Starlink Explained: Everything to Know About Elon Musk's Satellite Internet Venture
Managing Director / Marketing Executive / Application Developer
The billionaire SpaceX CEO is launching satellites into orbit and promising to deliver high-speed broadband internet to as many people as possible.
1. OK, start at the beginning: What is Starlink, exactly?
Technically a division within SpaceX, Starlink is also the name of the spaceflight company's growing network -- or "constellation" -- of orbital satellites. The development of that network began in 2015, with the first prototype satellites launched into orbit in 2018. In the years since, SpaceX has deployed thousands of Starlink satellites into the constellation across dozens of successful launches, the most recent of which took place on Mar. 3 and delivered another 47 satellites into low-earth orbit. That brings the total number of functional satellites in the constellation above 2,000, though some of those satellites are prototypes or nonoperational units that aren't functioning parts of the network.
2. And those satellites can connect my home to the internet?
That's the idea, yes. Just like existing providers of satellite internet like HughesNet or Viasat, Starlink wants to sell internet access -- particularly to people in rural areas and other parts of the world who don't already have access to high-speed broadband. Starlink is ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge," the Starlink website reads. "Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable." All you need to do to make the connection is set up a small satellite dish at your home to receive the signal and pass the bandwidth on to your router. The company offers a number of mounting options for rooftops, yards and the exterior of your home. There's even a Starlink app for Android and iOS that uses augmented reality to help customers pick the best location and position for their receivers. Starlink's service is only available in select regions in the US, Canada and abroad at this point, but the service now boasts more than 100,000 satellite terminals shipped to customers, and the coverage map will continue to grow as more satellites make their way into the constellation. Eventually, Starlink hopes to blanket the entire planet in a usable, high-speed Wi-Fi signal.
3. How fast is Starlink's internet service?
According to the internet speed-tracking site Ookla, which analyzed satellite internet performance during the fourth quarter of 2021, Starlink offered download speeds exceeding 100Mbps in 15 different countries last year, with average speeds in Q4 that were higher than Q3. In the US, Starlink offered average download speeds of about 105Mbps and average upload speeds of about 12Mbps, which is about five or six times better than the averages for satellite rivals Viasat and HughesNet, and just shy of the overall average for the entire fixed wireless internet category, which includes satellite and other forms of delivering connectivity to peoples' homes without ground-laid infrastructure. "Users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds in most locations over the next several months," Starlink's website says, while also warning of 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." To that end, Musk tweeted in February of last year that he expected the service to double its top speeds to 300Mbps by the end of 2021. Now, in 2022, claims like those are difficult to evaluate, as speeds will vary depending on time and location. Last year, CNET's John Kim signed up for the service at his home in California and recently began testing it out at a variety of locations. At home, he averaged download speeds around 78Mbps, and latency around 36ms.
4. How much does Starlink cost?
Starlink is now accepting orders on a first-come, first-served basis, so you'll need to request service and then wait your way through the backlog. During its beta in 2021, Starlink said that some preorders could take as long as six months to fulfill. The cost of the service is billed at $99 per month, plus taxes and fees, plus an initial payment of $499 for the mountable satellite dish and router that you'll need to install at home. $99 per month is a lot for an internet connection, especially one that isn't nearly as fast as a fiber connection, but Musk is betting that the cost will be worth it for people who have thus far lived without access to a reliably fast connection at all. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said that she expects the $499 upfront cost of the receiver dish to come down in the coming years as SpaceX refines its dish design to lower production costs. The newest version of the dish, introduced with FCC approval in November, is smaller and less expensive to produce than the previous version, though customers will still need to pay an upfront fee of $499 to use it. In April last year, Shotwell also said that Starlink wanted to keep pricing as simple and transparent as possible, and had no plans to introduce service tiers into the mix. However, that approach seems to be changing in 2022, with the introduction of a new premium tier with a scan array that's twice as big as the standard plan and with download speeds ranging from 150-500Mbps. That tier costs $500 per month, plus an initial payment of $2,500 for the equipment. Starlink is taking orders for that tier now, and plans to launch the service later in 2022.
5. Where is Starlink available?
Despite promising to blanket the entire globe in coverage by this fall, Starlink service is currently limited to select regions in select countries. Still, the coverage map will grow considerably as more satellites join the constellation. Per Musk, the list of countries currently serviced by the growing network of low-earth orbit satellites includes the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. Starlink's preorder agreement includes options for requesting service in other countries, too, including Italy, Poland, Spain and Chile. There's still a ways to go -- Starlink will likely need at least 10,000 satellites in orbit before it can claim to offer full service to a majority of the globe (and SpaceX has shown signs that it wants as many as 42,000 satellites in the constellation). Right now, it's only about 20% of the way there, at best, with coverage focused on regions sitting between 45 and 53 degrees north latitude. Still, Musk has been bullish about the Starlink timeline. During an interview at 2021's Mobile World Congress, Musk said that Starlink would hit worldwide availability except at the North and South Poles starting in August. Earlier in June, Shotwell expressed a similar sentiment, and said that Starlink would reach global serviceability sometime this fall. "We've successfully deployed 1,800 or so satellites, and once all those satellites reach their operational orbit we will have continuous global coverage so that should be like [the] September time frame," she said. In September, a Twitter user asked Musk when Starlink would finish its beta phase. "Next month," Musk replied.