Space X's Starlink Won't Be The Broadband Disruption Play Many People Think

from the don't-get-your-hopes-up dept

After initially obtaining an FCC license for up to 1 million Starlink satellite broadband customers in the United States, Space X last week quadrupled that estimate, and is now hopeful that 5 million Americans will sign up for service. To be clear: Space X's service won't be taking on traditional broadband providers in major metro areas. Instead, the company will be using thousands of low orbit satellites (with lower latency than traditional satellite broadband) to deliver marginally decent service to under-served rural Americans, assuming it winds up being profitable longer term.

In a country where an estimated 42 million can't get any broadband at all (during a raging pandemic, no less), any little improvement helps. By and large, most major outlets have framed Starlink as a massive disruption of the broadband industry:

"Starlink is the company’s ambitious plan to build an interconnected network of about 12,000 small satellites, to beam high-speed internet anywhere in the world. To date, SpaceX has launched more than 500 Starlink satellites. In addition to getting the satellites in orbit, SpaceX will need to build a vast system of ground stations and affordable user terminals if it is going to connect consumers directly to its network."

But those thinking that Starlink is going to truly disrupt the broadband industry at large probably shouldn't be holding their breath. Even the industry-cozy FCC has expressed skepticism about Musk's latency claims. And Musk himself has made it clear the service won't be a big threat to incumbent broadband providers because there just won't be enough capacity available to offer the service in major metro areas. No limit of marketing hype will be able to defeat the law of physics:

"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."

Again, that's not to say Starlink won't be a positive advancement for rural broadband users, but it's mostly a play aimed at a niche market American companies have, time and time again, deemed to costly to serve after some initial flirtation. In time, Space X may as well. Given there have been so many failed attempts to disrupt the heavily monopolized residential US telecom sector (especially in low orbit satellite), it makes sense to wait for a fully commercial launch -- and to see what pricing and weird usage restrictions are applied -- before getting too excited about Starlink's potential for meaningful innovation.

It's also worth noting that existing telecom monopolists just love using emerging technologies as justification for regulatory apathy (read: we don't need oversight because the sector is just so darn competitive). As we saw with failed broadband over powerline (BPL) technology or wireless tech like WiMax, that usually involves radically over-hyping emerging competitors as mystical panaceas in a bid to suggest that reasonable adult oversight of the sector is no longer needed. That's certainly the tactic being used for 5G (another technology that won't be as disruptive as claimed for a laundry list of reasons), and I'd wager that Space X and Amazon's low orbit satellite experiments will soon be abused in the policy arena by AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon in much the same way -- even if the actual impact on incumbent businesses will likely be negligible.

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Filed Under: broadband, competition, elon musk, leo, low earth orbit, satellites, starlink
Companies: spacex, starlink


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  • icon
    AR Libertarian (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 6:50am

    World wide LEO Broadband

    How is this going to play in places like China?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      stine, 4 Aug 2020 @ 7:57am

      Re: World wide LEO Broadband

      I think you'll find that China will prohibit the import of the terminals.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2020 @ 8:11am

        Re: Re: World wide LEO Broadband

        That will work well, when they will likely be exporting them.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2020 @ 8:26am

        Re: Re: World wide LEO Broadband

        They'll likely also ban the providers from servicing Chinese territory. It will be interesting to see whether the providers comply, and what China will do if they don't. (Shoot down satellites? Ban import of Tesla cars or export of raw materials to make them?)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          OldMugwump (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 1:52pm

          Re: Shoot down satellites?

          Not going to happen. SpaceX can launch new ones FAR faster than anybody can shoot them down.

          That's why DoD loves Starlink - with literally thousands of satellites, no enemy can shoot it down. There are too damn many of them.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            R.H. (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 8:04pm

            Re: Re: Shoot down satellites?

            Also, if any enemy decides to kill a few, the Kessel Syndrome will bite them in the ass soon enough.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2020 @ 7:42am

              Re: Re: Re: Shoot down satellites?

              The point of shooting down satellites would not be to disable the network—which could be done by jamming—but to coerce the operators to turn off service over an area. Kessler syndrome shouldn't be a problem, if the shooter has nothing they care about at such a low orbit (actually, it may solve the problem of "too many to shoot down", although it works better as a threat than a plan). More practically, one wouldn't shoot a satellite to blow it up: if the thrusters or electronics were disabled, it's designed to deorbit within 5 years.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2020 @ 7:17am

    Talking about so many over hyping this network!!! I knew it all along, but for many, it was the end all be all. That people would no longer be locked into their 1 broadband service provider. Nope, This Satellite network is a lot of hype.

    My Mom lives out in the boonies and so has Satellite Internet for what it's worth, which isn't much. So something like this StarLink may be better for her as she really has no other options. I guess there's dial-up modem. Is that still a thing anywhere?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    stine, 4 Aug 2020 @ 7:58am

    on the other hand

    When its available where I live, I'll pay for it. And then I'll build a vehicle mount for it so that I can, since I work from home anyway, leave for whereever I want whenever I want.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 1:28pm

      Re: on the other hand

      NOw for the interesting part.
      They are thinking of a base station on earth, and distribute from there..
      Dont know if its wired or wireless.

      Hughes, install a sat long ago for TV, and converted to Internet, the price is huge for what you get.
      Wireless sat anywhere, but its NOT for gaming..the Lag because of the distance and transferals from Earth-sat-earth-then to the net NEAR(??) where you want to go On the net, tends to be 150-300+ ms delay, like the old 56k modems.
      Where using Fiber(if its around) can be <50ms..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        R.H. (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 8:13pm

        Re: Re: on the other hand

        Huges uses standard geosynchronous satellites. Those are 35,786 km (~22236 mi) above the surface. It takes quite a few milliseconds for light to travel from the ground to that satellite and back down to a base station connected to the wired internet that's where your latency comes from. Starlink uses satellites that are all planned to be below 1200 km (~746 mi) altitude.

        Even given the fact that the network is being designed to pass signals from satellite to satellite until they reach one that's above a ground station near the destination, the latency for a 2400 km round trip is much lower than that for a 70,000 km round trip.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          ECA (profile), 5 Aug 2020 @ 1:54pm

          Re: Re: Re: on the other hand

          as you mentioned it would shuttle the signal from 1 sat to another..
          Ever wonder how big a pizza is..Take a 10" pizza, make it 2" larger, have you doubled the size? Ground distance is 1 thing, on the Curve in space?? then each time you relay, it adds abit of lag, in ms. Handling of the packets. And even HE has said they can only handle so many signals, and Why he needs so many.
          Earth is ~25,000 miles. radius 3963, lets add 750.. Pi x r^2, 69,857,900.. Yep we almost tripled the size of that pizza.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            ECA (profile), 5 Aug 2020 @ 6:34pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: on the other hand

            Sorry the wrong algorithm.
            2x3.145xr=29644, and 10,000 sats would be about 3 miles apart?

            But you are going at the speed of light. and the only way we could do that would be a microwave setup..
            And most Fiber lines are Near light speed.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2020 @ 10:10pm

      Re: on the other hand

      My best friend use to drive 700mi. north or south on US I-5 twice a month for years in the 1990's, had a 90cm Ku TV satellite dish clamped to his rear bumper, trimmed by a taped-up battery drill motor. His memorial is Wednesday:(

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2020 @ 8:04am

    Planet earth with rings, that could look cool but may become a dangerous environment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 8:28am

    Two typos: "taken" and "to costly".

    More coffee needed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2020 @ 8:29am

    The FCC's skepticism is somewhat suspect itself.

    Remember, the FCC is industry cozy. Their skepticism of Starlink's latency means more government money for incumbent carriers and less chance of competition for low income markets. There is no reason to believe their statements are anything other than the same industry cronyism they normally display under Pai

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    NoOneSpecial, 4 Aug 2020 @ 12:04pm

    Perspective on Starlink

    Put Starlink into the bigger picture as simply a test environment for colonizing mars i.e. global communications systems.

    If it makes some money along the way on Earth then cool... if not then also cool as the real world test (how to build, deploy, manage global communications...) is actual the product that fits alongside all the other products Musk has championed that also fit into colonizing technologies, processes et..

    Musk may be weird, but the guy has a vision.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Atkray (profile), 5 Aug 2020 @ 1:21pm

      Re: Perspective on Starlink

      Musk also was able to keep the automotive industry laughing at him long enough to gain an advantage.

      I'm pretty sure he saw what happened to Google when they tried to disrupt the broadband industry.

      Musk may well be enjoying and feeding the "It will never work" narrative because it allows him to keep building instead of litigating.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 1:31pm

    Problems..

    Getting every nation to ALLOW you to fly sats over their country.
    There are allot of laws
    Then we get to restrictions, that each nation has.
    AND
    China and russia have practice in shooting down Sats. IYDN

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      OldMugwump (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 2:05pm

      Re: China and russia have practice in shooting down Sats

      Sorry - you don't get it.

      Starlink is THOUSANDS of spacecraft. TENS of thousands.

      Once the network is fully deployed (> 40,000 sats), so what if somebody shoots down 1000 of them? Users will hardly notice.

      Nobody can shoot down Starlink short of destroying planet Earth. Not only is it economically impossible (they can't afford that many ASAT weapons), it's dipolomatically impossible and anyway SpaceX can replensh with new spacecraft 100x faster than anybody could shoot them down.

      Starlink is unkillable. It's a DoD wet dream - one that they didn't think was economically possible until Musk showed otherwise.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 5 Aug 2020 @ 3:43am

        Re: Re: China and russia have practice in shooting down Sats

        "Nobody can shoot down Starlink short of destroying planet Earth. Not only is it economically impossible ..."

        Sadly, not so much. It's not that you can't wipe satellites out of orbit (no matter how many) - it's the pyrrhic nature of trying to do so.

        Google "kessler syndrome".

        An "ASAT" weapon doesn't have to be more advanced than a bucket of rusty nails mounted on a rocket sufficient to get it to the proper height and speed.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          OldMugwump (profile), 5 Aug 2020 @ 5:59pm

          Re: Re: Re: China and russia have practice in shooting down Sats

          It's not that simple.

          1) As Douglas Adams said, “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space."

          Because space is big, your bucket of rusty nails needs to be in exactly the right place or the nails won't hit a thing. (Don't think of nails scattered around a big parking lot. Think of nails scattered around the Pacific Ocean. If you want a chance of hitting anything, you need a lot more than a bucketful.) In low earth orbit, they'll decay and re-enter within a matter of weeks.

          2) Anybody who can get their bucket of nails in the right place necessarily has highly accurate rockets, and has invested a lot to build that capability.

          3) Even if they get the bucket in the right place, they can get at most of a few (count on your fingers) of the 40,000 spacecraft in the constellation.

          4) Kessler cascades are theoretical and it's far from clear that the necessary density of spacecraft is anywhere close to the critical threshold. If it is, and the ASAT attempt triggers a cascade of destruction, the attacker will end up destroying their own spacecraft in the attempt. Of which they have many because of (2).

          As a practical matter, Starlink is unkillable. Short of intentionally destroying ALL spacecraft of ALL nations, which would be an act of war and is diplomatically untenable. As I said at the start.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 6 Aug 2020 @ 1:22am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: China and russia have practice in shooting down

            "Because space is big, your bucket of rusty nails needs to be in exactly the right place or the nails won't hit a thing."

            Although that's quite true it is similarly true we're not aiming for the entire ocean. We're just looking to hit a very thin, almost 2D strip of it, where Starlink is orbiting. Given that Starlink is in a naturally decaying orbit you're dead on about that they won't be hanging around, of course.

            "Anybody who can get their bucket of nails in the right place necessarily has highly accurate rockets, and has invested a lot to build that capability."

            Well, yes, but this does include all the usual suspects who might want starlink out of the sky. And for those (China, USSR, US, etc) that capability is default for anything they intend to shove beyond earth atmosphere.

            "Even if they get the bucket in the right place, they can get at most of a few (count on your fingers) of the 40,000 spacecraft in the constellation."

            They don't need to get to that many, really. Musk has been talking a good spiel but physical reality provides a solid point of diminishing returns on how well his network scales. Take out a block of them and that's now a bottleneck which closely emulates the good old days of early internet when not rarely a few thousand people ended up trying to push their packets through a single old phone wire serviced by a modem somewhere in a New York basement. It would help if we knew the approximate bandwidth over range a single cubesat could push out but given that he's already implied that his full constellation doesn't scale too well and will be restricted to limited service I doubt it's that much.

            "If it is, and the ASAT attempt triggers a cascade of destruction, the attacker will end up destroying their own spacecraft in the attempt."

            I can somewhat glumly envision a nation like China doing exactly that, if that, for instance, proves the only way they can preserve their Golden Shield project. The big actors can, if they need to, park satellites well beyond the normal stable orbits, even if that comes with a heavy maintenance cost.
            Worse, I can envision a nation like China ending up with their own Trump, GWB, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft etc in all the wrong places.

            "Short of intentionally destroying ALL spacecraft of ALL nations, which would be an act of war and is diplomatically untenable. As I said at the start."

            I grant you it's unlikely. You'd need to have a narcissistic megalomaniac with the attention span of a goldfish and a persistent unwillingness to admit consequences exist, in power of a first world nation with developed space capability.

            I've had to retool many of my expectations of "impossible" these last few years.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 6 Aug 2020 @ 2:36pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: China and russia have practice in shooting down

            The nails are light enough that you can put them in a retrograde elliptical orbit that crosses all the orbital paths of Starlink. That would be Starlink out of action for 5 to 10 years, waiting for the debris fall out of orbit.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      R.H. (profile), 4 Aug 2020 @ 8:28pm

      Re: Problems..

      OldMugwump already pointed out the flaw with the second part of your post so I'll just focus on the first part. Already existing international laws say that no one owns space above the Kármán line. Starlink satellites are already passing over Russia, China, Iran, and just about every other country on Earth weekly at least. Why do you think Google Maps has such good satellite data on China and North Korea? Those governments certainly didn't give permission to Landsat (an American program) or Copernicus (its European counterpart) to map their countries.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 5 Aug 2020 @ 1:42pm

      Re: Problems..

      Then I suggest 1 major point.
      IT AINT UP THERE YET..
      and if 1 country sends up a sat killer with a SHOT GUN, shooting SLUGS, it will only take a few shots to get accurate..
      And as you place them up, they can shoot them down as they venture over THEIR LANDS..
      0' G and velocity are neat things in space. 1 shot can run around the planet a few times and hit a target or Miss, and drop to earth and do nothing on the ground as it burned up on re-entry.

      You dont need missiles, rockets, much of anything.. And a SAT full of STEEL SLUGS .72 caliber and doing over 2000fps. can do allot of damage up there. Hit the Solar panels, Hit the Main body so radiation can enter, Hit a control box on the outside..
      And with 1000's of them up there, it shouldnt be hard to hit 1-10..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 6 Aug 2020 @ 2:24pm

      Re: Problems..

      Getting every nation to ALLOW you to fly sats over their country.
      There are allot of laws

      You would think so, but apparently there is no agreed upon boundary between sovereign airspace and outer space where anyone can be without permission. However I don't think even China claims sovereignty out to the 550 km where Starlink is orbiting.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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