Starlink is charging almost $600 to beta test its satellite internet network

That steep price is really quite fair when taken in the context of what other satellite providers offer.

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Starlink, the satellite-based internet company created by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is finally almost ready to unleash its bandwidth to the world. People around the world will soon be able to tap into Starlink’s astral internet network no matter where they are — as long as they have a few hundred dollars to spare, that is.

The company sent out its first round of beta invites to interested parties this week, according to emails seen by CNBC and posted by Reddit users. The email invites customers to take part in the “Better Than Nothing Beta” by paying an upfront fee of $499 for the Starlink Kit (a user terminal, a mounting tripod, and a Wi-Fi router). Oh, and there’s also a $99 per month service fee, and the shipping cost, and the taxes…

“As you can tell from the title, we are trying to lower your initial expectations,” the email begins, along with a smiley emoji.

The launch has been a long time coming, to say the least; SpaceX first announced its plans publicly in 2015. With almost 900 satellites now in orbit around the Earth, it’s looking like satellite-based internet connections might be very close indeed.

Is it really better than nothing? — Yes, really. While many of us have fallen into the habit of taking for granted high-speed internet connections, those in rural areas are often faced with low-speed, high-latency connections that are barely worth the cost of upkeep. We’re talking unable-to-stream-Netflix levels of bad.

Starlink’s high startup cost might seem ludicrous to those used to fiber-optic networks, but even that $499 is kind of a bargain given that just getting the network off the ground is costing SpaceX something like $10 billion. When you take into account the relative high speeds and low latency of Starlink’s connections, that $99 is something of a bargain, really.

Mixed transmissions — If there’s anything holding SpaceX back, it’s competing interests. The company needs to make lots of money to survive and even more to thrive — but Starlink also wants to be altruistic. Its mission is to provide internet connectivity not just to those with existing, crappy satellite connections, but also to the entire world.

Here, then, is the issue: many people in underserved areas do not have an extra hundred dollars to spend on internet connectivity each month, never mind hundreds more for equipment. The tension between running an enormous business operation — which requires profits — and simultaneously fulfilling an altruistic goal is something Starlink will need to eventually reckon with.

The cyberspace race is on — Starlink’s beta program is only open right now to a very limited number of people. But the company says 2021 will be the year we see a global rollout of its technology — something its closest competitor, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, can’t boast.

Starlink is ahead of the curve by lightyears, a lead that’s not likely to fade any time soon. For those of us with reliable internet connections already, the technology probably won’t be of much use. For the rest of the world, though, it could be life-changing.