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Sunday, November 15, 2020

Internet Satellites Providing Access

Fleets of SpaceX low-orbit satellites are beginning to bring internet service to rural U.S. locations and unserved areas around the globe.

Elon Musk may be the Michelangelo of our times. The storied entrepreneur heads electric tech and car company Tesla, infrastructure and tunnel services outfit The Boring Company, and aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX. Apart from figuring out how to land reusable rocket boosters right-side-up on a ship in the ocean, SpaceX has been working on satellite technology, dubbed “Starlink,” to span the world with internet accessibility. 

Loon Balloons

A few short years ago, Facebook had big plans to use solar-powered drones and laser-based tech to beam Wi-Fi to antennas around the world. Crazy, right? Facebook abandoned the plan in 2018, but Google’s effort to spread the internet survived. What would Google use? Giant balloons containing solar-powered units to transmit from the stratosphere. And they’re starting to be deployed. 

As of July, Kenyans might see a giant (49 feet across) white balloon floating 12 miles above the earth in the central and western part of the African country. Made of common plastic polyethylene (the same as grocery bags), the balloons are launched with the help of a crane and use predictive modeling to shift them as needed for reliable connections on the ground. 

Although speeds are slow compared to the U.S. and they only transmit in daylight, each balloon can cover an area about the size of Delaware, or a little less than 2,000 square miles.

Coverage Needed

You may think that everyone in the U.S. is already covered, but you’d be mistaken. Rural parts of the country often suffer from slow or nonexistent internet service. The pandemic has forced many schools to offer all or a portion of learning online, highlighting the need for accessibility. And there are vast swaths of Africa and other continents that also lack internet connection. 

Falcon 9, designed and manufactured by SpaceX, launched May 23, 2019 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with a nosecone full of the first 60 Starlink internet satellites. According to Musk, 400 satellites would be needed to provide “minor” coverage, 800 for “moderate” coverage, and up to 12,000 for a complete network. For comparison, the 12,000 number is more than six times the count of all operational spacecraft now in orbit.

In fact, more than 700,000 individuals in the U.S. had expressed interest within a month and a half of the company allowing people to register their interest on the Starlink website.  As of August, SpaceX had launched more than 500 of the table-size satellites and had begun building the ground station network to connect consumers to the network. Beta testing began this summer.

Current Speeds Are Slow

With 540 satellites in the air in August 2020, tests conducted by Ookla (and collated by Reddit users) documented download speeds ranging from 11 Mbps (megabits per second) to 60 Mbps, with upload rates between 5 Mbps to 18 Mbps and latency ranging from 31 ms to 94 ms. These compare negatively to eventual expected download speeds reaching 1 Gbps with latency between 25 to 35 ms, but speeds are expected to increase as more satellites are put into orbit. And, the speeds are still above what most rural Americans currently receive. In fact, the average download speed across the entire U.S. is 33.88 Mbps according to mobile performance data aggregator Speedtest

According to the Federal Communications Commission, Starlink is slated to begin offering commercial service in the northern United States and southern Canada before the end of 2020, “and then will rapidly expand to near-global coverage of the populated world in 2021.” Musk has claimed the speed will rival existing services, “… so somebody could play fast-response video games at a competitive level.”

Market Potential

SpaceX plans to use revenue from Starlink to fund its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket, designed to take people to and from Mars and other space destinations. It won’t be an easy task. SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell expects the project to cost $10 billion or more. And Musk himself has admitted that “there is a lot of new technology here. So it’s possible that some of these satellites may not work.” The billionaire added that there’s a “small possibility that all of the satellites will not work.”

However, the gamble could pay off big. SpaceX informed investors that Starlink has a $1 trillion addressable market. One hiccup? Some astrophysicists are not happy that Starlink satellites have been interfering with photographs of comets. The low orbit (341 miles above the earth’s surface) of the satellites gets in the way of stargazing, and with more than 20 times the current number of satellites expected to go up, the problem will likely get worse.

Click below for the other articles in the November 2020 Senior Spirit


Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors