SpaceX Starlink Satellite Internet Update 2020

SpaceX’s Starlink internet seeks to solve the rural vs. urban internet divide, and it looks promising.
The logo for SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet
Estimated launch:
Mid-2020
Estimated cost:
$80/mo.
Estimated equipment fees::
$100–$300
Recent Updates: 2 weeks ago
We couldn't wait to share this great news: SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink satellites on March 18, 2020, putting its total number of satellites in orbit at 302.12

It’s the space race, but unlike the 50s, this race’s goal is to connect the world—including rural areas—to the internet. Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet project aims to bring affordable, fast internet to underserved parts of the US and the world.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) 2016 report found that 62 percent of Americans have only one choice for “fixed advanced telecommunications capability.”1 And when they looked at rural areas specifically, the number of Americans stuck with just one internet service provider (ISP) to choose from rose to 87 percent.1

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said that while existing ISPs are improving, it’s still hard for them to reach rural areas. But “Starlink . . . will cover all parts of the globe.”2

Okay, that sounds great and all, but how will SpaceX and Starlink give rural Americans a better, faster, and cheaper way to connect to the internet? Some of the details remain murky as we wait to try out the service, but here’s what we do know about Starlink satellite internet so far.

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How will Starlink internet work?

Starlink satellites will sit closer to the Earth to reduce latency and use lasers to boost internet speeds.

Elon Musk and SpaceX hope that Starlink’s unique technology will help it fill the connectivity gap between urban and rural areas.

Right now, rural areas face challenges when it comes to getting internet access because of the massive cost of infrastructure. That means the cost of digging trenches, laying cable or fiber, and even dealing with property rights disputes.

But Starlink’s satellites will beam an internet signal directly to a gateway or user terminal on the ground.3 That means there’s much less infrastructure needed to get that internet signal to rural homes.

To top it off, SpaceX says its Starlink internet will be faster and have less latency than current satellite internet. But how?

Starlink satellite internet will be faster

First, each Starlink satellite will communicate with four other satellites using lasers. That means they’ll beam data across the globe at almost the speed of light—a speed that only fiber-optic internet comes close to matching.4

How fast will Starlink internet be?

An initial beta test partnership between the US Air Force and Starlink, called Global Lightning, saw download speeds of 610 Mbps.5

Global Lightning started in early 2018 and used two Starlink satellites to send information to terminals inside a C-12 transport plane while it was in flight.

Starlink satellite internet will have less latency

And as for latency? Well, latency is the time it takes for your internet signal to travel from your computer to your ISP, to the website server, and then back to you.

With satellite internet, that means your signal has to travel 22,200 miles to reach the satellite, then back down to the website server, back up to the satellite, and back to you. You can bet that takes a hot minute, which is why satellite internet’s latency is typically between 500 and 600 milliseconds (ms).

But Starlink satellites will sit about 342 miles above the Earth’s surface.4 That’s much closer than other satellites, which means there’s much less distance for your internet signal to travel to a Starlink satellite.

And you know what that means: less latency. (We’re cheering, can you hear us?)

How many Starlink satellites are in orbit?

With just over 300 satellites in orbit currently, Starlink hopes to create a megaconstellation of 42,000 satellites.

At the time we’re writing this, SpaceX has launched 302 Starlink satellites into space.12

That means Starlink is just about 100 satellites short of the 400 satellites Musk said need to be in orbit for “minor” internet service coverage—and a small step toward the 42,000 total satellites SpaceX is now hoping to launch.7, 8

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SpaceX hopes to reuse payload fairings
SpaceX’s Shotwell mentioned that the company is working on a way to reuse the payload fairing, or nose cone, of the SpaceX rockets.2 This not only should decrease cost but also reduce the number of materials needed to get Starlink satellites into space.

What equipment will Starlink satellite internet use?

You’ll connect to Starlink satellites through a ground terminal or gateway about the size of a pizza box.

It wouldn’t be satellite internet without satellites, and Starlink has a ton of them. Each satellite is about as big as your office desk and weighs close to 500 pounds—that means the January 2020 Falcon 9 mission carried 30,000 pounds of satellites into space!4

Sixty Starlink satellites inside a Falcon 9 rocket's nose cone

60 Starlink satellites are flat-packed into a Falcon 9 nose cone.
Source: Elon Musk/Twitter

Starlink will also rely on ground terminals or gateways to bring internet into your home. Musk said they look like a “small- to medium-sized pizza,” which led to the internet calling these terminals and gateways “pizza boxes.”9

Each terminal is expected to cost anywhere from $100 to $300—but it’s not clear who will pay that cost or if there will be a monthly rental fee instead of an upfront payment.11

When can you get Starlink satellite internet?

Look for Starlink satellite internet service in mid-2020 at the earliest and at the cost of about $80 a month.

We’re told this is the year we’ll get Starlink satellite internet—though we don’t yet have a month or even day just yet. SpaceX’s president said we can expect to see Starlink’s internet service open up to Americans in mid-2020.10

If it’s going to make its target release date, SpaceX needs to launch six to eight batches of satellites (it just launched its fourth batch), plus finish the design and engineer the user terminals.10

Along with getting its satellites in orbit and finalizing the terminal, SpaceX has to file requests and gain approval from the US’s FCC and United Nations’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for its Starlink plans. Those aren’t easy tasks, but we’re all crossing our fingers in anticipation anyway.

How much will Starlink internet cost?

We mentioned earlier that Musk previously said the cost of user terminals will be $100–$300—and we have reason to believe Starlink satellite internet will cost somewhere around $80 a month.11, 4

How’d we get those numbers? The $100–$300 cost for the user terminal comes from a speech Musk gave back in 2015, and the $80 per month cost comes from a comment SpaceX president Shotwell made during a CNN interview: “Is anybody paying less than 80 bucks a month for crappy service? Nope. That’s why we’re gonna be successful.”2

To compare, a satellite internet plan from Viasat ranges from $30 to $150 a month for download speeds of 12 Mbps up to 100 Mbps, and HughesNet plans range from about $60 to $150 a month for download speeds of 25 Mbps.

Where will Starlink be available?

SpaceX’s first goal is to bring speedy satellite internet to rural areas in the US and Canada. After that, Musk and his company hope to expand service to other parts of the world.

This plan for world domin—er, internet connectivity—would require SpaceX to launch about 2,800 more satellites—but at higher altitudes between 700 and 800 miles above the Earth.4 And hey, Alaskans, Musk is prepared to show you some love too by launching satellites that would orbit over the Earth’s poles.

How to sign up for Starlink

Right now, there’s no way to sign up as a beta tester or get your name on a waitlist for Starlink internet service. Sad day, we know.

But we must be getting closer to an actual launch date because the US Air Force is beta testing Starlink internet service with its Global Lightning program and Musk himself got to test out Starlink internet in his own home.

Yup, Musk sent a tweet through space using the Starlink satellites currently in orbit. Is that cool or what?

Elon Musk tweets while using Starlink satellite internet

We’re all sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for Starlink to be revealed. So check back here to see if a launch date or sign-up link has been announced.

Recap: Will Starlink satellite internet service be good?

We’re all eager to see whether Starlink lives up to the hype, but the Air Force beta test that saw download speeds around 600 Mbps looks promising. To recap, here are some of the key points we know or can guess at so far:

  • When will Starlink internet be available? Right now, the earliest date is mid-2020 in the US and Canada.
  • How much will Starlink internet cost? Our best guess is around $80 a month and maybe an additional $100–$300 for the user terminal.
  • How many Starlink satellites are in orbit? As of March 18, 2020, 302 Starlink satellites are in orbit.
  • How many Starlink satellites will be in orbit when the launches are done? SpaceX has filed requests to launch a total of 42,000 satellites so far.
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