, at least not many quality ones, but Elon Musk’s Starlink brings a respectable internet option that can reach even those in remote areas. SpaceX is increasing Starlink’s service at a regular pace and constantly working towards improvements in service, but they are not quite sure when they’ll be ready to exit the beta phase.
Starlink’s origins lie in the founding of SpaceX by tech innovator Elon Musk. Musk wanted to revolutionize the way we use space by cutting costs and bringing new innovations. He founded SpaceX to do just that in 2002.
Under this banner, Musk expanded the mission of SpaceX to start a new satellite internet service in 2020: Starlink. Starlink’s eyes were on the communities of America and the world that are underserved when it comes to internet access. Starlink applied to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in 2020 to receive funding to reach these underserved communities and was awarded $885 million to help toward their goals. This funding comes with a responsibility to reach the 643,000 locations across the United States that Starlink signed up to reach.
Starlink is currently in what the company is calling “Better Than Nothing Beta.” This is because only a fraction of their satellites have been launched, they can only reach a small slice of latitudes in select countries, and their service is currently a little spotty. Many are signing up for this beta service as we speak, and many more are on waiting lists to get their service when it becomes available to them. As the system becomes more fully fleshed-out and the system is tweaked and further built up, the service will become faster and more reliable.
Starlink, like all satellite internet services, works primarily off of satellites and satellite dishes. The satellite dish installed at your home or office will transmit your internet signal into space to be received by a satellite, which will forward the message back down to Starlink’s network operation center, which then forwards the message using ground wires to the website server you are trying to reach. The server’s response is sent back across the same route to your home or office.
The difference with Starlink, though, is that your signal isn’t being sent to a single satellite up in space like many other satellite internet providers. Starlink has a whole constellation of satellites that currently consists of over 1,700 satellites, and they’re swirling around our atmosphere much closer to earth than most other internet satellites. SpaceX has plans of increasing this number to about 42,000!
Because Starlink is only in its beta right now, performance hasn’t been consistent. Speeds have been everywhere from 50 Mbps up to 150 Mbps. As the system is fine-tuned and expanded, these speeds could become much higher.
If you are a cable or fiber internet customer, you may not be very impressed with these numbers. But if you are the target customer, someone living in rural areas with little to no internet access, the possibility of 150 Mbps or higher could be very exciting for you. The fastest satellite internet pre-Starlink is Viasat’s 100 Mbps plan, which isn’t available in all locations. The other major satellite internet competitor, HughesNet, offers nothing faster than 25 Mbps.
While we’re comparing Starlink to other satellite internet providers, it’s important to point out that Starlink currently has no data caps whatsoever, which is a first for satellite internet. It’s hard to predict how data caps or download speeds will react as the service is expanded and they take on more customers, but for now it’s all looking like good news.
Unlike other satellite internet services, Starlink comes with just one plan, and that plan is currently $99 per month. Starlink equipment, including satellite dish, router, mounting tripod, and all necessary installation hardware and wires, costs a one-time fee of $499. However, after the beta phase is over, prices could change.
Because of Starlink’s limited capacity during its beta stage, signups are being limited. Only those living in certain latitudes of certain countries can currently get Starlink internet access. Fortunately, Starlink service is planned to eventually reach every location on earth besides the north and south poles.
To find out if and when Starlink is available in your area, visit the Starlink website and type in your address. If Starlink is not yet offered at your location, an estimated availability date will be displayed and you can go ahead and preorder your service for a $99 fee. This is first-come first-serve so getting on the waiting list earlier means getting the service earlier.
The number of current Starlink customers is 70,000 and growing.
If you currently have a cable or fiber internet plan from a major internet provider, your internet is likely already faster and cheaper than Starlink. But if you live in a remote area without a lot of internet options, Starlink could revolutionize your internet experience. With higher download speeds and lower latency than any other satellite internet provider, SpaceX’s Starlink will be the rural internet solution that everyone wants.
Nothing is certain yet as the number of users is undoubtedly set to multiply. How this will affect performance is yet to be seen. But if speeds continue to be in the 100+ Mbps range, if data continues to be truly unlimited, and if you live in a rural area, then yes, Starlink is probably the internet service you’ve been waiting for.
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