Starlink wants to bring fast internet to rural areas, but it’s not the only game in town.
Last summer, SpaceX launched a beta version of its satellite internet service, operating on its rapidly expanding constellation. Starlink promises higher speeds and lower latencies than traditional satellite internet by orbiting much closer to the ground, around 550 kilometers (340 miles), and operating many more satellites — SpaceX has applied for permission to launch up to 42,000 satellites in total.
The company has big plans. SpaceX charges a $99 one-off starting fee, plus an ongoing $99 per month charge. The website claims “users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations.”
CEO Elon Musk has expressed interest in reducing latencies further, and a presentation from earlier this year claimed SpaceX has a long-term goal of reaching speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second.
But Starlink may find itself in competition with others soon. While beta testers have praised the service for offering faster speeds than constellations like Viasat and HughesNet, companies like Amazon, Telesat, and OneWeb could soon offer similar constellations in low-Earth orbits.
“OneWeb was delayed by the bankruptcy but is now gearing up,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tells Inverse. He notes, however, that it’s “too early to assess.”
As the competition heats up, here’s what you need to know about these emerging players.
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Amazon Project Kuiper
What is it? — According to its 2019 FCC application, Amazon wants to build a constellation of 3,236 satellites, orbiting at an altitude of 590 to 630 kilometers (370 to 390 miles).
How fast is it? — In December 2020, Amazon unveiled a customer terminal that it claims is smaller and lighter than traditional antennas. While it currently only supports 400 megabits per second, Amazon is aiming to reach higher speeds.
When will it be available? — Amazon has not launched any satellites or indicated a release date. However, the FCC’s approval means Amazon must launch at least half the constellation by 2026 if it wants to use its operating license.
In April 2021, Amazon agreed to use United Launch Alliance for nine Kuiper launches. It did not release dates for these missions.
How much does it cost? — Amazon has not released any pricing details. In July 2020, the company committed $10 billion to the project. In July 2021, it also acquired a team of employees working on a similar project at Facebook, ending the latter firm’s ambitions in the space.
How does it compare to Starlink? — Little is known at this stage, but Kuiper could be competitive. The satellites orbit at a similar altitude and Kuiper’s 12-inch diameter user terminal antenna is far smaller than Starlink’s 23-inch diameter antenna.
What is it? — OneWeb is building a satellite internet service, but unlike Starlink, the company plans to provide services to businesses rather than customers. It plans to launch 648 satellites to an orbit of 1,200 kilometers (745 miles).
How fast is it? — In 2019, the company tested its nascent constellations and recorded speeds of over 400 megabits per second and a latency of 32 milliseconds. An April 2021 test recorded download speeds of 165 megabits per second, upload speeds of 30 megabits per second, and latency of 45 milliseconds.
When will it be available? — The service is expected to cover latitudes north of 50 degrees, a line that cuts through southern Canada and northern France, by the end of the fourth quarter of 2021. OneWeb aims for full global coverage by the end of 2022.
The company launched the first six satellites in February 2019. As of September 2021, OneWeb has launched 322 satellites.
How much does it cost? — The company is targeting businesses rather than the general public. However, Dylan Browne, president of OneWeb’s government business unit, told SpaceNews in March 2020 that he expects community user terminals to cost between $1,000 to $1,500, which could be used as Wifi hotspots for cafes and similar businesses.
How does it compare to Starlink? — OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson claimed in a March 2021 CNBC interview that it’s not a Starlink rival, as OneWeb is aimed at businesses.
Starlink orbits at a much lower altitude. But despite this closer orbit, it seems the two achieve notably similar results in tests.
What is it? — Telesat is a Canadian company established over 50 years ago. It currently operates 15 geostationary satellites.
In 2016, it announced plans to launch a new constellation in low-Earth orbit. The constellation, dubbed Lightspeed, is set to consist of 298 satellites in low-Earth orbit. Like OneWeb, it is targeting businesses and organizations rather than end consumers directly.
How fast is it? — Telesat promises “gigabits per second” speeds and latency “on par with fiber networks.”
When will it be available? — In April 2021, Reuters reported plans to launch the first satellites in early 2023, partial service at higher latitudes that year, and total global service by 2024.
How much does it cost? — Like OneWeb, this will depend on the businesses it provides.
How does it compare to Starlink? — SpaceX definitely has an advantage because it launched its first test satellites three years ago. But Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg told Reuters that it had two big advantages: years of industry experience, and the potential to build the constellation for around half the cost of Starlink and Kuiper.
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