The Satellite Internet Abundancy
Despite the dangers of more Internet, we actually still don’t have enough of it — Starlink can (maybe?) help bridge the gap.
It’s a sign that a lot is going on in the world when a story about 40 satellites being destroyed by a geomagnetic storm isn’t front-page news for days.
But here we are. Cool 2022.
The satellite story may have hit your radar a little bit — it’s the project of the always-on-your-radar Elon Musk, the man trying to be a multi-planet species in SpaceX.
While SpaceX gets much of the attention right now, I have a (not-so) hot take that I think Starlink will have a more significant disruptive impact here on Earth before we start building colonies on Mars.
The rocket launch industry is a billion-dollar industry, and what Starlink is capable of is a trillion-dollar industry. It will join the ranks of energy, travel, IT, healthcare, government, and defense.
Some context on the company: Starlink is the satellite-based Internet network developed by the private space company SpaceX (both helmed by Elon Musk.) Since 2012, Starlink has been building the infrastructure and technology to launch a global network of satellites that will provide Internet access to ground-based locations from space. They started launching satellites in 2018 and began selling “user terminals” (small, consumer-focused antenna dishes) in 2020 (unboxing and teardown video, if you’re curious.)
Pretty cool, right?
Satellites are the New Black
You know — once you start launching people in space, building electric vehicles, and start boring companies, why not just tack on a world-changing telecommunications platform to your side hustles? But it’s more than just a fun vanity project — there’s a real market here and some exciting angles that might up-end one way that we think about the edges of the Internet.
But satellite-for-Internet has always been a more formidable challenge — equal parts physics and economics.
Companies like Viasat have been providing satellite Internet for the last 20 years. But the systems have traditionally used geospatially-locked satellites (very far away, which means increases in latency, or lag) and can get expensive. On top of that, they’ve typically required fixed satellite dish systems to operate. So it isn’t cheap, it’s challenging to set up, and the service isn’t that great. So basically, it’s like health insurance.
But there’s a market for them — rural or off-grid locations, ships, airlines, and even RVs. The other demand is for business and Internet service providers in other countries, where for whatever reason, landline broadband doesn’t exist, is prohibitively expensive, or is unreliable — more on that later.
All said, all Starlink has to do is to provide a service that is simultaneously cheaper, more reliable, and simpler. The bar has been set. Let’s look at the details.
In recent surveys, Starlink clocked in at 97 Mbps.
But download speeds aren’t the only thing (upload speeds matter too, but not quite as much). Latency has been the real killer on satellite connections.
Wait — A quick digression on satellites
This issue of satellite latency surprises most people — as you imagine that satellites and connections operate at something called the “speed of light” (they do). But it turns out that geospatial satellites are far away (36,000 kilometers — or about 3,600 times the height of a plane flying at 35,000 feet), and when you have to bounce signals back and forth to them — it takes precious hundreds of milliseconds.
This is a total aside to say that the network of undersea cables that most of the modern telecommunications platform runs on is fascinating.
This is why the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are essential to Starlink’s plans. They are much closer to Earth (just 550 km — so that’s only 55 plane-heights) — and so instead of being “stationary” from our perspective on the surface of the Earth, these tiny satellites are zipping around. They require lots of them to make a network work and smart terminals on the ground that can quickly transfer from one to the other as they pass by its view — like locking your eyes onto specific trees when you’re daydreaming from a car (not driving.)
In five years, a Starlink satellite will perform 30,000 orbits. In each of these 90-minute orbits, the satellite will spend most of its time over the uninhabited ocean and perhaps only 100 seconds over a densely populated city.
For the first time, internet availability will depend not on how close a particular country or city comes to a strategic fiber route but on whether it can view the sky. — Casey Handmer
That’s why Starlink is planning for a lot of them. As of this writing, there are 4,408 Starlink satellites in orbit — and Starlink is preparing for an additional tens of thousands of satellites.
What’s even more incredible is how the satellite network not only communicates with the ground but with other satellites.
Back to latency: traditional satellites offer a high latency, or lag, of 500–800ms. It seems small, but if you’ve ever facetimed with someone over a lag, you’ll know the difference.
Modern broadband averages 14ms of latency, whereas Starlink clocks in at 45ms of latency. That’s within spitting distance of fixed-line broadband.
Starlink owns the vertical. It’s a rocket ship going upwards, so it really does look like a vertically-integrated market, as Starlink cornered the market on cheap space launches.
But it’s still relatively expensive to put satellites into space, operate a global platform, and provide valuable, helpful Internet service.
I’d recommend Casey Handmer’s blog post on the economics of launch costs, the longevity of satellites, reusable rockets, and marginal costs that scale. This post got me thinking about Starlink in this way in the first place.
But the numbers are enormous — and could be positively astronomical ::smirk::. Currently, about 90,000 people are testing the service (Starlink claims there are 500,000 pre-orders), each paying $99 a month (plus a $499 fee for the satellite dish). The market cap of potential customers in this space numbers in the many millions, either as direct customers or paying into an ISP using Starlink as the back-end.
Our Dotted Future
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There are significant challenges and resistance that Starlink faces in other areas.
As satellites dot the sky, the sky can become slightly...speckled.
The sky is a big place, and the naked eye isn’t going to be impacted — but there’s a growing response of concern from the astronomy community.
Also, they might kill astronauts.
Interestingly, Starlink’s star seems to be rising as competitor efforts have sunset. Alphabet (Google) shut down its Internet-by-ballon project in 2021, and Meta (Facebook) shut down their Internet-via-drone project in 2018.
Amazon is going after SpaceX (not just Bezos v. Musk — well, it is, but not only that) as it is testing their Project Kuiper, which is working with startup ABL Space Systems to launch 3,236 satellites “that will provide fast, affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities around the world.”
Why We Need More Internet
When you zoom out from the top-level stories about satellite launches, download speeds, latency accommodations, and providing Internet access that’s comparable to broadband for rural populations in the US — you start to see a whole new type of market that emerges.
Even if satellite connectivity isn’t the best or the cheapest connection to the Internet for many — it can be a valuable backup, a competitive pressure on one-option environments (including my apartment in Washington, DC, it would seem), and a lifeline to critical services in emergencies and disasters.
But it’s usually not hurricanes alone that are knocking out access. In 2020 alone, 29 countries restricted access to the web at least 155 times, according to a report from Access Now.
There are still many people who can’t access the Internet — it’s unavailable, unreliable, too costly, too inaccessible, not allowed, not encouraged, or some combination of these. Making the Internet more accessible and available to more people has been a mantra of global development policymakers, economists, telecoms and tech companies, non-profit and foundation groups. It might be one of the few things that all of these groups have resoundingly agreed.
If you want to be genuinely impressed by the importance of the Internet in peoples’ lives, then look into the lengths that people will go to when it’s restricted. Look no further than Toosheh in Iran, the KNPB in Indonesia, or Cuba’s Sneakernet.
This could be great news to provide a powerful voice to so many communities and movements worldwide. And though it’s early days, what’s most interesting about Starlink so far is that it seems to be maybe inching towards progress.
What else I’m reading
Form fit: Device wraps around hot surfaces, turns wasted heat to electricity | Penn State University — If only this existed for the computer I built in college, it would have powered the entire campus.
The Rabbit Hole Beneath the Crypto Couple Is Endless — I will never not read these stories.
How Texas is becoming a bitcoin mining hub | TechCrunch — Speaking of crypto.
If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? I will also never not read these stories.
An 8-year-old slid his handwritten book onto a library shelf. It now has a years-long waitlist. - The Washington Post — This is a lovely, lovely story. Full stop.
Thanks for reading, Gabriel
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