SpaceX Starlink Satellite Internet Update 2020
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.
How to sign up for the Starlink beta
You can finally sign up for the Starlink beta, just enter your email address and address on the official website. We did notice that you’ll need to select your address from the drop-down autofill options. If you try to enter in a custom address, you can’t sign up for the beta.
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.
We also managed to dig up a more recent speed test for Starlink internet that shows download speeds of about 45 Mbps and upload speeds of about 5 Mbps, plus latency of 75 ms.
Those results may not seem stellar, but remember, Starlink is still in the process of deploying satellites and ground stations while working out the kinks in its beta test.
And, if you put those speeds in perspective, they’re faster than any HughesNet satellite internet plan, which caps out at 25 Mbps. Plus, 45 Mbps download speeds are also faster than most of Viasat’s internet plans. And 75 ms latency makes online gaming enjoyable when you compare it to satellite internet’s average latency of about 600 ms.
Starlink satellite internet will have less latency
Speaking of latency, Elon Musk remarked in a SATELLITE 2020 keynote speech that he thinks Starlink will have about 20-millisecond (ms) latency.14 And the recent speed test result we found shows a latency of 75 ms.
If you were wondering, 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 traditional 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 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 over 400 satellites in orbit currently, Starlink hopes to create a megaconstellation of 42,000 satellites.
At the time we’re writing this, SpaceX has launched 595 Starlink satellites into space.12
That means Starlink surpassed the 400 satellites Musk said need to be in orbit for “minor” internet service coverage—and still has a ways to go to get to the 42,000 total satellites SpaceX is now hoping to launch.7, 8
Back here on Earth, Starlink set up six ground stations to provide fixed satellite service.15 These first stations are located in the following towns:
- Hawthorne, California
- Conrad, Montana
- Greenville, Pennsylvania
- North Bend, Washington
- Redmond, Washington
- Merrillan, Wisconsin
SpaceX originally filed a request with the FCC for 1 million Earth stations. But thanks to the massive number of beta test applicants (700,000+), the company recently amended its request to ask the FCC for permission to build 5 million Earth stations.16 Newly requested Earth station sites include some of the following towns:
- Limestone, Maine
- Panaca, Nevada
- Beekmantown, New York
- Kalama, Washington
- Evanston, Wyoming
What equipment will Starlink satellite internet use?
You’ll connect to Starlink satellites through a ground terminal that looks like a “UFO on a stick.”
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
60 Starlink satellites are flat-packed into a Falcon 9 nose cone.
Source: Elon Musk/Twitter
But what about the satellite dish that sits on your roof? We’ve heard Musk describe these, also called terminals, as a “UFO on a stick,” but that brings to mind all kinds of ideas.
Looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick. Starlink Terminal has motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky. Instructions are simply:— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2020
- Plug in socket
- Point at sky
These instructions work in either order. No training required.
Luckily, Reddit user darkpenguin22 did some sleuthing around Merrillan, Wisconsin, and shared photos of some Starlink equipment, including the infamous “UFO on a stick” ground terminals. Looks pretty sleek, doesn’t it?
Darkpenguin22 also managed to grab a full shot of the Starlink ground terminal equipment, including the small user terminals next to the white, spherical antenna radomes, which protect sensitive equipment. Look at how tiny the user terminals look next to the radomes!
Musk originally said the ground terminals look like a “small- to medium-sized pizza,” which led to the internet calling these terminals and gateways “pizza boxes.”9 We can kinda see what he means . . . if we squint a little.
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, 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.
Though it’s faced some difficulties gaining approval, Starlink finally landed a go-ahead from the FCC to operate a satellite system of 4,425 satellites and provide satellite internet service worldwide.13 That’s a step in the right direction.
It’s likely Starlink’s original launch date is delayed thanks to this year’s series of (unfortunate) events. But if you’re itching to get your hands on Starlink satellite internet, you can always sign up for the beta.
The beta puts us one step closer to an actual launch date. Prior to opening up the beta, Starlink let the US Air Force test its 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?
Source: Elon Musk/Twitter
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.
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 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. You can get a head start and sign up to be a beta tester when Starlink becomes available in your area.
- 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 August 10, 2020, 595 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.
|Provider||Monthly price||Download speeds||Learn more|
|Viasat Internet||$30–$150*||12–100 Mbps||View Plans|
|HughesNet Internet||$59.99–$150†||25 Mbps||View Plans|
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “2016 Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report.” December 2016. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Jackie Wattles, CNN, “Here’s What You Need to Know About SpaceX’s Starlink Internet Service.” October 2019. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Patricia Cooper, Senate.gov, “Statement of Patricia Cooper, Vice President, Satellite Government Affairs, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX).” May 2017. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Dave Mosher, Business Insider, “Elon Musk Just Revealed New Details About Starlink, a Plan to Surround Earth With 12,000 High-Speed Internet Satellites. Here’s How It Might Work.” May 2019. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Joey Roulette, Reuters, “Musk’s Satellite Project Testing Encrypted Internet With Military Planes.” October 2019. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Caleb Henry, SpaceNews, “SpaceX Launches Fourth Batch of Starlink Satellites, Tweaks Satellite Design.” January 2020. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Tariq Malik, Space.com, “SpaceX’s Starlink Broadband Service Will Begin in 2020: Report.” October 2019. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Mike Wall, Space.com, “SpaceX’s Starlink Constellation Could Swell by 30,000 More Satellites.” October 2019. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Mike Brown, Inverse, “How SpaceX Starlink Works: Connecting, Price, Launch Date for Elon Musk’s Internet.” January 2020. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews, “SpaceX Plans to Start Offering Starlink Broadband Services in 2020.” October 2019. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Cliff O., YouTube, “SpaceX Seattle 2015.” January 2015. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Sissi Cao, Observer “SpaceX Starlink Tracker: Every Satellite Launched and How to See Them in the Sky.” August 2020. Accessed August 10, 2020.
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “FCC Authorizes SpaceX to Provide Broadband Satellite Services.” March 2018. Accessed March 4, 2020.
- Via Satellite Magazine, YouTube, “Elon Musk, Founder & Chief Engineer, SpaceX – SATELLITE 2020 Opening Day Keynote.” March 2020. Accessed August 10, 2020.
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “FCC Pending Applications List By File Number.” August 2020. Accessed August 10, 2020.
- Michael Sheetz, CNBC, “SpaceX Says Starlink Internet Has ‘Extraordinary Demand,’ With Nearly 700,000 Interested in Service.” August 2020. Accessed August 10, 2020.