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Pre-IPO Starlink Experiments on Its Customers in 2021

By Rich Smith - Mar 28, 2021 at 6:53AM

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400 Mbps download speeds -- but 20 minute service outages? What's going on with Starlink?

SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet broadband system is a marvel -- and that bodes well for its IPO.

Since launching its first full batch of 60 satellites on May 23, 2019, SpaceX has sent up 21 additional loads of Starlinks. Even after subtracting a few units to make space for rideshare partners, and a few more for decommissioned satellites, there are now more than 1,200 Starlink satellites in orbit around Earth, beaming down Internet service at speeds ranging from 50 to 150 megabits per second, and beaming up $99 service fees from SpaceX's new customers. 

Satellite beaming down a signal to Earth

Image source: Getty Images.

"Better than nothing"

By all accounts those customers are pretty pleased with their Starlink service. Interviewing a few of them last month, Fast Company polled reactions to the service ranging from "definitely acceptable" to "more than satisfied." Another user on Reddit went so far as to call Starlink "life changing." 

Download speeds for Starlink's target market of rural customers are reported to be much better than what users could previously get from local DSL or cell service. Ping times (also known as "lag" or "latency", the time between call and response) are reported to be in the 30-40 millisecond range, versus the 600 ms pings common with satellite internet from geosynchronous orbit. (Starlink's satellites circle in Low Earth Orbit, much closer to the consumer.)

And while SpaceX has warned its early adopter customers that they're trying out a "beta" product, confiding that this early in the game Starlink may only be "better than nothing," and that customers may suffer "brief periods of no connectivity at all," Fast Company reports that Starlink "downtime" has so far averaged only in the 1%-to-2% range.

But change is coming.

Better at some things, and worse at others

As professional Elon Musk-watcher Teslarati.com reported last week, SpaceX has been tweaking the Starlink formula in an attempt to boost speeds past the 150 Mb/s it initially promised -- and toward the 1 or even 10 gigabit-per-second speeds it hopes to achieve. 

Already, reports the site, "beta users across North America have begun to see huge boosts in their peak download and upload speeds," with download speeds approaching 400 Mb/s in some cases -- on par with what fiber optic cable can provide. But these faster speeds come with a cost: more dropped connections.

On Reddit, some Starlink customers are reporting "hundreds" of disconnects with their Starlink service. One user, in particular, noted "56 minutes of downtime in the last 12 hours," or about 8% downtime; another, 25% downtime. Multiple users reported zero internet access for 20 minutes or longer at a stretch. 

What comes next?

So is this it for Starlink? Is it time to declare the service an unreliable failure?

Far from it. Despite the growing pains, Starlink users chiming in on Reddit are by and large taking the hiccups with good humor -- and even encouraging Musk to keep tweaking the service. As one user pointed out: "Beta means testing, testing means screwing with the settings to find optimal parameters. Can't find optimal parameters without finding the below optimal parameters."

And I have to say, this bodes well for Starlink and its upcoming IPO.

I still have reservations about how big Starlink can grow, and how many customers it can take on at the speeds it is promising given the bandwidth constraints of the satellites. But clearly Musk, SpaceX, and Starlink are hard at work optimizing the network to provide the greatest possible speeds to the greatest number of customers.

In fact, in that regard, around the same time reports started coming out about the increase in disconnects (and the increases in speed), SpaceX announced that it was expanding service from Southern England to the rest of the U.K. -- and to Germany and New Zealand's South Island as well. 

With barely 10% of its initially planned 12,000 satellites in orbit so far (and many of those first 1,200 still traveling toward their optimal orbits), and with the constellation growing at a rate of about an additional percent per month, on balance users should expect steady improvement in Starlink's numbers. 

The better Starlink gets, the more users it will attract. The more users it attracts, the more money it will make. And the more money it makes, the sooner we'll be able to invest in the Starlink IPO.

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