SpaceX/Starlink

I saw a train of them in the sky in the pre-dawn hours when I was in rural Oregon, a couple of weeks ago.

They looked just like this. I didn’t know what they were at first and was (un?)relieved to find they were of earthly origin.

We did have sucky internet coverage at that rural vacation house, but we expected it due to its location. Maybe by the next time we stay there, this will have improved due to hordes of Starlink satellites.

Neat! Despite a few tries, I still haven’t spotted a train of them myself. Too much light pollution, too much clutter near the horizon.

The Starlink beta actually just opened to the public:

As the title says, it’s $500 for the dish and $99/mo. Initial speeds are 50-150 Mbps and latencies are 20-40 ms, but they emphasize that this will get better over time. Also, being a beta, there may be service dropouts occasionally. But still, it’s likely a huge improvement for anyone using geostationary satellite internet.

All right. I’ll wait for a bit though. The site says that there could be intermittent outages which won’t work for me (working from home). The say they are to be operational by Summer.

How’s that old curse go? “May you be forced to log into a government remote desktop via a corporate VPN over HughesNet.” Something like that.

Just. Take. My. Money.

(Not an issue in and around DC, but I have some rural haunts as well.)

It’ll be interesting to see the public data on the reliability. SpaceX may simply be downplaying things–people do have very high standards for internet reliability. Or, maybe it does legitimately have frequent outages. A few minutes a week, say, isn’t going to be a huge impact on most home users, but people will complain if that’s not expected.

I’m sure the early adopters are more technically inclined than average and we’ll probably see some nice charts of speed/latency/uptime once they get it set up.

In any case, whatever problems they have now should be solved in less than a year. They have >800 satellites up there now and will nearly hit 1000 by the end of the year. They’re moving at a very rapid pace.

Gwynne Shotwell (president of SpaceX) recently spoke at a panel discussion and talked about Starlink (also, CNBC article here). There were a few goodies in the talk:

I don’t think we’re going to do tiered pricing to consumers. We’re going to try to keep it as simple as possible and transparent as possible, so right now there are no plans to tier for consumers

Makes sense to me. For now, the ground terminals are pretty expensive and SpaceX is subsidizing them. It wouldn’t make sense to have, say, a $50 tier right now.

Shotwell said SpaceX has “made great progress on reducing the cost” of the Starlink user terminal, which originally were about $3,000 each. She said the terminals now cost less than $1,500, and SpaceX “just rolled out a new version that saved about $200 off the cost.” … While SpaceX is not charging customers for the full price of the terminals so far, Shotwell said the company expects the cost to come down to “the few hundred dollar range within the next year or two.”

$3000 down to $1500 is a pretty good reduction, but obviously still costly. Given that the consumer currently pays $500, there’s a 10-month payback time at the moment.

The terminals are fairly remarkable–they’re a single, giant (~18") circuit board, with hundreds of chips on it. They’ll have their work cut out for them to lower the costs to a few hundred. I’d say it largely depends on them further integrating and cost-lowering the semiconductors. Circuit boards and the rest of the terminal looks to be pretty cheap, but they need either fewer components or cheaper components if they’re even going to break $1000.

Musk’s company plans to expand Starlink beyond homes, asking the Federal Communications Commission to widen its connectivity authorization to “moving vehicles,” so the service could be used with everything from aircraft to ships to large trucks.

People have definitely been waiting for this. In particular, RVers will love a mobile service.

I’m thinking of moving to a rural area that has very crappy internet at the moment. There are a couple of options, but the main one (Shaw) will only give you 5Mb/s download speed, and that is a joke - the actual speed ranges between 0.4 - 1 Mb/s at the most. And drops completely on a regular basis.

A few folks there have been trying out starlink with some good success. Great speeds, and only a few times when satellites drop; still not good for longer zoom calls, but more satellites should fix this.

So, too, will the growing community of globe trotting livestreamers.

Normally satellite links for TV are the preserve of large news organisations that can afford electronic news gathering equipment for their intrepid foreign correspondents. I wonder if this will be good enough to replace all that?

There are likely to be an awful lot of ‘use cases’ that will emerge that were completely unexpected.

The rise of social media as a result of the development of smart phones took the telecoms world by surprise. I can see this revolutionising communications in countries where the telecoms infrastructure barely exists. That is a huge, untapped market and it maybe out of the reach of governments to control.

For the individual RV owner in the US dealing with unreliable 4G services…to whole towns or villages in remote parts of the world being able to use it as a shared backhaul to the rest of the world for their $5 phones? There are a couple of billion people who remain unconnected to the world whose lives would be changed by sharing a small part of one link.

It is infrastructure. Making it work at scale is the challenge at the moment. A lot of companies have tried and failed.

How it will be used and the opportunities that emerge that ride on the back of it, that is quite another subject.

SpaceX software team did a Reddit AMA last night:

Elon Musk says his Starlink satellite venture could need between $20 billion and $30 billion in investment.

Investment costs before Starlink achieves fully positive cash flow would be between $5 billion and $10 billion, Musk says.

“It’s a lot, basically,” Musk said, according to Reuters, in a video interview from California at the Mobile World Congress, which is the telecom industry’s largest annual gathering.

I guess Elon dropped a zero or two when forecasting his business case.

Stranger

No, it’s always been that much. From May 2018:

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell stated in a TED Talk last month that she expects the constellation to cost at least $10 billion. Therefore, reducing launch costs will be vital.

They’ve reached the “minimum viable constellation” already–i.e., useful service in a useful band of latitudes. Not clear how much it’s cost already, but it’s probably in the few billion range.

But they want something like 42,000 satellites eventually. That’s clearly in the tens-of-billions range, even if they can get the sat+launch prices down to a few hundred thousand each. On the other hand, that can serve a huge market. Time will tell whether they need that big a constellation or whether they’ll saturate the space earlier.

Incidentally, don’t be this guy:

“Sir I stopped you today for that visual obstruction on your hood. Does it not block your view while driving?” CHP of Antelope Valley wrote in a Facebook post about the incident.

CHP added that the motorist replied: “Only when I make right turns.”

Or, indeed, if a market exists that is willing and able to spend $500 on hardware and $100/mo for speeds that barely meet the definition of broadband sufficient to support the operating and replacement costs notwithstanding capital investment and losses that SpaceX is taking on receiving hardware.

Stranger

Thanks to FCC lobbying, the Federal definition of broadband is so weak that Starlink easily meets it (minimum is 25/3, Starlink generally around 100/15 and getting better). Some people have seen >500 Mbps download speeds, though for now these are outliers. The system’s capable of it but it depends on having optimal conditions–whatever those are.

SpaceX’s position has always been that Starlink isn’t for people that hate their cable provider; it’s for people that wish they had a cable provider to hate. It’s a non-trivial number of people, but I’ll agree that the size of the market is yet to be determined.

That said, there are other revenue sources: namely, large vehicles like ships and commercial aircraft; and the military. Maybe also backup service for commercial installations that need high reliability.

It’s a hell of a lot better than what’s currently available at Mom and Dad’s farm for any price. I’m not sure Mom will be willing to spend that much, but not everyone is an 80-year-old farmer.

Incidentally, this article has more details from the same Mobile World Congress talk (which I plan on watching, but so far haven’t been able to find a good source of):

Key bits:

“You can think of Starlink as filling in the gaps between 5G and fiber, and really getting into parts of the world that are hardest to reach … As in, the last “3%, maybe 5%.”
“recently passed the strategically notable number of 69,420 active users.”
“That terminal costs us more than $1,000,” Musk said. “Selling terminals at half-price is not super-compelling at scale.”
Starlink is working on cheaper designs that Musk hopes will bring the cost down to $350 or even $250.
A version 1.5 model will soon add “satellite-to-satellite laser links” to ensure continuous connectivity, addressing another subject of some early complaints;
Musk called a 2.0 satellite design due next year “significantly more capable” without elaborating.
It will have to spend billions more before Starlink can turn cash flow positive … “It’ll be at least $5 billion, and maybe as much as 10,” he said of Starlink’s budget. “It’s quite a lot.”
Starlink will have to spend another $10 or $20 billion later on, Musk added, to stay competitive

And finally, Musk is as clear about the risks as anyone:

“Every other low earth orbit constellation ever done has gone bankrupt,” Musk said early in the half-hour talk, citing such past collapses as Iridium. “Step number one for Starlink is don’t go bankrupt.”

The real problem will likely be all the competition. There’s already a couple-three satellite internet services you can subscribe to, but they mostly use geostationary satellites, which means there’s lots of lag. So those may not be as much competition, but then there’s OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper and I understand there’s a Chinese satellite constellation in the works too. And probably more I don’t know about.

I won’t say that SpaceX can rest easy, but the competition looks pretty weak to me.

  • HughesNet, ViaSat, etc: As you say, lag is the killer. Their bandwidth capacity sucks, too. I can’t see how they compete without dramatically lowering their prices. They’ll probably survive for a while but won’t be able to launch the next gen.

  • OneWeb: The most serious competitor, since they at least have birds flying. But they already went bankrupt once, and got bailed out by the UK government, which seems to have the bizarre idea that they can retrofit a GPS-like positioning system onto the satellites. I can’t see that going anywhere. OneWeb’s launch costs are around 4x what SpaceX pays, so it’s hard to see how they could ever close the price gap.

  • Project Kuiper: Another weak-ass Bezos vanity project? Seems like it so far. Blue Origin is so far behind SpaceX it’s not even funny, despite having more resources. Project Kuiper just signed a launch contract with ULA (since BO’s orbital rockets are nowhere to be seen), which means again they’ll be paying way more than SpaceX for launch. Of course, they haven’t actually launched a single payload so who knows. Did they choose a tortoise as their company mascot as well? Perhaps a slug instead?

  • Chinese constellation: I doubt that SpaceX was ever going to be allowed to offer service in China due to the government’s inability to enforce content filtering. And probably the opposite will be true as well due to anti-China sentiment (with the justification being that they don’t allow our networks either). So no actual competition there.

I’ve got Starlink. I’m going to replace HughesNet with it. There is absolutely no comparison. Much, much faster. And no download limits. I can now join work zoom meetings with video (not sure if that’s a plus or not :wink: )

And now that I can stream over the net (I’m using ChromeCast) I can drop DirecTV to. This is gonna save me money.

The dish is warm, so snow doesn’t stick to it is another plus. Well, at least so far. My neighbor has had his for a few more months than me, and has not had any problems with snow.

Since you came to specifics, we should nevertheless bear in mind that the players in this market much more. They are not publicized like Musk, but the UK has its Skyrora and the US has its Firefly Aerospace. The latter, by the way, plans to work with the Ukrainian Dragonfly Aerospace. But the dispute decide not big brands, and the technical characteristics and cost. If the topic is interesting, then you can analyze it.

Welcome to the SDMB! This thread is about Starlink and similar satellite constellations, but we do have another thread where we talk about many space things, including smallsat launchers. We should probably continue the conversation there if you want some involved discussion.

Overall, although I am a supporter of these small launch companies, and always look forward to their test flights, I don’t see how the market supports more than one or two of them. Among all of them, Rocket Lab is the only one actually making regular flights. Virgin Orbit has made a couple of flights to orbit, but doesn’t yet seem to be a sustainable operation. Astra and Firefly have both recently made test flights which failed to make orbit. That’s ok–space is hard–but the longer it takes, the less likely they are to succeed as a company.

There are many more prospective smallsat launcher companies out there with an even small presence, and it’s hard to keep track of them. I wish them all luck; they’ll need it.