Space X Tempers Expectations As Starlink 'Better Than Nothing' Broadband Beta Starts

from the better-than-nothing dept

Space X has begun sending invites out to folks interested in participating in the company’s Starlink low-orbit satellite broadband service. Users took to Reddit to note that Starlink is promising users speeds of 50-100 Mbps downstream for about $100 per month, plus $500 down for a connection terminal and antenna. The company is also promising significantly lower latency (20 to 40ms) than what you’ll typically see with satellite broadband (often 200ms or higher). The best part, no monthly usage caps and overage fees (so far):

“Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mbps to 150Mbps and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.

As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations, and improve our networking software, data speed, latency, and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.

The Starlink phased-array user terminal, which is more advanced than what’s in fighter jets, plus mounting tripod and Wi-Fi router, costs $499 and the monthly subscription costs $99.

Space X is clearly attempting to get ahead of expectations that the offering poses a serious challenge to entrenched U.S. broadband monopolies. So much so that the company is calling this the “Better Than Nothing” beta. And for good reason. As we’ve noted previously, Musk himself has repeatedly acknowledged the system will lack the capacity to provide service to anything outside of rural markets. From a conference earlier this year:

“The challenge for anything that is space-based is that the size of the cell is gigantic… it’s not good for high-density situations,” Musk said. “We’ll have some small number of customers in LA. But we can’t do a lot of customers in LA because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough.”

How Space X decides to manage capacity constraints should prove interesting. With the FCC and net neutrality rules effectively lobotomized, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see throttling implemented to help manage the load, a reminder that it’s hard to beat traditional fiber. Still, Starlink could do some good things in a country where 42 million Americans are currently unable to access any broadband whatsoever. Even though for many Americans cost is the biggest obstacle, and it’s not particularly clear a $600 first month bill is something a lot of these struggling users can actually afford.

In other words, Starlink will be great if your only option is currently traditional satellite broadband, a technology long despised for being slow, expensive, capped, and having high latency. It’s also probably great for users who’ve been forced to rely exclusively on a capped and throttled wireless connection. And it’s particularly great for folks who’ve been just out of reach of any broadband entirely. But how well Starlink differentiates itself will probably come down to how annoying its network management practices wind up being on a crowded, fully loaded network.

For most everybody else it will be a non starter. And you can probably expect a disconnect between Starlink’s attempt to set realistic expectations (which should be applauded for a company not unfamiliar with hype), and regulators eager to portray Starlink as something more than the sum of its parts.

Captured regulators from both parties historically enjoy portraying emerging broadband technologies as near-miraculous examples of why regulatory oversight isn’t needed. As in, “we don’t need competitive policies because amazing competition is already happening.” Or, as Michael Powell did with doomed powerline broadband technology in the early aughts, trying to claim that pandering mindlessly to AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast is a good idea because the free market and innovation will swoop in and save the public from monopolistic harms.

That may be true in more functional, healthier markets, but it’s simply not true in the monopoly-dominated U.S. telecom sector. As such, the several million users Starlink is expected to help is a drop in the bucket in a country where 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband, 83 million more are trapped under a broadband monopoly, and tens of millions more are stuck with an apathetic duopoly. Starlink will be more akin to a band aid than a cure. Raise a skeptical, arched eyebrow at anybody claiming otherwise in the months to come.

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Comments on “Space X Tempers Expectations As Starlink 'Better Than Nothing' Broadband Beta Starts”

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Anonymous Coward says:

A bit more than I'd expected.

I was expecting more in the order of $80 a month. The cost for the terminal is high, but it’s quite possible that SpaceX is taking a loss on it (which may be the reason for the $100 monthly) – "experts" said it would cost at least $1000 to manufacture.

Still, for those with the money and no reasonable option, this will be very welcome. It will also enable digital nomads, those who don’t reply on location for income, but do rely on connectivity. This will enable a lot of possibilities at the margin, where the established, large, players won’t care enough to try legal sabotage (except in the distribution of federal largess, which they will hope to capture for themselves).

And the profits, even if only a smallish percentage of the total, will be invested in making space access sufficiently cheap to allow a major expansion of space industry, which has the potential to majorly increase human wealth.

Bloof (profile) says:

Re: A bit more than I'd expected.

Most of which will be funneled into the pockets of a tiny few, who have made it clear that once they get offworld they will stop following earth laws.

I’m sure life will be great under SpaceX law, as nothing bad has ever to regular people happened when companies have had complete controi.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: A bit more than I'd expected.

Bloof, I want to restrain myself to civil discourse, but it is hard in this case, What you wrote is moronic, on several levels, and deceitful.

First off, Mars is largely irrelevant to the immediate economic future of mankind. The vast majority of mankind will be Earth-based for at least a century and probably several centuries to come. For Earth, there will be no economic benefits, Mars will simply be a resource sink, because returning goods will simply take too much time and cost too much to show any profit.

The truly large benefits will for the foreseeable future be realized in cis-lunar space, be it new manufacturing techniques or cheaper and more plentiful material resources. These will be at least heavily constrained by terrestrial law.

As for who benefits most, if the poorest can easily achieve a healthy and comfortable life, does it really matter if the hyper rich become even more hyper rich? I know if I doubled my income I really wouldn’t care if Musk or Bezos increased their wealth by an order of magnitude as a result.

Finally, so what if Musk imposes "SpaceX law" on a Mars colony? The only people going there (initially – as in for decades – at least) will be people who have paid for the transportation and want to go there. If they don’t know what laws they will face when they get there, that is on them. It is really stupid to change planets without bothering to research the environment, including local laws, before you go. If they do know the laws and choose to go anyway, why do you have any right to gainsay them? What you have to watch out for is a Martian "Botany Bay", where Earth governments dump petty criminals and malcontents just to be rid of them. But that is an Earth government problem, not a SpaceX problem per se.

Bloof (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: A bit more than I'd expected.

Uh huh.

Elon Musk is not your tech saviour, he is not doing what he’s doing to bring humanity into a new age of enlightenment, he is doing what he’s doing to set himself up as a king and drag the rest of humanity back into serfdom. Look at what the man says and does, not at what you believe he’s doing in the most ideal of circumstances, and if you want to defend that, defend a man who’s declared he can coup whoever he wants and has made it clear he has little respect for the wellbeing of actual human beings, by all means do so. People have been cheerleading for kings as long as kings have existed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 A bit more than I'd expected.

Yeah beat and burn that strawman. Jesus Christ you are seriously taking that mocking tweet at face value when they have never sourced anything from the countries in question? That is like ImpossibleBurger sarcastically replying to PETA they’ll keep on butchering – following up that their burgers always were made of plants and concluding their CEO must be a serial killer who wants to kill all of mankind.

Bloof (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 A bit more than I'd expected.

Oh who among us hasn’t sarcastically welcomed a right wing coup that benefits them then replied ‘We will coup whoever we want’ in response to criticism of that? He’s just like the rest of us! The union busting, trying to strongarm local government to let him reopen with zero regard for his workers is all sarcasm too. He’s just a sarcastic guy and shouldn’t be taken seriously about any of the bad things he says and does, he’s like Tony Stark made flesh! Look, expensive cars and rockets! Ignore the bad things! Shiny things!

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: A bit more than I'd expected.

"The cost for the terminal is high, but it’s quite possible that SpaceX is taking a loss on it (which may be the reason for the $100 monthly) – "experts" said it would cost at least $1000 to manufacture."

The terminal is likely sold at a loss, given that SpaceX expects to recoup the loss from you being a customer for keeps. I’d expect the standard "one/two year subscription lock" to be applied to this.

timlash (profile) says:

It's not just the U.S.

Nice write-up that captures the expected U.S. market position for Starlink. However, for the second Starlink article on Techdirt in a row there is no mention of the international impact this company could have. The under-served rural market is global and much larger outside the US. While it won’t disrupt established U.S. ISPs, the impact it may have globally could be momentous.

Elon is counting on Starlink to generate an enormous cash flow in order to fund his Mars ambitions.

l8gravely (profile) says:

Starlink for remote towns

Starlink would also be a possibly decent alternative for small, distant towns without good infrastructure. A caching proxy, local wifi, and you might have something. At least it would be better than nothing.

Yes, pulling fibre everywhere is the long term answer… but in the short term this will probably help.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

SpaceX Starlink users provide first impressions and unboxing pictures

A beta tester who goes by the Reddit username Wandering-coder brought his new Starlink equipment and a portable power supply to a national forest in Idaho, where he connected to the Internet with 120Mbps download speeds.

Starlink "works beautifully," he wrote yesterday. "I did a real-time video call and some tests. My power supply is max 300w, and the drain for the whole system while active was around 116w." Starlink pulled that off in a place where Wandering-coder couldn’t get any cellular service from Google Fi, which relies on the T-Mobile and US Cellular networks. "There is no cell here with any carrier," he wrote.

With the Starlink user terminal/satellite dish placed on the ground in a relatively open part of the forest, Wandering-coder did a speed test that measured downloads of 120Mbps, uploads of 12Mbps, and latency of 37ms. He got worse results in a different, more heavily forested location where he placed the dish closer to the trees because Starlink needs a clear line of sight to SpaceX satellites. "It didn’t work well with a heavy tree canopy/trees directly in the line of sight, as expected," Wandering-coder wrote. "I would be connected only for about 5 seconds at a time. Make sure you have as clear a view of the sky as possible!"

At home, Wandering-coder says he got 135Mbps download speeds, 25Mbps uploads, and 21ms latency when the dish was placed in a ground-level spot with "limited obstruction" between the dish and sky. He also tested the user terminal in a different spot with "significant obstruction" in the form of "bad weather, treetops, fences, [and] houses," he wrote. Even in that scenario, he reported download speeds of 46Mbps, upload speeds of 15Mbps, and 41ms latency. He hadn’t placed the antenna on his roof yet when he conducted the tests.

New speed-test data collected by Ookla and published by PCMag last week found average Starlink download speeds of 79.5Mbps and average upload speeds of 13.8Mbps in October, when the service was in a more limited beta. The same data found average download speeds of 24.75Mbps for Viasat’s Exede service and 19.84Mbps for HughesNet, both of which offer service from geostationary satellites. Upload speeds for Viasat and HughesNet were 3.25Mbps and 2.64Mbps, respectively.

Starlink’s low Earth orbit satellites greatly outperformed the higher-orbit satellites on latency, with Starlink posting a 42ms average. Viasat and HughesNet came in at 643ms and 728ms, respectively, according to PCMag.

One Montana resident posted a speed test result with a 174Mbps download speed, 33Mbps upload speed, and 39ms latency.

Anonymous Coward says:

Larry Ellison is attacking the foundations of computer science, competition and interoperability with his insane Java-language-definition lawsuit, Theranos executives are still out of jail, Trump is outgribing and galumphing as usual, the ISP’s are engaging in viciously monopolistic predation, COVID-19 is turning ever-bigger-and-better corners all over the world, and someone has time to worry about ELON MUSK’S PLAN FOR MARS?

Elon, bless his audacious heart, has kicked some of the U.S.’s most complacent monopolists–hard–in their kidneys. It’s enough, today, to see Boeing, GM, and Comcast are pissing blood. If, someday, Mars is colonized (based on prior human experience with colonies), it will first bankrupt all of its investors, then go on to benefit all humanity in ways its investors could never have imagined. Or maybe it’ll just die out like Roanoke and Vinland. Either way, some other generation will have to deal with it.

Let’s give them an example, by dealing with the truly evil tech empires of our time–Oracle, Verizon, Microsoft, Comcast, and their ilk. And, if and when Google does a Comcast, or SpaceX does a Boeing, their generation will know what to do. (Good luck actually doing it!)

ECA (profile) says:

Old excuses.

Cable/sat/cell phone
Had this excuse while back about, Everyone having access based on, Cellphone and Sat availability.
You can go anywhere in the USA and get a signal.
ISNT the greatest way to do thing.
Then someone Raised the min speed to be considered ‘High speed’.

Everyone wants to split pennies. The taxes go up and so does the rent, which causes the renter to pay more or move.
Love the % sales tax on things, as the Store takes abit, then the collector takes abit, then the state gets the rest.

"launch more satellites, install more ground stations, and improve our networking software"
Sounds like a real Builder. But I will bet, he is the middle man in the system, selling the services to the other agencies.(cable/sat) And will soon add 1 more part to this, TV broadcast.
Adding a basic repeater isnt to hard, its finding the Bands to send the data.
The old, very old TV/cable sats up there are getting really old.

Its befuddled me about how corps have a product that the Cost hasnt changed, they have smaller companies Compete to get the contracts Lower cost, but every year the prices go up.

The prices he is suggesting is almost double what I pay for those same speeds. But time for payback on building the system Should take to long. And will the price go down? Not if he is the middleman. Otherwise he (being the primary distributor) would have to build up the land lines, or have the state Give him access to what is there(that wont happen), unless he buys out the local system.

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