Starlink beta test reaches 500,000 signups in race for satellite space
The Starlink beta test seeks to address the rural-urban digital divide by delivering high-speed internet to more remote locations where terrestrial infrastructure is still in the process of expanding. Since pre-orders of its Better Than Nothing beta test released in February, the service has since deployed to over 10,000 subscribers. Prospective customers have now turned in half a million orders and deposits. As the company garners more and more attention, Starlink is paving the way for new networking capabilities reaching further than ever.
Can the Starlink beta test support 500,000 subscribers?
According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, supplying service won’t become a challenge until Starlink receives demand from several million users. He expects all of the initial 500,000 signups thus far will be fulfilled without issue, with the only specified exception being users in densely populated, urban areas.
SpaceX made their plans for further infrastructure expansion clear after striking a deal with Google to place ground stations within their data center properties and utilize Google Cloud's private network. With recent approvals from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), SpaceX satellites will also be allowed to move nearly 50% closer to the Earth, which could positively impact performance and latency.
While Starlink has now deployed over 1,500 Starlink satellites using its reoccurring 60-satellite launch schedule, Musk also plans to broaden the internet service to include access for ships, planes, trucks and RVs. The application for ESIMs (Earth Stations in Motion) is currently under review by the FCC, and approval would allow for internet connection via Starlink without restriction to a designated home. According to the application, the hardware proposed for vehicles and aircraft is electrically identical to current Starlink home hardware but includes different mountings that require qualified installers to attach.
As the infrastructure expands and more ground stations are established, prospective Starlink customers can expect more reliability from the provider. A map of SpaceX ground station coverage can be found here. If all goes to plan, Elon Musk states that we can expect to be out of beta testing by Summer 2021.
The clamor for LEO (low Earth orbit) satellites earns Starlink new global competition
While traditional satellite networking involves sending large satellites into orbit roughly 22,000 miles from Earth for wider coverage, but ultimately slower connectivity, a new satellite topology has penetrated the market within recent years.
Low Earth orbit satellites are placed less than 1,200 miles away from the Earth’s surface for a dramatic decrease in latency, making users’ connections much more usable for real-time network activities. However, each satellite has a far smaller area of coverage, meaning companies must compensate by establishing a much larger number of satellites. Proper placement of these satellites and requests for satellite launches must be approved by the FCC.
SpaceX isn't the only emerging LEO satellite internet provider; there are a variety of companies competing for galactic real estate. Some companies, however, have not yet been fully realized, and Starlink is currently the most popular LEO ISP for home consumers. Moreover, it has an incredible advantage to most other companies in that its reusable rockets can expand infrastructure at a much faster rate.
Amidst the race to get as many satellites into the atmosphere as possible, competitors to Starlink are taking notice of its progress and seek to expand their own infrastructures as well. Companies in China plan on launching almost 13,000 satellites at a similar distance from Earth in what's called the Guowang satellite internet project. Amazon has also been working to create their own constellation known as the Kuiper Project in which it invested $10 billion last year. They plan to eventually reach 3,326 satellites to provide global internet access, and the FCC requires that Amazon deploy 1,600 of those satellites by July 2026.
Despite criticism and pushback from companies like Amazon, SpaceX has recently been granted its request to the FCC to allow its next 2,814 satellites closer to Earth than its previous satellites. Amazon, Viasat, and other companies have been concerned that such an allowance would cause safety issues and interference with the Kuiper satellite system. Although Amazon is expected to have far less satellites in its constellation than companies like SpaceX and OneWeb, their constellation runs at 630km and below, above SpaceX's approved range of 570km.
What do Starlink subscribers think?
According to their website, Starlink boasts varying speeds between 50-150Mbps, and SpaceX fanatics report that those metrics are fairly accurate so far. Speeds and reliability are only expected to increase, and customers seem to be thrilled with the service as a whole. They exclaim that they’re reaching new speeds previously believed unattainable.
"When we heard about Starlink, my husband and I were over the moon and waited with bated breath for our invite to the Beta service. Now that we are set up, we are in awe of the power in your service. We have had streaming speeds up to 154Mbps! Thank you for changing our lives!"
Customer review from Tanya B. on Starlink.com
However, the service isn't perceived to be perfect by any means. Some users have found frustration in the hardware installation, as it needs a clear view of the sky at all times to function properly. There have also been reports of speed drops in extreme weather. For example, heavy snowfall has been known to cause a user's download speed to drop as low as 20-30Mbps and upload speed to 3Mbps. During a Q&A with SpaceX engineers on Reddit, users were advised to shelter their satellite dish during storms, tornadoes, or other extreme weather if they felt the hardware was at risk.
"Definitely had some higher latency and slower speeds when [snow] was coming down hard, building up on the dish, and winds were blowing, but quickly picked back up as it slowed down."
Starlink user quote from Business Insider
Starlink is making quite the impression on many users, but this doesn't come without proper skepticism. Some users have expressed concerns about privacy, wondering how much data companies like SpaceX are ready to collect about users. When it comes to having a trustworthy connection with subscribers, nothing beats local internet service providers. But in order to compete with the Starlink hype, ISPs will need to layer several retention strategies to delight subscribers and prevent churn. Minim has created a playbook of key strategies ISPs can leverage over services like Starlink, releasing soon.