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What is Starlink? Elon Musk’s SpaceX internet project, explained

What is Starlink? Elon Musk’s SpaceX internet project, explained

Lighting up our skies for the first time back in April, the revolutionary US-based satellite broadband service Starlink has certainly sped up its launch schedule in 2020, and it’s shaping up to be a convincing contender for connecting our devices once it fully rolls out in the next couple of years.

Owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and operated through his commercial aerospace company SpaceX, the project aims to beam strong broadband connections across the globe using a network of thousands of satellites.

And back down on Earth, the Starlink broadband router (technically a satellite dish) has now been approved by US regulators for consumer use, marking a significant step forward in connecting our homes to the upper atmosphere.

So it’s safe to say Starlink broadband will be a very real option for us quite soon. But how exactly does it work? How fast will it be? And when will we see it in the UK? Read on to find out more…

How does Starlink work?

Satellite broadband as we know it today uses a lot of the same technology you already benefit from on a day-to-day basis, like satellite TV and GPS. However, Starlink instead transmits data through lasers, which are lightspeed, so it’s more-or-less on a par with fibre-optic broadband in terms of how fast the connection is.

space junk satellites

In order to ensure the signal is both robust and broad, a single Starlink satellite will work with four others in its nearby network to provide a reliable connection. This means there needs to be an extensive network of them orbiting the globe in order for the coverage to be truly widespread.

For the first part of the project, this means as many as 12,000 satellites will be launching into Low Earth Orbit over the coming years, but if it sees continued success, this could expand to a total of 42,000.

Numbers like this can appear quite intimidating, especially given that we’re already facing a problem with the amount of space debris currently circling our planet — an issue that could impact future launches and damage working satellites if uncontrolled.

However, SpaceX has remained mindful of this risk (called the ‘Kessler syndrome’), and therefore will launch the majority of its fleet into such a low orbit that by the time they fall out of use, they'll simply be pulled into the atmosphere and completely burned-up, instead of being left to circle the earth as dead equipment for centuries.

How fast is Starlink internet?

The satellite broadband you can currently get is typically a lot slower than any existing form of traditional broadband, due to the high latency of the type of signal it uses and the distance from the satellite to the user’s dish. However with Starlink, the use of lasers to transmit data allows it to provide a significantly faster satellite internet connection than ever before seen.

Starlink once said that in perfect conditions — which would be periods of low consumer demand while there are lots of nearby orbiting satellites — it could reach speeds up to 100Mbps download and 40Mbps upload. A recent test with the US Air Force even saw it hit ultrafast speeds of 600Mbps, though it’s currently unclear if consumers will have the infrastructure available to achieve the same level.

Regardless, these are game-changing speeds for areas that currently have little-to-no connection at all, and are even genuinely competitive with some of the fastest existing broadband connections in areas where good infrastructure is already in place.

starlink logo on a computer

When does Starlink go live?

Very soon. The first fully operational rollout of Starlink will be a private beta test in areas of high latitude across the northern United States and Canada, and that’s set to start in a matter of weeks. If successful, a public beta test for the same areas is expected roughly three months later.

Expansion of the service outside of this area is then expected to take place from 2021.

When will Starlink be available in the UK?

While its satellites cooked up a storm amongst stargazers in the UK back in April, there hasn’t yet been confirmation on when they’ll be operational in the UK specifically. Like the rest of the world, we just have ‘2021’ as our estimate so far.

However, the UK government is pursuing its own satellite broadband venture in the form of OneWeb — a formerly-bankrupt competitor to Starlink that it acquired in an attempt to create an orbiting broadband network on this side of the Atlantic. The purchase is a lifeline for OneWeb, who will now be headquartered in London as it looks to increase its own fleet.

OneWeb does already have a few dozen satellites in orbit, but it’s far behind Starlink in terms of rollout, so it’s also unclear when it’ll go live in the UK.

How much will SpaceX Starlink cost?

There are only reserved estimates for now, but Starlink access won’t come cheap. In the US, sites like review.org predict it’ll be roughly $80 per month, with a $100-300 equipment setup cost.

It’s worth noting that these are prices for the United States, which already has ample broadband infrastructure in place. It’s likely that the service will be a lot more affordable for developing or deprived areas that have little access to broadband right now.

The cost would also be a little more reasonable for US-based early tech adopters and followers of Elon Musk himself, many of whom desire Starlink simply because of the revolutionary technology and the popular character that’s backing it.

starlink view in the sky

Starlink controversies

As with any radical project from Musk, Starlink has two main causes for concern.

Space debris

While Starlink does plan on limiting its contribution to space junk, the very act of launching tens of thousands of satellites into orbit in the short space of a few years is very concerning for many — especially given that we’re still in the early stages of developing technology to remove all the existing debris that’s already proving a problem.

It’s easy to see on the surface how this could be counter-productive towards those efforts.

Stargazing and light pollution

Also, the sheer number of satellites in the network is likely to disrupt avid stargazers and even potentially affect light pollution once it’s fully rolled out. Yes, launching into low-earth orbit helps to reduce the amount of space debris, but in turn it makes the equipment a lot more visible to the naked eye at night.

So while the Starlink chains were a spectacle at first, they could end up momentarily disturbing our view of interstellar space.

While Starlink might seem an attractive option for your next broadband package, it’s still some distance away from being a reliable alternative. So compare broadband deals with Uswitch to find the right package for you.

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