SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet service will be available via public beta test beginning in about six months, according to a tweet by Elon Musk. It will be available by private beta test in about three months, he said, and these beta tests will begin in "high latitudes," including the northern United States and Canada. In answer to a tweeted question, Musk said Germany counts as a high latitude as well.
Private beta begins in ~3 months, public beta in ~6 months, starting with high latitudes-; Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 23, 2020
SpaceX has been launching satellites into orbit, 60 satellites at a time, for months in preparation for providing Starlink service. On Wednesday, the company successfully launched another 60 satellites, bringing the total from 360 to 420. That's a significant number, because Musk has said in the past that the company would need 400 satellites in orbit to begin providing service. Now that condition has been met.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell has said that Starlink satellite internet service in the U.S. would probably begin sometime this year. Musk's tweet seems to pin that start date down a bit more. The company has asked for permission to launch a total of up to 42,000 satellites into orbit to provide internet service, and it plans to roll that service out to most of the globe next year.
If it functions as promised, Starlink could be a game-changer for U.S. broadband customers who often must deal with a monopoly or near-monopoly provider. In the past, satellite internet service has mainly been of interest to those in rural areas, where internet service from cable or telecom providers is often unavailable, poor quality, or expensive. And indeed, that's the market SpaceX mentions prominently on its Starlink website.
But Starlink's appeal could go way beyond underserved rural areas. That's because the satellites SpaceX is launching are in a much closer orbit to the Earth than traditional internet satellites, between 210 and 710 miles high, as compared with about 22,000 miles high for most satellite providers. That shorter distance means Starlink can provide service with much less lag time than traditional satellites, and in its filing with the Federal Communications Commission, the company promised download speeds at an impressive one gigabit per second. It didn't specify upload speeds, which could possibly be a sticking point. Still the higher download speed and much lower latency means Starlink could well be an attractive option for a wide range of current broadband customers.
'Is anybody paying less than 80 bucks a month?'
Then there's the question of price. Most customers today choose cable or fiber-optic service over satellite service in part because satellite service costs more, with plans often starting at around $100 a month (as opposed to around $50 a month for cable). SpaceX has not made any announcements as to how much Starlink service will cost, nor whether there will be any sort of cap on data or tiered pricing. But Shotwell provided a clue in a CNN interview last year. Asked how Starlink would compete with existing internet service providers, she said, "Is anybody paying less than 80 bucks a month for crappy service? Nope. That's why we're gonna be successful." That raises the enticing prospect that Starlink might cost less than $80 a month, or at least not more.
Satellite internet service will require installation of a receiver, which Musk has described as resembling "a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick." The science and technology news site Inverse has calculated that installing this receiver might cost between $100 and $300.
Will it truly be possible to sign up for Starlink service by November? If you know anything about Musk, you know that his delivery schedules sometimes slip. But I hope it will be here soon. My husband and I live about 75 miles from the Canadian border, which I'm pretty sure puts us in the "high latitudes." Whenever Starlink does come around, we'll be curious to give it a try. What about you?