Did you know Elon Musk’s ambitious internet project Starlink now has a whopping 4,200+ satellites orbiting overhead? That’s more than half of the number of active satellites in total. While that sheer number is enough to raise alarms and has many from the scientific community worried about issues like their growing impact on night sky visibility, the billionaire is convinced Starlink is what the future of the internet looks like.
But what exactly is Starlink, how does it work, is it available in India, and why is it controversial? We answer these questions today.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a project by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, to provide high-speed internet access to anywhere on the planet using a constellation of thousands of satellites. The satellites are launched in batches of 60 and orbit the Earth at a low altitude of about 550 kilometers. Starlink aims to offer broadband service that is faster, cheaper, and more reliable than existing options, especially in rural and remote areas where connectivity is limited or nonexistent.
How does Starlink work?
Unlike traditional satellite internet, which relies on a single geostationary satellite that orbits at around 35,000 km above the planet, Starlink satellites fly much closer to the surface, at about 550 km, reducing the latency and increasing the bandwidth of the connection. Each satellite uses four phased array antennas and two parabolic antennas to provide increased capacity.
Starlink satellites also use advanced technologies such as optical space lasers, ion propulsion systems, and self-orienting antennas to communicate with each other and with the ground stations. While the project currently in beta testing, SpaceX plans to launch thousands of more satellites in the coming years to cover the entire globe and offer truly universal internet access.
To use Starlink, you need a Starlink kit that includes a Starlink dish, a WiFi router/power supply, cables, and a base. The dish is self-orienting and connects quickly as long as it has a clear view of the sky. You can use the Starlink app to manage your service and check your signal strength.
How fast is Starlink?
According to the latest data from Ookla, a website that measures internet performance, Starlink’s average download speed in the US was only 67Mbps in the first quarter of 2023. That’s a far cry from the 300Mbps that Musk claimed the service would reach by the end of 2021. It’s also lower than the 91Mbps that Starlink achieved in early 2022, suggesting that the service may be struggling to keep up with the growing demand from its customers.
Starlink still outperforms its satellite rivals, Viasat and HughesNet, which had median download speeds of 34Mbps and 15Mbps, respectively. But it falls short of the average speed for fixed broadband in the US, which was 193Mbps in the same period. The service also suffers from high latency and variable performance, depending on factors such as weather, location, and time of day.
Starlink says that it is constantly improving its service by launching more satellites, installing more ground stations, and upgrading its software. The company also plans to offer a cheaper and more portable version of its dish antenna later this year. But until then, Starlink users may have to settle for less than stellar speeds.
Why go for satellite service over fiber?
Satellite internet may not be as fast as fiber, but it has one major advantage: accessibility. Unlike fiber, which requires time-consuming infrastructure to reach remote areas, satellite internet can beam down signals from the sky to almost anywhere on Earth. That means that people who live in rural or underserved regions can enjoy broadband speeds that are comparable to or better than DSL or cable. Starlink does plan to improve speeds and latency with new launch of low-earth orbit satellites though.
According to SpaceX, Starlink has more than 400,000 global subscribers as of May 2022, a significant increase from 250,000 subscribers in March. The Starlink app also made its debut on the list of the top 100 most downloaded iPhone apps in the US on Apple’s App Store in September, indicating a growing demand for the service.
Is Starlink available in India?
Starlink is expected to launch its services in India soon. The company has reportedly already written to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for facilitating approvals to use satellite technology for internet access in remote areas. There’s no launch date or pricing plans at hand currently, though.
But the Elon Musk-owned company is not the only player in the race to provide satellite internet in India. Telecom giants Airtel and Jio are also gearing up for this emerging market. Airtel-backed OneWeb and Jio’s satellite arm, Jio Space Technology, have applied for the GMPCS licence, which is a prerequisite for offering satellite-based communication services.
Why is Starlink controversial?
For Starlink’s vision of providing internet access worldwide to be realised, the sky will need thousands of additional satellites. Astronomers and environmentalists fear that this will disrupt the natural beauty and balance of the night sky, since these low-orbiting satellites are highly visible and reflective and create bright streaks across the dark sky. This interferes with astronomical observations and even wildlife behaviour.
Despite Starlink’s attempts to mitigate this issue by testing different designs and coatings for its satellites, many experts remain unconvinced and concerned about the long-term effects of such a massive deployment of artificial objects in space. Starlink’s controversy highlights the need for more regulation and oversight of the rapidly growing private space industry, as well as more dialogue and collaboration between different stakeholders. Indian Express