When COVID-19 ravaged New York City, Mark Lipton fled his apartment for the relative safety of a farm he owns in a remote corner of Western Massachusetts. But Lipton, a professor of management at the Parsons School of Design, couldn’t bring along his big-city broadband service. Instead, he found himself trying to conduct his classes remotely over a sluggish, obsolete DSL connection.
“I freaked out,” Lipton said. “It was just horrible.”
Eventually, Lipton found a solution to his pokey Internet service — 310 miles above in outer space.
That’s where tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has parked hundreds of small communications satellites, to form a network called Starlink that’s designed to deliver fast Internet service to practically any spot on earth.
“This can very much be a game-changer,” said Lipton, who installed Starlink service in February and gets data download speeds of over 100 megabits per second, enough to support multiple high-definition video streams or Zoom video conferences at the same time. “Starlink is made for a place like this.”
At $99 a month for Lipton and other testers of the service, Musk may have found a partial solution to the nation’s long-running problem of patchwork broadband service. Traditional Internet providers have all but given up trying to hard-wire every last address in rural America and other hard-to-reach places, prompting President Biden to pledge $100 billion in federal money to deliver broadband access to every American.
Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, plans to put at least 12,000 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit, creating a giant web of Internet connection points that will encircle the globe at relatively low altitudes, compared to traditional satellites.
For years, HughesNet has offered relatively slow Internet service through a handful of satellites thousands of miles above Earth. By contrast, Starlink is designed to deliver far better performance by blanketing lower space with its satellites, so data have less distance to travel and arrive quicker.
So far, SpaceX has deployed about 1,400 satellites, firing 60 into space with each launch, and is rapidly picking up the pace, with 11 Starlink missions so far in 2021. In addition, SpaceX has asked federal regulators for permission to deploy 30,000 more satellites for better global coverage.
As it builds out the network, SpaceX is running public beta tests of the service in areas of the planet where the satellites pass overhead, including parts of Canada, the northern United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Anybody can sign up to participate in the test program, which SpaceX has code-named “Better Than Nothing.” It’s a candid admission of the company’s target audience: people in remote locations who are desperate for decent broadband.
People like Mark Lipton, who heard about Starlink purely by accident and signed up. Beta testers pay $500 for a satellite dish and modem to connect to the service and then are billed $99 a month for unlimited access. By contrast, HughesNet satellite service comes with a top download speed of just 25 megabits per second and a limit on how much broadband data you get. It’s $60 a month for 10 gigabits or $150 for 50 gigabits.
When he got his hardware in February, Lipton was underwhelmed. “It was a little bumpy,” he said. “When it worked, it was great. But it was not consistently reliable.”
More recently, Starlink has performed more consistently, perhaps because hundreds of additional satellites have been deployed.
Another Starlink user, Andrew Schmitt, also noted the system’s limitations.
“For my purposes it’s fantastic,” said Schmitt, an engineer in Winchester who uses Starlink at his second home in New Hampshire. “The only problem is occasionally you get these micro-drops,” which are sudden, unexpected disconnections from the network.
On the other hand, Paul Singley, a retired machine shop owner from Middleborough, is completely satisfied with the Starlink setup at his beach house in Barnstable.
”The hardest part of the whole thing is to put it up on the roof,” he said.
Singley is getting downloads of over 150 megabits per second and has run ethernet cables to four of his neighbors’ homes to share his broadband with them.
Starlink could potentially be an attractive alternative to stringing costly optical fiber through rural communities with low population densities. Under the Trump administration, SpaceX won $885 million in federal subsidies to deliver broadband and voice telephone service to rural areas of Massachusetts and 34 other states through Starlink.
Tom Wheller, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman, thinks the subsidies to Starlink were a mistake.
“Subsidies exist to incentivize companies to build where they are not operating,” he said.
Since Starlink will operate globally, Wheeler believes it should get no federal subsidies to serve rural areas.
SpaceX declined to comment.
In any case, Wheeler said Starlink is not a viable substitute for fiber for most customers. It can’t match the gigabit-per-second speeds of fiber-to-the-home services such as Verizon Fios. In addition, Starlink is an asymmetrical network, meaning it offers relatively high download speeds but comparatively slow uploads. Fiber networks such as Fios offer gigabit speeds in both directions.
“That’s why fiber is future-proof,” said Wheeler, now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
Starlink is also unlikely to pose much of a competitive threat to traditional broadband providers. It’s more costly than services from Comcast or Verizon. Also, a research report by telecom industry analyst Craig Moffett estimates that when fully deployed, Starlink will have enough capacity to serve only about 800,000 US households, a fraction of the domestic market. One reason, wrote Moffett, is that only about 3 percent of the available satellites will be over US territory at any given time.
Wheeler predicts Starlink’s biggest market will be overseas, delivering broadband to underserved areas of Asia, Africa, and South America. But it won’t have the market to itself. A British company, OneWeb, is building a similar network and has launched 182 small satellites. And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has received federal authorization to put up a satellite system to be called Project Kuiper. China is also getting into the game, with a plan to put 13,000 broadband satellites into orbit.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.