Broader internet access? Watch this space
SpaceX’s satellite internet plan will expand access to the internet in far-flung locations, and could be a game-changer for SA
SpaceX (and Tesla) CEO Elon Musk is making huge headway into renewable and battery tech — the only problem is that SA, his home country, isn’t necessarily included on the VIP list.
But SA is less likely to be excluded from Starlink, his $10bn project which could be a game-changer for broadening internet access. Starlink wants to offer affordable internet to the entire world from the least likely place — space.
This week SpaceX sent 60 satellites into space on board one of its Falcon 9 rockets. The Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida is also the base from which SpaceX launched two other rockets in January.
The satellites were launched with the sole purpose of beaming the internet. More than 300 Starlink broadband satellites have already been sent into orbit using SpaceX rockets. They’re being tested in a lower orbit, after which the satellites will be raised to a 550km operational orbit. After that, the service will have the capability to beam internet towards the Earth, to any spot on the globe.
"Starlink will be great for any sparsely populated areas with expensive or little to no connectivity," Elon Musk tweeted recently.
Yes, this means you’ll be able to update your Facebook status from a dusty spot in the Karoo or share a selfie while climbing Mt Everest. Imagine that.
And Starlink could also drive down costs.
World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck says the Starlink network will dwarf any service currently offered by satellite. "This means that economies of scale will probably result in a huge reduction in the cost of typical satellite broadband services.
And it means satellite connectivity could begin to compete with terrestrial connectivity, especially in remote and rural areas that are poorly served by fibre or mobile broadband networks."
SA’s rural areas suffer from patchy connectivity, while the whole country is pressured into paying top dollar for a data connection. Even in urban areas, fibre-optic connections are among the most expensive in the world, with users paying an average of R1,273 a month to access 100Mbps speeds of uncapped internet.
Users who access the internet on their phones only are most affected by high data prices.
A new mode of internet distribution could shake up an industry that is in need of a few changes.
Goldstuck says Starlink’s internet will probably still be too expensive for individuals in underserviced and remote areas.
"But it represents an opportunity for service providers to contract capacity, and retransmit it in remote areas, using a bandwidth reseller model. That could open the internet revolution to an audience that has never had practical access before, and help democratise the internet to an extent that was not possible before."
Starlink will eventually become a constellation of 12,000 satellites that will form part of a new-generation low Earth orbit (LEO) space communication network. This constellation will provide continuous, global coverage. This is true even though these LEOs won’t be stationary (think DStv satellites).
Because of their proximity to Earth, LEO satellites will move at extremely high speed and continuously shift position.
This Starlink constellation will have 66 satellites stationed per orbital plane. They will be able to communicate with one another through four intersatellite laser links, which are then linked down to Earth using communication stations.
Using a simulation of the network, it is estimated that a New York-to-London link will have a round-trip latency (this refers to speed) of 46 milliseconds versus the current undersea cable networks’ 76 milliseconds.
SpaceX says users will need a $200 receiver the size of a pizza box to use Starlink.
If this is the case for SA users, and if retransmission from these is allowed, Goldstuck says it "opens a new entrepreneurial opportunity for aspirant internet service providers in remote and underserviced areas". And he says it will help businesses in such areas that have been constrained by the absence of viable internet access.
And its speed will also be its selling point.
"If the service lives up to its promise of low latency, it will also become a viable alternative to VSAT, which is currently the most common form of access for farmers and businesses in remote areas," Goldstuck adds.
So how soon can we start to get excited about space-beamed internet?
As with many disruptive technologies, it may take a while to get to SA. According to SpaceNews, Musk plans to roll out Starlink connectivity in the US by mid-2020 — hence the push to get as many satellites up in space as possible. Starlink also still has to complete the design and engineering of the user terminals before it can roll it out to consumers.
Though Starlink is currently part of SpaceX, recent reports suggest it may go public. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell recently said that the company wasn’t pushing for an IPO, but that this should "terrify" competitors.
Of course, the addition of competitors in this space will help drive down costs and encourage further competition. But new entrants will be up against an impressive Starlink network that’ll grow at a rate of about 120 satellites a month.