Innovation

How SpaceX Starlink works: connecting, price, launch date for Elon Musk's internet

Connecting to Starlink will be really easy, Elon Musk says

SpaceX

Starlink, SpaceX’s internet connectivity satellite constellation, is taking form. The project is designed to offer higher speeds and lower latency than competing setups, so long as the receiver can see the satellites in orbit. It could help fund some of CEO Elon Musk’s more ambitious goals, like a city on Mars and a planet-hopping society.

But although SpaceX has launched three batches of 60 satellites already, ahead of a planned start for services later this year, how to connect to Starlink remains difficult to understand. How much will a subscription cost? Will it be available in my area? Is Starlink going to keep interrupting astronomers’ work? This week, Musk provided new details about Starlink’s features.

SpaceX has ambitious plans for Starlink. It’s requested permission to launch up to 42,000 satellites, a huge number considering there’s around 5,000 satellites in space total. Each craft orbits at 550 kilometers above sea level, much lower than most satellites.

The first 60 Starlink satellites just moments before they were deployed.SpaceX

It could mean big money for SpaceX. Musk told reporters in May 2019 that internet is a $1 trillion market. Capturing around five percent of that would give SpaceX around $50 billion per year. That would greatly eclipse the satellite industry, which only brings in around $5 billion per year in its entirety, and could go some way to meeting the cost of a city on Mars that could run up to $10 trillion.

Here’s how it may work.

SpaceX Starlink: how to connect to the internet service

Based on previously released information, Starlink will not interface directly with devices. In other words, your laptop won’t connect directly to the sky satellites.

Starlink will provide access through a ground terminal. On January 7, Musk said that the terminal “looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick.” It’s also equipped with “motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky.”

This chimes with SpaceX’s FCC fling in October 2018, which described the ground terminal as about the same size as a pizza box. SpaceX’s 2016 filing describes it as a “low-profile user terminal that is easy to mount and operate on walls or roofs.”

In his January 2020 post, Musk even produced a series of easy-to-follow instructions:

Instructions are simply:
- Plug in socket
- Point at sky
These instructions work in either order. No training required.
Elon Musk's instructions for getting online.Elon Musk/Twitter

If Apple taught the world anything, it’s that people love getting online in just two steps:

The service may have already had its first user — Musk claimed in October 2019 that he sent a post via the service to Twitter.

Musk's tweet flies through the air.Twitter

SpaceX Starlink: when will it be available?

SpaceX’s website currently claims that service will be provided for the northern United States and Canada as early as 2020. This will expand to “near global coverage of the populated world” by 2021.

The company has completed three launches, each packing 60 production-design satellites. The first was launched in May 2019, the second in November 2019, and the third in January 2020.

Musk claimed ahead of the May 2019 launch that six more launches would be needed to provide minor coverage, and 12 more launches would offer moderate coverage. An earlier version of Starlink’s website claimed that services in the northern United States and Canada would start after six launches, with global coverage of the populated world after 24 launches. This claim has now been removed from the Starlink website.

SpaceX Starlink: how much will it cost per month?

This is the big unknown. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in October 2019 that many consumers are paying $80 for “crappy service.” Shotwell did not, however, confirm the price during this appearance.

During a 2015 speech in Seattle, Musk shot down the idea of offering the service for free. He also suggested a price for the terminal at somewhere between $100 and $300.

The Starlink mission takes off.SpaceX/Flickr

SpaceX Starlink: what will be the specifications for speed and latency?

This is another question that may become clearer with real-world tests. The company’s 2016 filing with the FCC described internet service up to one gigabit per second, and latencies between 25 and 35 milliseconds.

More recently, SpaceX has been working with the United States Air Force to offer internet service. The program started tests in early 2018, using the two prototype satellites to reach speeds of up to 610 megabits per second.

SpaceX Starlink: how to sign up for reservations

SpaceX’s website does not offer anywhere to place contact information for more details, but watch this space — Tesla’s Model 3 reservation program proved wildly popular in 2016, with lines forming around blocks to place $1,000 down for the entry-level electric car.

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