Elon Musk Makes It Clear Starlink Won't Have The Capacity To Disrupt U.S. Broadband

from the baby-steps dept

SpaceX says the company has received more than 500,000 pre-orders for the company’s growing low-orbit satellite broadband service. The company opened up pre-orders back in February, and says it currently has about 10,000 users around the world participating in the beta. Starlink, which (for now) costs about $100 per month (plus a $500 first month equipment charge), should provide a welcome new option for many folks currently stuck without any broadband whatsoever.

But for those who continue to think Starlink is going to truly disrupt the broken U.S. broadband market, here’s a few quick numbers. Up to 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever, be it wired or wireless. Another 83 million currently live under a broadband monopoly, usually Comcast. Tens of millions more live under a broadband duopoly, which usually consists of Comcast and some regional phone company that stopped caring about upgrading its DSL networks sometime around 2005 or so. This regional monopolization directly results in spotty, expensive, sometimes sluggish service.

In contrast, SpaceX and Musk say that the 500,000 users will probably get the service they’ve pre-ordered. But Musk noted last week that as the company begins to push into the several million connection territory, things will likely get tricky. Particularly in more dense areas where capacity constraints will continue to be a big problem, much like existing higher-orbit satellite offerings:

Wall Street analysts recently predicted that even with Starlink’s projected max deployment of about 12,000 low-orbit satellites, it’s still only going to serve somewhere between 300,000 to 800,000 households, or less than 1% of the US market. And while over time analysts estimated that it could scale to about 6 million subscribers, that’s still a fairly small dent in a very large US broadband problem. And at $600 for the first month of service, it’s still out of range for many for whom broadband affordability is the real impediment to reliable access.

It’s also still not entirely clear what kind of network limitations we’ll see on a fully-loaded commercial Starlink network in the post net neutrality era. The company initially won’t want to impose too many draconian limits (like caps, overage fees, or heavy-handed throttling) in order to lure in new subscribers. But as the network gets congested and runs into the unnegotiable limitations of physics, it seems inevitable we’ll see more and more restrictions of this type, once again making it clear that wireless and satellite offerings are still no substitute for future-proof technologies like fiber.

Again, if you can afford the $600 first month payment, can actually secure a pre-order, and have no other options, it’s very likely that Starlink will be a godsend regardless of where on the planet you live. It will also probably be helpful for those interested in getting portable access when camping, driving around in an RV, or in the middle of the ocean. But even the normally hype-prone Musk is making it abundantly clear that those expecting a major U.S. broadband market disruption shouldn’t hold their breath.

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Comments on “Elon Musk Makes It Clear Starlink Won't Have The Capacity To Disrupt U.S. Broadband”

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34 Comments
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David says:

Re: Re:

I don’t know about that. Telling the truth about capacity limitations of upcoming technology sounds pretty disruptive for broadband industry standards to me. Now if the billed prices would correspond to the advertised prices, this would be revolutionary. Hey, one can dream, can one not?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Google was targeting markets that should have had FTTH and did not. The result was that those markets got (and still have) FTTH at reasonable prices.

So I think it turned out rather well… just not as well as the dreamers wanted. Which will be the same situation as with StarLink. It was advertised from the start as NOT for populated areas. One of the results of it has been Amazon getting in to the satellite Internet business. Another has been that you can now theoretically get Internet in places where not even 3G networks existed before.

The high density broadband market, for the most part, has never been challenged. Hopefully some day it will be.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Starlink is aiming to serve customers who currently can’t even get DSL, a market that Comcast and friends are not interested in serving. Starlink is not competition hard wired broadband, or even mobile broadband. For mobile to offer decent broadband, the towers have to be on the fibre network, as Do Starlink ground stations, but satellite ranges mean they can be further from the customers than mobile towers, and don’t have to worry as much about mountains being in the way.

bobob says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

No, starlink is aiming to serve musk’s ego. Just like the hyperloop and colonizing mars, musk will spend lots of taxpayer’s dollars on "visionary" (as he sees himself) projects, for which the actual utility has little relevance as long as the hype serves his self-promotion and ego and the detrimental effects don’t get in his way.

If his real motivation was to provide broadband to underserved areas, the least expensive is: (A) Launch rockets with complex satellites and solve all the problems with collisions with other objects, power, bit rates etc.; or (B) Purchase a lot of fiber and just do the unexciting job of laying it and using mundane equipment.

Personally, I think (B) wins without debate and is also a sure thing and doesn’t interfere with telescopes or existing objects floating around in space, not to mention the (literal) fallout when those thousands of satellites "fallout" of the sky.

Real innovation and engineering involves solving complex problems in the simplest way possible. The quitessential example was color television and how it was made interoperable with existing television when any adiot could have invented a completely new gee-whiz approach. Elon musk’s real talent is bilking the government for tax dollars by hyping gee whiz technology.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

There’s no ego boosting involved with going to boring, actually altruistic, route of paying to have additional infrastructure installed for rural areas, and Google have proven that it’s extremely difficult to offer competing infrastructure at a profit if the incumbents decide to play games.

"Real innovation and engineering involves solving complex problems in the simplest way possible"

There is no engineering problem with the state of US broadband, as proven by the state of infrastructure and competition elsewhere in the world. It’s all about regulation and local monopolies being allowed to write the laws that govern them at the expense of competition.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"No, starlink is aiming to serve musk’s ego. Just like the hyperloop and colonizing mars, musk will spend lots of taxpayer’s dollars on "visionary" (as he sees himself) projects…"

True enough but say what you will about Musk – and there’s a lot to be said – at least the man dares to dream. This is something of a novelty in a US where "No we can’t!" replaced "Can Do!" some time ago, on every topic.

Starlink will remain a novelty since, as predicted, it doesn’t scale. The engineering experience of a satellite constellation in practice will be invaluable, however, for space exploration in general.

If there’s a single utter pie-in-the-sky project here it’d be Mars. That planet has no magnetosphere and so is exposed to the solar wind. Any atmosphere extending too far from the planet surface will be ionized and ripped away – so the idea that humans will ever walk that surface without a spacesuit is a pipe dream.

With that being the case any potential future Mars colony will consist of a very small amount of humans living underground for keeps.

"(A) Launch rockets with complex satellites and solve all the problems with collisions with other objects, power, bit rates etc.; or (B) Purchase a lot of fiber and just do the unexciting job of laying it and using mundane equipment."

Neither of which is sexy enough and both of which require far more initial investment than him using every launch to leapfrog a boatload of small, cheap and simple cubesats into a barely suborbital velocity around the globe.

"Personally, I think (B) wins without debate and is also a sure thing and doesn’t interfere with telescopes or existing objects floating around in space, not to mention the (literal) fallout when those thousands of satellites "fallout" of the sky. "

A land line of well-placed fiber can serve for upwards of a century without much maintenance and is cheap to fix. The fallout is less of a problem since those cubesats will literally evaporate upon reentry. I’m more concerned that the amount of launches required to maintain the network will exceed by orders of magnitude those which already in 2020 prompted environmental agencies to take a closer look on the impact on the environment.

The Falcon-9, for instance, generates massive amounts of CO2 in itself. Other launch vehicle propellants punch holes in the ozone layer. Others again are just highly toxic and slow to degrade.

The main issue, though, remains that the satellite constellation fscks up wide-range astronomy. Orbital telescopes like the Hubble are hideously expensive to put in orbit and thus the few we have are focused on pinpoint examination of objects of extreme interest. Wide ground-based arrays do most of the heavy lifting here, and that includes trying to find large rocks about to pull a dinosaur killer on the human race. I can just imagine alien archeologists pinning the label of "death by stupid" on the long extinct human race once they found out we screwed up our early warning capacity by putting on an orbital blindfold over commercial hype.

"Real innovation and engineering involves solving complex problems in the simplest way possible. "

Well, there always has to be That One Guy (not the account on these boards) building a Rube Goldberg engine just so that any sane engineer with means feels personally offended enough to design a better version. Like early DOS/Windows prompted Torvald to build the ancestor of what currently powers 90% of the world’s servers. Musk fulfills the role of MS there eminently. A shame that his only real adversaries in the field are China, the US largely having given up on the future.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

If you assume that only the continental US is to be served, there are a few places where running fibre is impracticable. When the problems of serving places like Alaska, Siberia, Australia, Africa are considered, Starlink is the low cost method of delivering broadband to a dispersed population. Running fibre over some land routes is much harder than route across the pacific, due to things like moving sand dunes. A satellite system is by its nature global, and should be looked at with a global, and not US centric viewpoint.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

"A satellite system is by its nature global, and should be looked at with a global, and not US centric viewpoint."

…and Musk is catering to the US market, primarily.

Let’s face it, the "remote areas of the world" where infrastructure does not exist don’t have infrastructure for a reason. You can’t run fiber through the deserts of Sahara, Death Valley, and the arctic circle because you can’t install ANY infrastructure in those extreme areas. It’s a bad place to live and if that is still your choice of location then you’ll have to accept a tradeoff.

As the average citizen; If you want to live in the boonies away from civilization then it’s likely that "communications" was part of what you chose to live without, same as water sanitation, shopping malls, and the power grid.

For emergencies, research, military purposes and dire needs there’s already normal satellite communication. What Starlink provides is mainly luxury.

And that luxury comes at an exorbitant cost. Solid fiber, almost no matter how much of it you run, is a far smaller investment when you look at it in longer perspective than a year or two.

Musk’s market niche has come about exclusively because the current US broadband monopolies are an industry of shortsighted grifters.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

<EM>Personally, I think (B) wins without debate<EM>

Perhaps you haven’t done the math? Or perhaps you are innumerate.

Laying one mile of fibre-optic cable in the US cost an average of $27,000. Suppose there are 10 million households without cable. Suppose the average distance to connect them is 1 mile (almost certainly low) and the terrain supports the above average cost (also perhaps optimistic). That would give a cable cost of $270 billion (with a ‘B’) dollars to connect them. It may well be a lot higher, maybe by orders of magnitude.

Starlink costs say $300,000 per satellite (I believe it is lower) and $40 million internal costs per launch of 60 (definitely lower, but good enough for this exercise). Putting 12,000 in orbit will cost $11,600,000,000. $11.6 billion. More than an order of magnitude cheaper, with the tax payer picking up only a small portion of the tab. Of course, this will not cover all the unconnected households. But it can probably service most of the most expensive to service for a lot less than a fiber-optic ground based solution, so making full coverage a much more affordable project.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

Graft. The US is suffering a massive graft problem.

The exact same issue which plagues new fiber is what has had every american lawmaker saying that bullet trains are too expensive at the same time that France and Germany are crosscrossing their own countries with new high-speed rail lines at a fraction of the cost it’s expected to take in the US.

So yeah. In europe starlink wouldn’t be profitable because vastly cheaper alternatives exist and the broadband/cable market is much healthier with actual competition meaning telcos fight over their customers.

In the US….well, the cable might cost 200$ a mile, there’ll be some overhead in construction worker salaries…and then ten times as much will have to be spent "greasing the wheels" for anything to move.

The old joke about how when government buys stuff a hammer costs 20k and a toilet seat 50k is now pretty weaksauce compared to what it costs the private sector to build shit. In the US, of course.

Only In America.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

"Laying one mile of fibre-optic cable in the US cost an average of $27,000. "

Yeah, for the same reason you guys can’t build a bullet train without blowing billions on senseless wheel-greasing. This is seriously just another "Only In America" problem.

US infrastructure is almost impossible to build and maintain because the graft bleeds any attempt to make anything dry.

The only reason Musk has a market niche for starlink in the first place is because building infrastructure costs multiple times what it ought to, so launching thousands of satellites into decaying orbit is less expensive than having one vehicle dig a trench, another lay the cable, and a third fill the trench in.

I suggest a quick youtube search for "Bill Maher New Rule: losing to China". It’s fscking embarrassing the way americans of today expect basic construction to be more expensive than actual rocket science.

tp (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And really damn disruptive for Elon Musk standards.

Since elon musk can do disruptive stuff, it’s our time to show how much we can improve on Elon Musk’s technology. Elon Musk clearly have problems with slurping rocket fuel like crazy and eating resources from planet earth…

How our techdirt newbies decided to fix those problems is via rocket implementation in virtual reality. Here’s a clone of musk’s technology, but using slightly more efficient technology:
https://meshpage.org/237

We no longer need to slurp rocket fuel like crazy. And it doesn’t eat our planet earth’s resources significantly. I.e. we’re more green with our implementation, the old fashioned 1950s rocket tech can be replaced with proper 2020s virtual reality tech.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Wow… a week old article and you’re diving in here to compare yourself to Elon Musk and… pretend that your incompetent shitty software is an improved clone of Starlink’s tech? I’m impressed with the level of delusion, you’ve outdone even yourself here.

"can be replaced with proper 2020s virtual reality tech"

I’d submit my findings to the Nobel board if I were you. If you’ve found a way to use VR to get physical satellites in space, they’d be interested to see how you’ve completely rewritten the laws of physics, and there would definitely be a prize in it.

Anonymous Coward says:

broadband duopoly, which usually consists of Comcast and some regional phone company that stopped caring about upgrading its DSL networks sometime around 2005 or so

Where I live, right on the edge of downtown Seattle, I can get Comcast, or CenturyLink DSL. Mind you, the CenturyLink DSL speed that I can get here: 10Mbs. That is not a typo, 10Mbps!

The sad thing, AFAIK, one of CenturyLink’s switching facilities can be seen from where I live. But yes, 10Mbps is the fastest I can get. I always laugh when I periodically check to see what speeds are available to me.

EGF Tech Man (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Lucky to get 1Mbps from Century Link DSL here in my town NW MN, about 60 miles N of Fargo, 100 miles S of Winnipeg. I think they’ve essentially abandoned there copper plant and have not replaced it with anything else yet. Broadband grants should have never been allowed to be used on 50+ year old lines (i.e. DSL overlay instead of building out fiber in the 1990s-2000s).

David says:

Re: Re:

The sad thing, AFAIK, one of CenturyLink’s switching facilities can be seen from where I live. But yes, 10Mbps is the fastest I can get. I always laugh when I periodically check to see what speeds are available to me.

A national natural gas pipeline runs right below our premises. Guess who does not have natural gas as utility…

Tap size mismatch.

bobob says:

OK, I have fiber through the house and two voip landlines for $110.00/month and that is really overpriced. That makes starlink nothing but a vanity project for musk to continue leaching tax dollars from the government to the detriment of astronomers and science. The only real solution to broadband is for the fcc to be aggressive in eliminating the stranglehold the service providers have.

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sarah harris says:

Musk's called Starlink

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Read more: https://wikipagewriting.services/blog/how-to-get-verified-on-wikipedia-as-an-artist/

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It all depends on where you want internet service. Being able to get high speed internet at any point on the Earth’s surface can be a dream come true. Suppose you live in Antarctica where you might get 100 kbps max, intermittently.

Imagine the use of this for ships on the ocean. In the remotest deserts. Remotest mountain tops. Secret equipment smuggled in to ‘bad’™ countries.

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