Starlink Aiming For Global Coverage By September

Gwynne Shotwel, SpaceX’s president and COO was recently quoted by Reuters:

We’ve successfully deployed 1,800 or so satellites and once all those satellites reach their operational orbit, we will have continuous global coverage, so that should be like September timeframe.”

Shotwel’s comments were made during a conversation with Macquarie Group, an investment banking company.

While Starlink may have global coverage before the end of 2021, I expect it will take longer for Starlink to offer service in the majority of countries. The company has plenty of logistical and regulatory hurdles to deal with.

Earth and space

Upcoming Starlink Update

Yesterday, Starlink shared an update email with subscribers in the company’s beta program. The email mentioned several recent improvements to Starlink’s product. An upcoming, major update was also mentioned:

Today, your Starlink speaks to a single satellite assigned to your terminal for a particular period of time. In the future, if communication with your assigned satellite is interrupted for any reason, your Starlink will seamlessly switch to a different satellite, resulting in far fewer network disruptions.

It sounds like the new feature may be rolled out gradually with most users getting the update sometime this month:

This feature will be available to most beta users in April and is expected to deliver one of our most notable reliability improvements to date.
Stary Sky

Starlink First Impressions

I joined Starlink’s beta and recently got the service up and running. While I’ll write a detailed review eventually, I thought I’d share my first impressions now.

Like others in the beta, I paid about $500 for my satellite dish (Dishy as Starlink calls it) and router. Taxes and shipping added about $100 more.

The Dishy, a basic mount, a router, and cords all showed up in one giant box:

Starlink starter kit box

Setup was incredibly easy. Here’s how simple Starlink’s instructions were:

Starlink setup instructions

Most of the cords were already plugged-in where they belonged. Within about 15 minutes of opening the box, I connected a computer over Wi-Fi and ran a test finding a download speed of about 35Mbps. I ran about a dozen tests in total, and I think that first test found the lowest speed of them all. Here are the results from the first test I ran over a wired connection:

Test result showing 30ms ping and 78.5 Mbps download speed

Starlink suggested I should expect download speeds between 50Mbps and 150Mbps during the beta. Nearly all of my tests showed speeds in that range, but typically in the lower end of the range (50-100Mbps).

While people often focus on speeds, I think speed is an overrated performance metric. Once a connection exceeds something like 20Mbps, further speed increases have vastly diminishing returns.1

Latency is where Starlink shines. My tests consistently showed latency below 50ms. That’s roughly on-par with the typical latency for cable or DSL connections. It’s also about an order of magnitude lower than the usual latency for satellite internet.

I continue to be excited to see where things go with Starlink. I’ll share more as I continue to trial the service.

Miscellaneous notes

  • After setting up my service, I decided to grab the Starlink app in case I missed anything important. The app worked fine, but I didn’t learn anything new from it.
  • Starlink’s communication style is refreshingly informal. It’s the opposite of the corporate-bullshit speak that’s typical from ISPs. E.g., the Starlink beta was named “The Better Than Nothing Beta.” I’d love to see Starlink keep up the current vibe as the service matures.
  • The router has one available Ethernet port (separate from the port used to connect to Dishy).
  • The router’s design is unique (Cybertruck-esque).
Speed abstract

Will Starlink Double Speeds This Year?

When I got invited to Starlink’s beta, the company included this message in my invitation email:

During beta, users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.

Yesterday, a Starlink user tweeted a screenshot showing a download speed of 130Mbps and a latency of 44ms. Here’s the reply Elon Musk left:

It’s an audacious goal. While some tests with Starlink have already shown sub-20ms latency, that kind of performance is far from typical. Getting speeds to 300Mbps this year would be a real accomplishment.

In the last several months, Musk has made a handful of bold predictions. He has claimed humans will probably land on Mars in the next 6 years and that Tesla will be capable of Level 5 autonomous driving by the end of 2021. While I don’t think either of those predictions will come to fruition, I find Musk’s speculation about Starlink’s performance more plausible. I think there’s about a 50% chance the prediction will look basically correct a year from now.

Satellite illustration

Oversubscription Rates For Satellite Internet

Today, Doug Dawson published a blog post titled Understanding Oversubscription. In the post, Dawson gives a good introduction to how and why internet service providers oversell their services.

In the post’s comments section, a question was raised about oversubscription rates with satellite internet services. Conveniently, there’s enough publicly available information to make a back-of-the-envelope estimates of the oversubscription rates for HughesNet and Viasat, the largest satellite internet providers in the United States.

HughesNet Oversubscription Rate

HughesNet’s JUPITER 1 and JUPITER 2 satellites have a combined capacity of about 320Gbps.1 The last annual report for HughesNet’s parent company reported roughly 1.4 million subscribers in the Americas.2 I can guesstimate HughesNet’s oversubscription rate with the help of a few simplifying assumptions:

  • All 1.4 million customers in the Americans are served by JUPITER 1 and JUPITER 2
  • No other customers are served by JUPITER 1 or JUPITER 2
  • On average, customers subscribe to plans with 25Mbps speeds

With those assumptions, HughesNet has an oversubscription rate of about 109.3

Viasat Oversubscription Rate

Viasat’s 2020 Annual Report states that the company has 590,000 subscribers in the U.S.4 Based on some information on Viasat’s website, I can infer that the company’s active satellites have a combined capacity of about 375Gbps.5 Viasat serves a good number of customers outside of the U.S., which complicates the analysis. I’ll pretend half of the capacity, about 188Gbps, is available to U.S. customers. With these assumptions and an average speed of 25Mbps, I can roughly guesstimate Viasat’s oversubscription rate at about 78.6

More On Starlink Terminal Costs

A Business Insider article (paywalled) came out a few hours ago and suggested SpaceX is paying STMicroelectronics about 2.4 billion dollars to manufacture a million Starlink terminals. Business Insider kept the identity of its source confidential, but the source is described as someone “known to Business Insider.”

The source is quoted saying:

The production agreement specifies 1 million terminals at a price of roughly $2,400 each.

$2,400 is a significantly higher price tag than I would have expected for a terminal, but I’m not sure how seriously to take the new information. While I think it’s true that STMicroelectronics is manufacturing Starlink terminals, the full details of SpaceX’s arrangement weren’t communicated in the Business Insider piece. I wouldn’t be surprised if millionth terminal’s marginal cost ends up well under $2,400.

Starlink’s Better Than Nothing Beta

SpaceX’s Starlink is launching a public beta. Yesterday, a Reddit user shared the contents of an invite email. In the email’s opening, Starlink takes a self-deprecating tone:1

We are trying to lower your initial expectations 😛

Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.

It’s refreshing to see an internet service provider (ISP) taking such a candid approach. Emojis, transparency, and Starlink’s name for the service, the “Better Than Nothing Beta,” all contract starkly with the usual corporate-marketing-speak from conventional ISPs. Even with an initial speed of 50Mbps and latency of 40ms, Starlink could be a big improvement for people living in areas that aren’t served by modern, wired ISPs.

Improvements

The email invitation suggested Starlink’s performance will improve substantially over time:

As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations, and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.

Starlink beta pricing

Subscribers joining the Better Than Nothing Beta will have to pay about $100 a month for service and a roughly $500 one-time fee for a user terminal and a router.

I don’t know if the $500 price tag is a good proxy for how much it costs Starlink to produce a terminal. Starlink may be partially subsidizing terminals to keep the service attractive.

More Starlink Speed Tests

Last month, speed tests from beta testers of SpaceX’s Starlink leaked. This month, a few tests conducted by StarLink itself were shared in a public FCC filing. The results are outstanding:

Test 1

  • Ping: 19ms
  • Download speed: 103Mbps
  • Upload speed: 42Mbps

Test 2

  • Ping: 18ms
  • Download speed: 103Mbps
  • Upload speed: 41Mbps

Methodology

SpaceX almost certainly cherry-picked the tests to put Starlink in a good light, but the results are still impressive. I wasn’t convinced Starlink would ever deliver on Elon Musk’s claims about sub-20ms latency. Hell, Ajit Pai, the FCC’s chairman, was skeptical Starlink would deliver sub-120ms latency.

The test results come from screenshots in a presentation slide. I don’t know much about the methodology behind the tests, but it looks like they came from Ookla’s speedtest.net.

Along with the test screenshots, the slide includes some text. Here are a few of the bullets:

  • High-speed, low latency broadband to any location on earth
    • Tested at over 100 Mbps using standard user equipment
    • Latency <40-50ms round trip to the internet

I’m not sure if SpaceX was meaning to imply that the screenshots shared in the slide came from tests using standard equipment. While the screenshots do show speeds over 100Mbps, the latency results are lower than 40Mbps (possibly a lot lower if the tests are measuring round-trip as I expect).1

Here’s the graphical portion of the slide:

Graphical portion of slide showing speed test results

At first glance, I thought two separate tests gave nearly identical results. Zooming in, we can see both tests have the same ID.

Screenshot showing two tests with identical ID numbers

I expect it was an honest mistake on SpaceX’s end, but it’s strange.