Innovation

SpaceX Starlink is coming to the UK: How it could change pastoral England

English Village Cottage

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Living in "England's pleasant pastures," as captured by William Blake, may sound like a dream — but it can soon turn sour when you can't get Netflix to stop buffering.

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Starlink, SpaceX's internet connectivity constellation, is set to bring superfast internet to the shires of England after getting a thumbs-up from national regulators.

Testers in the United Kingdom have started receiving the Starlink Kit, the set of tools required to access SpaceX's currently-in-beta internet service. The company is aiming for superfast gigabit speeds at low latencies, meaning users can point a dish at the sky and get online.

SpaceX has received approval from the U.K.'s telecoms regulator Ofcom to operate these user terminals, Bloomberg reported Sunday. A spokesperson for the regulator claimed that authorization was granted in November.

Customers in the U.S. and Canada joined the service in late 2020, and at least one British beta tester received their kit just before the end of the year. SpaceX is aiming to offer coverage to most of the world in 2021: the next likely candidates are Greece, Germany, and Australia as all three have also granted approval to Starlink.

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For rural and underserved communities, it could be a lifesaver. Living in "England's pleasant pastures," as captured by the poet William Blake, may sound like a dream — but it can soon turn sour when you can't get Netflix to stop buffering.

The problem, as outlined by comparison service Broadband.co.uk, is that many of those idyllic thatched-roof dwellings tend to get online through the telephone lines. Living far away from the exchange makes speeds slower than advertised, as does old equipment and a lack of competition. It's the sort of pain points experienced by rural Americans also crying out for Starlink.

SpeedTest data shows the U.K. ranks 47th in the world for average speeds, far behind Singapore in first and the United States in 11th. Switching service USwitch found last month the slowest street in the country had an average speed of just 0.12 megabits per second — the traditional measure of data speeds, where eight megabits make a megabyte.

In its May 2020 connections report, British regulator Ofcom revealed that five percent of homes don't have access to internet download speeds of at least 30 megabits per second. The issue became a point of debate in the 2019 election.

Starlink could hold the answer — and users are already getting connected in "England's green and pleasant land."

One Reddit user called "fishboy51" user shared their setup on Thursday from the village of Burley, nestled in the heart of the New Forest.

The New Forest national park.Visit Hampshire

The picturesque southern English park once served as the royal hunting grounds of William the Conqueror. Around 1,000 years later, a nearby resident is now gaming on their Xbox with internet speeds of up to 187 megabits per second.

Another user called "OptiSport" shared their connection last week from rural Devon in the south of England — a marked improvement over their previous half-megabit speeds.

Starlink offers fast internet speeds, thanks to SpaceX's plan to orbit satellites much closer to the Earth's surface. The 550-kilometer orbit means the signal travels less distance before reaching the user. It requires placing far more satellites into space, and SpaceX has applied for permission to launch up to 42,000.

SpaceX Starlink: what is the price for the beta service?

The price will vary depending on location.

United States — Users in the United States are paying $499 for the Starlink Kit plus $99 per month to access the service.

While the figure is around double the monthly price of traditional ground-based connections, it's comparable to that from the likes of Viasat and HughesNet. While HughesNet charges a $449 upfront fee for the kit, Viasat charges just $299 upfront. Both firms allow users to rent the kit instead for less than $15 per month.

Canada — Tesla North reports that beta testers in Canada are paying CA$649 (US$510) for the Starlink Kit. The service costs CA$129 (US$101) per month.

United Kingdom — Teslarati reports that users in the United Kingdom can expect to pay £439 ($596) for the Starlink Kit plus £54 ($73) for shipping, meaning an upfront cost of £493 ($669). The service costs £89 ($121) per month.

CompareTheMarket found that satellite internet can cost anywhere between £20 ($27) to £87 ($118) per month, plus setup costs that can rise up to £600 ($814). That means the service could have a chance of competing in areas where ground-based connections aren't really an option.

Starlink uses a series of satellites to stay connected.Shutterstock

SpaceX Starlink: how to sign up for the beta service

SpaceX's official Starlink website asks interested fans to enter their email address and service address to check if they're eligible to take part in the "Better Than Nothing" program.

More rural users may struggle to enter their address, as Starlink only accepts addresses recognized by Google. A way around this is to input a "Plus Code":

  1. Open Google Maps using the website or app.
  2. Find the correct location on the map. Click and hold on the correct point if using a mouse, or tap and hold if using a touchscreen.
  3. Press the "dropped in" label near the bottom.
  4. The Plus Code will appear on the list of information next to a "+" symbol. For example, the Plus Code for the Tower of London is "GW5F+6J London".
  5. Copy the Plus Code and paste it into the Starlink website.

SpaceX Starlink: when is it launching in my area?

Starlink has rolled out its beta service to users in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. It's aiming for "near global coverage of the populated world by 2021."

Where could be next? In November 2020, CEO Elon Musk suggested that it could roll out service to users further south in the United States as early as January. Countries in the European Union could start to come online in February and March. India could come online by mid-2021. Teslarati reports that the next likely candidates are Australia, Greece, and Germany, as these three countries are in the advanced stages of the licensing process.

As the coronavirus pandemic has pushed more people to get online to stay connected, Starlink could be an ideal way to make sure underserved communities aren't left behind.

Update 01/11 11:20 a.m. Eastern time: Updated with details about SpaceX's regulatory approval.

Update 01/12 7:40 a.m. Eastern time: An earlier version of this story stated that Starlink's beta test in the United States cost $499 per month. It has since been amended.

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