WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Over half the people on the planet have little or no access to the internet, Elon Musk’s global satellite network is looking to fix that.
Elon Musk, as well as many other billionaires and countries, from China to the UK, have a dream of connecting every person on the planet to the internet using constellations of Low Earth Orbit satellites, and to realise that ambition Musk and SpaceX began launching their Starlink constellation last year.
Now the beta users of their Starlink satellite broadband service have reported they’re getting download speeds ranging from 11Mbps to 60Mbps from the network and upload speeds ranging from 5Mbps to 18Mbps which, given the conditions, is impressive.
The speed tests are in from multiple locations in the US
The tests, which were conducted over the past two weeks, also showed latencies ranging from 31ms to 94ms, and while this is by no means a comprehensive study of Starlink speeds and latency it gives us a glimpse of what’s possible as the network ramps up and connectivity speeds start to increase.
SpaceX told the Federal Communications Commission that Starlink would eventually hit gigabit speeds, saying in its 2016 application to the FCC that “once fully optimised through the Final Deployment, the system will be able to provide high bandwidth, of up to 1Gbps per user, low latency broadband services for consumers and businesses in the US and globally.”
So far SpaceX has launched about 600 satellites and has FCC permission to connect the entire US and launch up to 12,000, but while 60Mbps isn’t a gigabit it’s on par with some of the lower cable speed tiers and is much higher than speeds offered by many DSL services in the rural areas where SpaceX is likely to see plenty of interest and where traditional rural broadband providers are now firmly on notice.
“We’re targeting latency below 20 milliseconds, so somebody could play a fast-response video game at a competitive level,” said Musk in March. SpaceX satellites have low-Earth orbits of 540km to 570km, making them capable of much lower latency than geostationary satellites that orbit at about 35,000km.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai doubted Musk’s latency claims at the time and in May 2020 proposed to classify SpaceX and all other satellite operators as high-latency providers, I.E. above 100ms for purposes of a rural-broadband funding distribution. The FCC then backed off that plan but said companies like SpaceX will have to prove they can offer low latencies, and it continued to express “serious doubts” that SpaceX and other similar providers will be able to deliver latencies of less than 100ms. But it’s already looking like, yet again, Musk is surprising people and over achieving, so it’ll be interesting to see just how fast the network is once it’s fully operational.