Getting online

SpaceX Starlink: Elon Musk details timeline for next stages

SpaceX's internet connection system is taking shape. Here's how the coming weeks and months will look.

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Starlink, SpaceX's internet connectivity constellation, is about to reach more people.

On Monday, CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to outline the next stages for SpaceX's new internet service. But don't get too excited — the details came with a massive caveat.

Starlink's website claims its goal is to offer service to users in the northern United States and Canada in 2020, expanding to "near global coverage of the populated world" in 2021. So how is it getting there?

Signs come from the company's "Better Than Nothing" beta, launched last month. This offers selected customers internet speeds of up to 150 megabits per second at a price of $99 per month plus a $499 one-off fee.

That's around double the average monthly price of cable and fiber connections, meaning it's unlikely to compete with a ground-based alternative. It is, however, around the same monthly fee for competing satellite services from Viasat and HughesNet. Viasat charges $299 for equipment and HughesNet $449, but both companies also offer the option to rent the equipment instead for less than $15 per month.

The service enables rural and underserved communities to get online by pointing a ground terminal at a clear view of the sky. SpaceX wants to offer a better service than existing satellite internet providers, which struggle with latencies that can reach hundreds of milliseconds. Starlink is aiming for fast speeds, and response times quick enough to enable users to play online video games.

The company's rocket launches have been central to these efforts. SpaceX uses the Falcon 9 rocket to send up some 60 satellites at a time. These craft are placed in orbit much closer to the Earth than other constellations, around 550 kilometers (340 miles) above. SpaceX has applied for permission to launch up to 42,000 satellites.

Although SpaceX has faced criticism from astronomers, its constellation has rapidly expanded since its first launch in May 2019. The firm has launched 895 satellites so far, and it's now got big plans to expand even further.

SpaceX launches a batch of Starlink satellites.Getty Images

Here's what the coming weeks and months look like — if everything goes to plan:

This week – Expect "several thousand more" invites to the Starlink beta to reach fans. Early invites have gone out to fans.

A SpaceX document released in July, coinciding with the launch of a private beta, claimed Starlink offers services in areas of the United States and Canada between 44 and 52 degrees latitude. SpaceX has launched a further 355 satellites since the document's release.

January 2021 – American states at lower latitudes are expected to start receiving service. Musk wrote in response to a fan question about Florida that the state would "probably" join Starlink in January. These lower latitudes require more satellites, which means SpaceX can start providing services after more launches.

February and March 2021 – Countries in Europe are expected to start receiving service around this time. Musk explained that there is no single approval process for the European Union, which means SpaceX has to receive permission from countries on an individual basis. Musk wrote that the firm would "probably start receiving final...approvals" around February or March, but "there are many steps."

SpaceX has already started laying the groundwork to operate three European stations for Starlink. Advanced Television reported last month that a license had been granted for stations that would help provide services to several bordering countries:

Mid-2021 – India is expected to start receiving Starlink service. Musk wrote in response to a fan query that the country would "hopefully" get Starlink "around" that time, with plans to roll out "as soon as we get regulatory approval."

Undetermined time – Expect changes to the Starlink Kit. Musk confirmed that SpaceX is aiming to change the packaging over time, in response to a fan that shared a quote from former Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

SpaceX also plans to lower the cost of the $499 kit. Musk explained that "lowering Starlink terminal cost, which may sound rather pedestrian, is actually our most difficult technical challenge." Other improvements include a faster setup time, lowering the setup time from around five minutes to less than three.

Here's the catch: Elon Musk has a track record of success, but he also has a track record of being cagey on timelines. These details sketch out the future for Starlink, but as Musk said himself Monday — external factors can derail the best laid plans.