Elon Musk, the 49-year-old tech entrepreneur who founded Tesla and SpaceX, is now trying to bring satellite internet service to rural regions of Spain. His Starlink company, a subsidiary of space division SpaceX, has put a battalion of satellites into low orbit to provide high-speed connections all over the world, but especially in remote areas where broadband has only partial or zero reach.
A beta test of the service is already operational in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, where it is being used by more than 10,000 customers. Now, Starlink is expanding into EU countries, including Spain. There was a flurry of images of perfectly aligned lights parading across the night sky on social media last week as the penultimate of 26 rockets carrying 60 satellites was launched on May 4. The last Starlink launch took place on May 9, according to Space.com.
Starlink has registered two companies with Spain’s securities watchdog, the National Securities Market Commission (CNMC). The first one is the internet service provider, which is headquartered in Ireland; the second one, based in Madrid, focuses on operations, such as frequencies and data switches, according to the regulator. In fact, the Starlink service is already available for booking in Spain at a cost of €499 for the test kit – a 50-centimeter diameter satellite dish, a wi-fi router and cables – plus €60 for shipping. The monthly connection will cost €99. “We have global reach, but we don’t have global connectivity yet,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, during a recent digital forum. “We expect that after about 28 satellite launches we will have continuous coverage around the globe.” The company believes it will have attained this goal by the end of the year.
The first of Starlink’s launches was carried out in 2018. Now, the company has a constellation of 1,400 satellites – a third of all those orbiting Earth. By the middle of this decade it expects this number to rise to around 12,000 and, by 2027, it estimates it will have a total of 42,000. Each of these satellites orbits around 550 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, approximately 60 times closer to us than traditional satellites. Some will be even closer, at about 320 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. “That distance allows you to have better coverage, speed and latency [the delay in processing network data],” says Carlos Miguel Nieto, who teaches telematics engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid.
“Better than Nothing” is the name given to Starlink’s satellite internet service beta program, which is also seeking clients in Latin America, New Zealand, the Philippines, Germany, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands and South Africa. Starlink has also applied for permission to operate in India and Japan. “We’re targeting rural and remote areas where there’s no easy access to fiber or cable,” said Jessie Anderson, a SpaceX engineer, at one of the latest satellite launches.
Starlink is not the only company eyeing this market. The British firm OneWeb is following in Elon Musk’s footsteps. After being bailed out by the British government, it has launched 146 low-orbit satellites of the 650 it plans to launch for a global network. “We want to provide an affordable, fast, high-bandwidth, low-latency communications service,” says a company spokesperson.
OneWeb’s service will be operational towards the end of 2021. The first regions to be covered will be the United Kingdom, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland and Canada. Deployment of its global constellation will be complete by the end of 2022. “The network will have a unique ability to reach previously unconnected regions: rural and remote communities, in the air and at sea,” explains the spokesperson. “In areas where the terrain is challenging and fiber cannot reach or where there are scattered populations, the satellite is an excellent complement.” The firm has so far invested more than $1 billion – around €835 million – of the $2.2 billion set aside to complete the constellation.
The big difference between OneWeb and Starlink lies in the fact that OneWeb will work in collaboration with major internet providers while Musk’s Starlink will have a direct relationship with the user. “We are in active discussions with telecommunications companies in the EU and UK, and will announce further details of collaborations in due course,” says the OneWeb spokesperson.
In this new race to dominate space, no one wants to be left behind. Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos is also planning to enter the market with a pledge to put 3,236 satellites into orbit over the next few years, half of which will be launched before 2026 at a cost of around $10 billion. “Project Kuiper will provide fast, affordable broadband to communities across the world with either a faulty service or no service at all,” says a company source. China also intends to put some 10,000 satellites into low orbit, according to The Wall Street Journal. And the European Union announced in February its intention to jump on the bandwagon, though it does not yet have a roadmap in place. But Starlink is undoubtedly ahead of the game, according to Enrique Dans, professor of innovation and technology at IE Business School. “The project is ambitious,” he says. As is Musk himself.”
Speed and latency
Starlink is promising speeds of between 50 and 150 megabits per second (Mbps) and a latency – the time it takes for a signal to make a round trip – of between 20 and 40 milliseconds (ms) for the beta program. The company’s goal is to ultimately reach 300 Mbps and a latency of less than 20 ms, according to a message from Elon Musk on his Twitter account last February. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Project Kuiper reached speeds of up to 400 Mbps in its first tests. This is faster than what is currently available in most urban areas. “These days 300Mbps is a speed offered by a fiber optic access service in a city,” says Carlos Miguel Nieto, a professor of telematics engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid.
English version by Heather Galloway.