By now you've heard the news: Elon Musk is opening up Starlink satellite internet service to "beta" customers.
In an email that apparently went out Monday, SpaceX promised beta users of its Starlink service broadband internet service that will:
- Run from an estimated 50 megabits per second (Mbps) to 150 Mbps (with "brief periods of no connectivity at all"),
- Incur no more than 40 milliseconds latency, and possibly as little as 20 ms (when it works at all),
- Impose no data caps, and
- Cost $499 for hardware (a terminal, antenna, and router), plus $99 per month for service.
Granted, 50 Mbps may not sound very fast, especially at $99 a month, when Comcast will sell you 200 Mbps for less than $50. And the "brief periods of no connectivity" bit does sound disconcerting. But as SpaceX drolly describes its service, even just the beta version of Starlink is "better than nothing." And in time, the company could ramp its speeds to 1 gigabyte per second or better, and potentially charge as little as $80 per month, as SpaceX puts more and more Starlink satellites in orbit.
And speaking of satellites ...
It's probably no coincidence, by the way, that SpaceX chose this week to roll out its beta version of Starlink. In 2017, SpaceX vice president of satellite government affairs Patricia Cooper told Congress that SpaceX planned to begin providing commercial satellite internet service once it had at least 800 satellites in orbit, and predicted the company would hit this target "in the 2020, 2021 timeframe."
And right on schedule, on Oct. 24, SpaceX launched its mission "v1.0 L14," carrying its latest batch of 60 first-generation Starlink satellites into orbit. In doing so, SpaceX hit two milestones. First, L14 marked the company's 100th successful rocket launch.
(Our friends at SpaceNews.com have been keeping a tally. SpaceX has launched 95 Falcon 9 rockets successfully so far, as well as three Falcon Heavy rockets, and two of its prototype Falcon 1s. That was the good news. The bad news is that, along the way, the company lost three Falcon 1s while learning the ropes of space launch, had one Falcon 9 blow up in flight, and lost another in an on-ground fueling attempt).
And second, by adding 60 satellites this week to the 750 or so believed to still be operational, SpaceX crossed the threshold for "moderate" internet coverage.
As soon as that happened, the Starlink beta email was sent out.
What comes next
There's still work to be done. SpaceX's plans for "initial deployment" of Starlink actually envision a total of 1,500 or so operational satellites to approach full coverage of the globe, reports NASASpaceflight.com. Ultimately, the company wants to get 12,000 satellites in orbit -- and perhaps as many as 42,000!
SpaceX will also want to begin putting its beta testers through their paces, generating data on maximum internet download speeds and data "latency" rates to prove to the FCC that it is approaching its 1 Gbps goal and keeping its lag time well below 100 milliseconds. Those are the two key metrics SpaceX needs to satisfy to win part of an estimated $16 billion to $20 billion in FCC funding to subsidize broadband internet service to rural locations in America.
Thus, opening up beta service should serve the twin purposes of (1) beginning to generate revenue to fund the construction and launch of even more Starlink satellites, and (2) improving SpaceX's chances of winning the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund competition.
But SpaceX's ultimate ambitions are even bigger. As Starlink rolls out and expands across the U.S. and around the globe (permits to operate Starlink "ground stations" have already been filed in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and France), SpaceX is targeting what it believes to be a huge growth market worth as much as $30 billion in annual revenue -- and operating profit margins as big as 60%.
It all begins with a beta test, though -- and now, that beta test has begun!