ORLANDO, Fla. – After nearly 20 rocket launches packed with Starlink satellites and around 1,000 orbiting the Earth, the general public is slowly beginning to see the benefit of SpaceX’s plan to provide a space-based internet.
Beginning in May 2019, SpaceX started launching Starlink satellites, usually 60 at a time, and has slowly increased its launch cadence in the past year. Since late 2020, a Falcon 9 rocket has blasted off from Florida’s coast almost biweekly sending satellites into space with the most recent liftoff in early February.
The Starlink constellation is part of CEO Elon Musk’s plan to create a space-based internet using a network of, eventually, up to 42,000 satellites. In the past several weeks, the company has expanded its Beta testing of the internet service.
Now, anyone can visit Starlink.com and request a $499 Starlink kit with a $99 per month service. The kit includes a Wi-Fi router and dish. Musk said in a tweet the cost should be the same globally with the only differences being in taxes and shipping.
However, it depends on where a customer lives as to when their kit and service will begin, according to SpaceX. For an address in Orlando the estimate given is mid to late 2021.
Laura Forczyk, the owner of space consulting company Astralytical, said SpaceX is picking up where other companies have tried but failed.
“This is not a new idea, and previous constellations, or satellites in low-Earth orbit to bring internet down to Earth, have failed, they’ve gone bankrupt. So this is a big risk for SpaceX, where they are taking that risk that their Starlink will succeed while other companies have failed,” Forczyk said.
The price point for Starlink is set for early access to the Beta testing but Forczyk expects the cost to drop.
“They’re planning to hopefully bring down the cost in the future. But right now, they need to prove that they can do this first,” she said.
SpaceX began signing customers up in October in the Northern U.S. and Canada has more than 10,000 customers.
Outside of signing up more customers, the company must also prove to the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadband usage for satellites, it can perform, providing the services SpaceX says it will with the Starlink constellation.
“The FCC has granted SpaceX the ability to use the certain broadband that they’ve given them, if they have success with Starlink with a certain number of customers and a certain number of satellites launched over a certain period of time,” Forcyk said.
Forczyk estimates Starlink could possibly become fully operational this year but it’s still too early to say exactly when everyone will have access.
“We’re just gonna have to see if that means that they can make this profitable, because right now, it’s estimated that they’re losing money on the ground station,” Forczyk said of the ground terminals in the Starlink internet kits. “Those ground stations, user terminals, are rather expensive to build. And so it’s estimated that SpaceX is losing money on those, but perhaps we’re wrong. Perhaps the estimates are wrong, perhaps SpaceX is actually gaining money along the way. We don’t really know yet.”
Right now the Beta testing price point is too expensive for customers who Musk says the internet will benefit, including people in remote areas or where it’s unaffordable to buy.
Starlink is a staggeringly difficult technical & economic endeavor. However, if we don’t fail, the cost to end users will improve every year.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 9, 2021
Before that happens “a lot of things need to go right,” Forczyk said. “It needs to be profitable in the first place to not fail, it needs to do what other companies have not done, which is not fail and not go bankrupt. It needs to then be affordable and profitable enough that the price point can go down.”
Musk himself has addressed the cost of Starlink on Twitter acknowledging it needs to be profitable before it can be affordable.
“SpaceX needs to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow over the next year or so to make Starlink financially viable,” Musk said in a tweet Tuesday. “Every new satellite constellation in history has gone bankrupt. We hope to be the first that does not.”
But the larger goal is for Starlink to help fund Musk’s ambitions of sending humans to Mars. Forczyk said eventually the plan is to take Starlink public and bring in a profit to help pay for the SpaceX Starship development and other endeavors. SpaceX is currently testing its interplanetary spaceship on the Texas coast.
“When he started SpaceX, he had this mission of sending humans to Mars, Elon Musk has said he wants to retire on Mars,” Forczyk said, adding, “It’s extraordinarily expensive to go to Mars, you know, even with a probe, let alone with people.”
Musk previously funded other startups, including SpaceX and Tesla, with money he made through companies such as PayPal, Forczyk said he is trying that method again but with providing internet to the world.
SpaceX also isn’t the only company with plans of providing the internet this way. Amazon, OneWeb and Samsung are also developing similar constellations but SpaceX is by far the frontrunner in this growing field. The company also has an advantage over its competitors since SpaceX has its own ride to space for the satellites with the reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
Not long after SpaceX began launching satellites into low-Earth orbit, SpaceX began to hear complaints from the astronomy community. So Musk and Co. began trying to figure out how to make their spacecraft less visible.
Beginning with the 10th batch of Starlink satellites, the company equipped all the spacecraft with a visor that deploys to block sunlight from hitting the brightest parts of the satellite.
“This demo satellite also known as VisorSat is just one of the many actions SpaceX has taken in collaboration with astronomical groups to mitigate the effects of satellite reflectivity,” SpaceX lead manufacturing engineer Jessica Anderson said during a launch livestream last June.
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