After many years of small, incremental changes in the satellite connectivity industry, we’ve begun to see innovation occurring at a much more rapid pace. For example, people worldwide now use satellite internet to access communications during natural disasters, education and health services.
One such innovation is Starlink. It promises to bring high bandwidth and low latency connectivity to almost any location. Today I’ll take a closer look at Starlink technology: its advantages and disadvantages and my predictions for its future in the satellite industry.
- What Is Starlink?
- Advantages of LEO Satellites
- Disadvantages of LEO Satellites
- How Will Starlink Shake Up the Satellite Industry?
What Is Starlink?
Starlink is a network of internet-beaming satellites operated by SpaceX. It currently provides internet access to remote and rural locations in 36 countries via more than 2,500 satellites but aims for global coverage by the end of 2022. Starlink endeavors to meet the “significant unmet demand worldwide for low-cost broadband capabilities,” as stated by Elon Musk in 2015.
Starlink uses LEO (low Earth orbit) satellites. LEO satellites orbit about 1,200 miles above the Earth – much closer than conventional GEO (geosynchronous orbit) satellites that orbit at 22,235 miles.
Advantages of Starlink Satellites
- Lower latency: Starlink satellites are about 60 times closer to the Earth than existing satellites, significantly reducing latency
- Lower cost: Advancements in launch technology and lower power requirements have made Starlink satellites more affordable
- Installs easily: Starlink kits include your Starlink, WiFi router, cables and base. The Starlink app helps determine your best installation location.
- Reduces space junk: Starlink satellites use an onboard propulsion system to deorbit at the end of their functionality. In addition, they are designed to avoid collisions with other satellites based on uplinked tracking data.
- Preserves the night sky: Starlink innovations reduce satellite brightness, protecting the sky’s darkness and minimizing astronomy impact.
- Provides full coverage: LEO orbits are constantly moving relative to a fixed position on Earth, requiring more spacecraft to be visible for your use. However, Starlink has developed an electronically steered antenna that can seamlessly track satellites as they move.
Disadvantages of Starlink Satellites
Obstructions Pose Challenges
Reliable coverage requires a clear view of the northern sky (for use in the northern hemisphere). This can pose challenges in mobility applications where obstructions are common.
Starlink’s user app provides a way to visualize this when determining where to place your terminal. Still, the same process is not always practical in an emergency deployment scenario where “finding a better location” is not always an option.
Congestion Reduces Performance
Some of Starlink’s coverage areas are already congested and waiting for more capacity to come online. In addition, the heavily consumer-focused nature of Starlink’s service results in a much higher likelihood of congestion and reduced performance during peak evening usage hours.
Since a satellite will only provide coverage to your general area (and certainly your time zone), these peak usage periods can also impact performance for mission-critical operations.
Starlink has recently released plans with different priority levels (i.e., commercial high priority service, RV low priority service). It will be interesting to see how these service tiers impact the network’s overall performance for users.
How Will Starlink Shake Up the Satellite Industry?
Starlink represents the largest new capital investment in the satellite industry in ages, possibly ever. Starlink:
- Has a highly visible leader with a large following: Elon Musk’s reputation for innovation continues to bring attention and buy-in to this market.
- Uses LEO orbit satellites and new technologies: Due to the drastically lower latency offered by LEO and MEO satellites, applications that used to be impractical to operate via satellite can now run without issue, e.g. “real-time” applications like VPNs, dispatch, financial transactions, etc.
These factors combine to bring multiple new players to the market, increasing competition and unlocking new applications that previously didn’t make sense.
The technology and rapid innovation rate at Starlink are undoubtedly impressive. However, we believe the key to making Starlink, or any platform, work for an emergency response market is in implementation and service delivery.
This is where we believe the players in this space can truly differentiate themselves by providing services tailored to specific markets rather than expecting markets to adapt to service constraints.
At IP Access, we pride ourselves in crafting fully-integrated combined cellular and satellite solutions that can be deployed in minutes. As a leading rapid deployable satellite provider, we offer disaster-proof solutions to a wide range of customers, from government to enterprise.