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SpaceX Starlink: internet service will get even faster, Elon Musk reveals

SpaceX's internet connectivity constellation is taking shape, and CEO Elon Musk has big plans for the next phase.

Starlink, SpaceX's satellite internet service, is set for big speed boosts and wider geographic coverage.

The service, which started rolling out to customers in October 2020, promises high speed and low latency internet using a satellite dish pointed at the sky. The firm told users of the "Better Than Nothing" beta to expect initial speeds of 50 to 150 megabits per second and response times — also known as latency — of 20 to 40 milliseconds.

Starlink testers could soon see service speeds soar. On Monday, CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter that later this year speeds should reach 300 megabits per second and latencies will drop to 20 milliseconds.

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And while Starlink is currently limited to northern latitudes, Musk expects most of the Earth to be covered by the end of 2021. The service should cover the whole planet in 2022, at which point the goal will be "densifying coverage."

"Important to note that cellular will always have the advantage in dense urban areas," Musk wrote. "Satellites are best for low to medium population density areas."

While satellite internet is nothing new, SpaceX's constellation has got followers excited. Americans in rural and underserved areas told Inverse in March 2020 that the two major providers, Viasat and HughesNet, offer speeds much slower than ground-based fiber-optic connections. A 2013 report found latencies can exceed 600 milliseconds, a response time around 20 times slower than a traditional link.

SpaceX aims to overcome these issues by orbiting satellites much closer to the Earth, around 550 kilometers (over 340 miles) altitude. David Goldman, SpaceX's director of satellite policy, argued in February 2020 that lower altitudes mean the signal has less distance to travel, which means low latency comes from “the laws of physics.”

The firm also applied in October 2019 for permission to orbit up to 42,000 satellites. By comparison, SpaceNews reported in May 2020 that Viasat's upcoming constellation would orbit around 300 satellites at 1,300 kilometers (over 800 miles).

While Starlink is set to offer 300 megabits per second later this year, the firm is aiming to go higher. A 2016 filing claimed the firm is targeting speeds of one gigabit per second. A presentation slide in January 2021 showed SpaceX's long-term ambition is to reach speeds of 10 gigabits per second.

The firm launched the first batch of 60 satellites in May 2019. It has so far launched 1,145 Starlink satellites in total. Initial beta tests have provided services to the northern United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Testers in the United States pay a $499 one-off fee for a Starlink Kit to get connected, plus a $99 per month connection fee. Earlier this month, Musk wrote on Twitter that the price is "meant to be the same price in all countries," adding that the "only difference should be taxes & shipping."

The Inverse analysis — Musk's new goal will be welcome news for beta testers, some of whom have shared images of their connection kits set up in rural areas.

But some testers report already receiving better speeds than advertised. One user in New York received a speed of 209.17 megabits per second in November 2020, the highest reported in Reddit's Starlink community that month.

Coverage is also set to roll out to more users soon. Musk declared in November 2020 that Europe would start receiving coverage in February to March, and India in mid-2021. Starlink's website states that it is aiming for "near global coverage of the populated world in 2021."

Musk's new goals help clarify the firm's expansion plans. These will be fueled by more SpaceX satellite launches — expect more activity at the Florida launch sites as work progresses.

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