SpaceX is sending thousands of satellites into space to deliver internet access, but the question of when Starlink will start sending its services back to Earth is another matter.
The company has sent up four batches of 60 satellites each, operating at a low orbit to offer latency of lower than 20 milliseconds and access speeds of around a gigabit. It's a far cry from the low speed, high latency satellite internet currently on the market, and it could help rural and underserved areas get connected at speed.
The company's plans received a boost at the end of January, when the Australian Communications and Media Authority added SpaceX and two other firms to a list of satellite companies allowed to operate in the country. The list does not grant companies permission to actually start providing services as firms still need to apply for a license, but it's a necessary first step if SpaceX wants to start beaming Starlink services down to Australia.
The project could prove one of SpaceX's most lucrative projects. Previous analysis shows the entire space launch industry only brings in around $5 billion in revenue. But the internet access market is worth around $1 trillion, meaning if Starlink can capture between three and five percent of the market, it can greatly eclipse its existing industries.
One thing Starlink won't want to eclipse is astronomers' work – even with the limited constellation in the sky, some experts have complained the planned mega-constellation is already blocking their view.
SpaceX Starlink: when can I get signed up?
Many of the details of Starlink's consumer-facing offerings are unclear, but SpaceX has been relatively upfront about the launch date.
The official Starlink website claims that coverage will come to the northern United States and Canada by 2020. From there, the firm is aiming for "near-global coverage of the populated world" by 2021.
Another way of measuring is by satellite launches. A now-removed claim from the official website stated that coverage would start in the northern United States and Canada after six launches, and expand to nearly cover the populated world after 24 launches. Musk himself shared in May 2019, ahead of the first launch, that six more launches would provide minor coverage and 12 would provide moderate coverage.
SpaceX looks set to meet that six-launch deadline this year, based on current progress:
- The first launch of 60 satellites was on May 24, 2019.
- The second was on November 11, 2019.
- The third was on January 6, 2020.
- The fourth was on January 29, 2020.
- A fifth is expected in mid-February this year.
- A sixth is expected in March this year.
One user has been able to already get online with Starlink. Musk claimed to send a tweet through the service in October 2019.
Although this would suggest the first phase of coverage could roll out soon, it's unclear how the launch schedule could be linked to the service rollout. SpaceX has removed the previous claim, suggesting it's no longer an accurate way of measuring the service's progress.
A key question, and something of an unknown, could be regulatory approval. The U.S.' Federal Communications Commission gave the thumbs-up for SpaceX's plans back in April 2019, but it's unclear how other agencies may react to the company's plans. That could influence where it operates. The company filed for permission with the International Telecommunication Union back in October 2019 to launch 30,000 satellites into space on top of the 12,000 approved by the FCC.
Issues with national governments have caused headaches for satellite operators in the past. Reuters reported in October 2018 that Russia had voiced opposition to OneWeb's plans to offer internet access to remote parts of the country, citing security concerns. The company submitted but then withdrew an application to operate in the country in August 2019.
Near-global coverage by 2021? While it may be possible on a technical level, in terms of actual deployment a number of factors could influence the real launch date in each jurisdiction.