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Fast, affordable internet from the sky is almost here

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Today, if you want fast internet, your choices are, well, your cable provider, and that’s about it. Things are about to change. SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said she’s sure SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service can start offering broadband service in the US by mid-2020. 

To get there, Shotwell said in a Washington DC meeting, SpaceX will need to make six to eight more successful Starlink launches. Each Starlink launch puts up 60 small satellites. These launches will put up enough satellites to deliver service to customers in the continental US. According to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX needs about 400 Starlink satellites to provide “minor” coverage and 800 for “moderate” coverage. For global coverage, 24 more launches will be needed. When all is said and done, the Starlink constellation of satellites may have as many as 30,000 satellites.

Even with less than a hundred satellites, Starlink is working today. On Oct. 22, Musk recently made the first tweet over the low-earth orbit (LEO) network: “Sending this tweet through space via Starlink satellite” and the reply, “Whoa it worked!!” Less dramatically, but a better proof point to the network’s utility, SpaceX and US Air Force Research Laboratory have been able to deliver a 610Mbps connection to the cockpit of an inflight US military C-12 twin-engine turboprop aircraft.

For Earth-bound users, SpaceX predicts, “Once fully optimized through the Final Deployment, the system will be able to provide high bandwidth (up to 1Gbps per user), low-latency broadband services for consumers and businesses in the US and globally.” 

It’s the low-latency, thanks to its LEO, that may make Starlink a winner. Satellite internet isn’t new: HughesNet has been delivering the internet from space since the 90s. But Satellite internet’s perpetual problem has been its awful latency — the time between when you start an activity over the internet and when you get a response back. Good Earth-bound broadband gives you latency of about 8ms to 20ms. Traditional satellite internet, due to the distance of its geosynchronous satellites, sticks with you with a latency of over 600ms. That makes it effectively impossible, for example, to do video-conferencing or gaming over it. SpaceX’s VP of satellite government affairs, Patricia Cooper, promises that StarLink will have latencies as low as 25ms. That will make it far more useful.

Shotwell said consumers will receive a user terminal. We don’t know if this will act as a standalone device or act as a cable modem/router. “We still have a lot to do to get that right,” Shotwell admitted. She added, “Knowing Elon, he wants everything to be beautiful. So the user terminal will be beautiful.”

It appears that Starlink will cost approximately $80 per month, but there’s no clear price guidance yet. 

It all goes well, we’ll find out by summer 2020 when Starlink is expected to make the jump from science-fiction to technology fact.

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