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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Filed Under: broadband, competition, elon musk, satellite, starlink
Companies: spacex


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  1. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 20 May 2021 @ 1:34am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.


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