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February 05, 2020

What Will SpaceX and Starlink Mean For Consumers?

At the end of last year, the broadband world was rocked by the announcement that technology mogul, Elon Musk, would be launching a satellite-based broadband service for consumers around the world.

The system, offered through SpaceX and Starlink (Musk’s own satellite program), would be the largest, low Earth orbit satellite network in existence - assuming all permissions are granted. A network of this size – 720 satellites are required just to maintain a network for populated areas, with estimates suggesting it could take up to 42,000 satellites to form a global reaching constellation – is no mean feat and another example of SpaceX (News - Alert) trailblazing approach to technology.

Although still a work in progress (issues surrounding satellite permissions have caused some delays), unsurprisingly Musk himself is already making use of system through a terminal at home and has been tweeting using the service.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX President and COO, stated at a round table last year that the company was still 6-8 satellite launches away from providing a global broadband service for consumers. And these launches are now underway; each launch carries approximately 60 satellites into space to join the constellation and are planned throughout this year. The company has stated that the broadband service will be ready for use in late 2020.

So, what could SpaceX and Starlink offer to the congested world of broadband providers?

Certainly, a huge benefit of a satellite broadband system is the ability to offer services to rural and hard-to-access areas with little to no disruption to service. Globally, there are still many remote areas unable to access good quality broadband internet. In some parts of the world, it’s possible to travel for days or weeks without access to the internet. This can be severely limiting for residences and prohibitive to businesses. Fibre and cable are invasive systems with logistical obstacles which can inhibit cost-effectiveness for providers. However, a satellite system would forgo the need for investing in expensive and intrusive infrastructure in difficult-to-access rural areas and could well be a viable and efficient solution for these customers.

The system also has the potential to offer alternative broadband options to those living in countries with government-run telecommunications systems. By opening up the sky with a satellite constellation, Musk could well be in a position to ‘free’ consumers in some parts of the world from limiting providers, or those that overcharge due to lack of competition.

Both through opening up currently inaccessible areas and by providing alternative services in limited areas, this system offers huge potential to open up the world for economic growth and innovation. Development in these areas could be fast and powerful.

A satellite system could also provide low latency communications, which in and of itself makes the system instantly attractive to businesses. Many industries, like finance for example, operate in an environment which would prioritise latency in a broadband provider. Reducing the risks of lagging in the transporting of information, would be a huge bonus for companies and could see a number of industries being early adopters to a satellite broadband network.

And with competitive broadband speeds of around 1gbps, it could really put the cat amongst the pigeons for competitors in cable and fibre. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of a globally available broadband service, offering exceptional speeds, with low latency and easy connectivity. Musk could be about to change the face of broadband as we know it.

But the system is not without challenge or criticism. Astronomers have expressed concerns about light pollution emitting from reflective materials and there are concerns about networks of this size seriously affecting our dark sky. Musk himself has attempted to reassure critics by insisting they will not allow this network to degrade the night sky in any way.  But other commentators have pointed out that this network could provide astronomers with important intelligence and data, not to mention logistical support in space launching and transportation. So, perhaps there is a balance here to strike between environmental concerns and technological advances.

Only time will tell what SpaceX and Starlink’s satellite broadband will bring to the world, but it is certainly an exciting idea at a time when the world could benefit from being better connected.

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