Starlink: transforming rural internet from space?

By Trevor Pott

A still frame from the live video feed from the upper stage of the rocket. The stack is 60 Starlink broadband data satellites, delivering 1TB/sec of bandwidth from above. Many more to come, connecting the next 4B people to the global economy. / Official SpaceX Photos Starlink Mission

Starlink is a satellite constellation being built by a private space agency in an attempt to radically alter internet connectivity around the world. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Starlink is expected to begin limited public trials in summer of 2020, with retail services to Canada likely to begin in 2021. Starlink promises high-speed, low-latency internet to any location outside of a major city, including underserved locations such as the Robson Valley.

Starlink is set to consist of a minimum of 12,000 satellites, though SpaceX has received approval for up to 42,000 satellites. These satellites will occupy orbits in various orbital “shells” ranging from altitudes of 1325km to as low as 335km. For reference, the International Space Station (ISS) typically orbits at approximately 400km.

Altitude matters in space: the farther you are from the earth, the longer it takes light to travel that distance. Traditional satellite internet operates from Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO), or a little over 35,000km above the

Earth. At this distance, a signal (such as a reader attempting to access The Goat’s website) takes approximately 540 milliseconds (about half a second) to make the round trip all the way up to a GEO satellite and back down again.

Starlink’s use of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites reduces that round trip latency to between 25msec (0.025 seconds) and 50msec (0.05 seconds), depending on the distance between your receiver and whichever Starlink satellite you happen to be using at the time.

SpaceX is far from the only company to attempt to build a constellation for the purposes of providing satellite internet from Low Earth Orbit (LEO), however, it has launched more satellites than any of its competitors. SpaceX has thus far launched 240 satellites in 4 launches (60 per rocket) by reusing their own flight-proven Falcon 9 rockets.

Oneweb is another company pursuing a LEO satellite cluster, with 40 active satellites currently flying, and an aggressive launch cadence planned for 2020, with up to 34 satellites per launch. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon CEO

Jeff Bezos, has also completed paperwork for a similar cluster, however, as of time of writing Blue Origin has yet to reach orbit.

Oneweb is planning to operate early satellites in a polar orbit, giving them coverage north of the BC/Yukon border sooner than SpaceX. Current simulations of the first shell of Starlink satellites indicate that SpaceX will struggle to support customers farther north than Mackenzie until future shells of the constellation are completed.

Both Oneweb and Starlink are undergoing trials, with Elon Musk claiming to be using Starlink at home already. While the cost of these services is yet to be determined, if affordable, LEO satellite constellations such as Starlink could solve Canada’s rural internet problem for the foreseeable future.

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