Billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are truly showing their ambitions for space, with Starlink and Project Kuiper each investing over $10bn in satellite broadband. Moreover, Starlink is now live and ready to be used by the general public. SpaceX has deployed nearly 1,000 Starlink satellites into orbit to make Starlink operational. Below, we discuss:
- Overview of Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite broadband initiative
- Detail on other providers like Amazon, who are building a satellite broadband service
- Key characteristics of GEO, MEO and LEO satellites
- Starlink’s satellite deployments to-date and launch plan for the future
- Explain how Starlink works
- Discuss what Starlink can offer in terms of speed, latency and capacity through its public beta launch and once it is fully developed
- Illustrate how Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite broadband initiative ties-in with digital infrastructure
Satellites and the Wireless Ecosystem
Satellites are an integral part of the wireless ecosystem. They connect everything you see below, from providing broadband on airplanes to providing broadband to homes. Satellite connectivity is particularly important for rural and remote communities, which are not supplied by other traditional forms of connectivity.
Three examples of ways in which users typically receive a broadband connection for internet access, to their home or business include:
- Copper (yellow line above): used for phone and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) connectivity, which transmits digital data over telephone lines. Copper is the slowest form of wireline connectivity, but it covers both urban and rural areas.
- Coax (red line above): known as hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC), which is a broadband network that combines optical fiber and coaxial cable. Hybrid fiber-coaxial is a faster form of wireline connectivity than DSL, but it is not available in all rural environments.
- Fiber (blue line above): broadband network that uses optical fiber, which are bundled glass strands that data can be transmitted over. Fiber is the fastest form of wireline connectivity, which is available in urban areas, but it is not usually available in any rural environments.
Satellites are gaining in their importance as another piece of digital infrastructure which can provide connectivity to rural and remote areas. Specifically, to places that do not have connectivity currently. Importantly, Starlink is by far the largest and most advanced satellite broadband provider.
GEO, MEO and LEO Satellites
Overall, it is important to understand the different types of satellite deployments, because it will help characterize why Starlink is such a unique endeavor by SpaceX. Below, is an overview of the three different types of satellite constellations: GEO, MEO and LEO.
Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO) Satellites
Most existing satellite broadband services use Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (also known as geostationary, GEO, or GSO) satellites. This article will refer to them as GEO satellites. Examples of GEO satellites are from DISH Network, DIRECTV, and most weather satellites.
GEO satellites orbit at ~22k miles (~36k kilometers) above the earth and orbit in unison with the earth’s rotation. For context, the distance from a GEO satellite to earth is like driving the historic U.S. Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles, about 9 times. Additionally, each GEO satellite is dedicated to cover a fixed area of the globe.
Given the meaningful distance of GEO satellites from earth, the speed and latency for broadband connectivity suffers, with latency of ~700 milliseconds.
Because of the distance and geosynchronous orbit, a GEO provider can cover the entire globe with only 3 satellites in orbit and have 99% coverage.
Gateways, also known as “ground stations”, are specialized satellite stations located on earth and used to telecommunicate with satellites. GEO satellite constellations only need a few gateways on earth, in order to function appropriately.
Cost to Deploy Network
GEO is the least expensive way to deploy a satellite broadband network, with an estimated cost between $1bn to $1.5bn.
Satellite Design Life
GEO satellites last the longest amount of time in space and need to be replaced only every 15 years.
Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) Satellites
MEO is the region of space around the earth above Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and below Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO). Specifically, MEO satellites orbit at ~5k miles (~8k kilometers) above the earth.
As compared to GEO satellites, MEO’s latency is drastically better at only ~150 milliseconds. This is primarily driven by the fact that MEO satellites orbit much closer to earth.
MEO providers can cover the entire globe with 6 satellites in orbit and have 96% coverage.
Gateways, also known as “ground stations”, are specialized satellite stations located on earth and used to telecommunicate with satellites. MEO satellite constellations need several gateways on earth, in order to function appropriately.
Cost to Deploy Network
MEO constellations are in the middle, in terms of cost to deploy a satellite broadband network, with an estimated cost of $1.5bn.
Satellite Design Life
Given that MEO satellites are in closer proximity to earth, they experience more wear and tear than GEO satellites. Therefore, MEO satellites need to be replaced every 12 years.
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites
Starlink offers Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite broadband services. These are small, inexpensive satellites orbiting at just ~620 miles (1k kilometers) above the earth. For context, LEO satellite’s orbital distance from earth is equivalent to driving from Chicago to Atlanta.
Additionally, Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) satellites orbit at ~200 miles (~320 kilometers) above earth. Therefore, these satellites are barely in space and orbiting in the upper atmosphere. For context, VLEO satellite’s orbital distance from earth is equivalent to driving from Chicago to Indianapolis, Indiana.
LEO satellites are made up of a large number of satellites, known as a “constellation”. Additionally, LEO satellites can orbit the globe very fast, completing a full earth orbit in under one hour. Because of LEO’s close distance to earth and sheer number of satellites in its constellation, it can a provide far better broadband solution, in terms of speeds and low-latency.
As compared to GEO and MEO satellites, LEO’s latency is meaningfully better at only ~50 milliseconds, which is very low. This is primarily driven by the fact that LEO satellites orbit the closest to earth.
One of the downsides for LEO is that thousands of satellites are needed for 100% coverage. This partly explains why Starlink is building an 11,943 satellite constellation.
Gateways, also known as “ground stations”, are specialized satellite stations located on earth and used to telecommunicate with satellites. LEO satellite constellations need a significant number of gateways on earth, in order to function appropriately.
Cost to Deploy Network
LEO is the most expensive way to deploy a satellite broadband network, with cost estimates between $5bn to $15bn. Specifically, rocket launch costs are expensive and take a significant amount of time. Indeed, because LEO needs more satellites, significantly more rocket launches take place. In comparison, GEO and MEO satellites need only 3 to 6 satellites to cover the globe, and thus have fewer rocket launches.
Satellite Design Life
LEO satellites last the shortest amount of time in space and need replacing every 5 to 7 years. This is because LEO satellites orbit in the upper atmosphere and eventually de-orbit back to earth. Thus, a LEO constellation needs constant replenishing of new satellites.
Satellite Operators – Broadband Services
Below are five active global satellite initiatives including Elon Musk’s Starlink by SpaceX, Project Kuiper by Amazon, and OneWeb backed by the Government of the United Kingdom and Bharti Enterprises. The sheer size of these initiatives (e.g., Starlink at 11,943 satellites) demonstrate the ambitions of billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in space. For context, there are only ~3,000 operational satellites in space today and only ~9,000 total satellites have been launched in human history.
Starlink – Elon Musk’s Satellite Broadband Initiative
Starlink is SpaceX’s satellite broadband service and it is by far the largest and most advanced satellite broadband provider. Separately, SpaceX is investing in rocket technology to colonize Mars in order for humanity to ensure long-term survival by becoming a multi-planet species.
Satellites (Potential) of Starlink
- Current Plan: 11,943 satellite constellation built over the next 6 to 7 years (i.e., 2026 or 2027 completion). These satellites have Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval. Indeed, Starlink will invest ~$10bn into this satellite broadband initiative.
- Long-Term: 42,000 satellite constellation, using next-generation satellites with additional throughput and lower latency (<20 milliseconds). SpaceX filed an application with the International Telecommunication Union to arrange spectrum for 30,000 additional Starlink satellites.
Starlink will use the Ka, Ku, and V frequency bands. Additionally, Starlink will operate at an altitude of 550 kilometers (340 miles) above the earth. Finally, Starlink’s purpose is to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband connectivity across the globe.
Project Kuiper (Amazon)
Amazon’s Project Kuiper is planning to be the second largest Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite broadband provider, behind Starlink. Amazon also owns rocket launch company Blue Origin, which is more than 5 years behind SpaceX in rocket technology. Separately, Blue Origin has the goal of moving heavy industry off earth and into space.
Satellites (Potential) of Project Kuiper
Project Kuiper plans to build a 3,236 satellite constellation. To do this, Project Kuiper will deploy satellites in five phases, with broadband service beginning once it has 578 satellites in orbit. Indeed, Amazon will invest more than $10bn into Project Kuiper to support this initiative.
Project Kuiper will use the Ka and Ku frequency bands. Additionally, Project Kuiper will operate at an altitude of 590 kilometers to 630 kilometers above the earth. Finally, the purpose of Project Kuiper is to serve places where broadband access is unreliable or where it does not exist at all.
Boeing plans to build a 3,016 satellite constellation and will use the Ka and V frequency bands.
OneWeb has the backing of the Government of the United Kingdom and Bharti Enterprises. The company previously filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2020, when it was formerly owned by SoftBank. OneWeb plans to build a 648 satellite constellation. Additionally, OneWeb will use the Ku frequency band.
Telesat plans to build a 292 satellite constellation and will use the Ka frequency band.
Starlink Overview – Elon Musk’s Satellite Vision
Starlink will provide high-speed, low-latency broadband connectivity across the globe for homes and businesses. Specifically, this targets locations where traditionally internet has been too expensive, unreliable, or entirely unavailable. To do this, Starlink offers Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite broadband services.
Starlink’s focus is on rural, or semi-rural areas, which are the places that do not have connectivity currently. The company’s total addressable market is to eventually serve ~5% of people in the world. Starlink’s goal is to serve the ~4 billion underserved or poorly served people globally, with no access to broadband internet.
Therefore, Starlink will expand broadband availability to areas where deploying traditional, wireline services is not economically feasible. Indeed, Starlink is not ideal for high-density cities which have faster alternatives, including cable and fiber broadband connectivity.
Starlink Satellite Deployment Status
In 2019, Starlink deployed 120 satellites over two successful launch missions. Additionally, Starlink is deploying satellites with reusable rocket booster technology (seen below). Indeed, SpaceX, which launches the Starlink satellites, is the only company with the capability to recover and re-use orbital rockets.
SpaceX’s first stage boosters land back on land or at sea on SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS). At present, SpaceX has deployed 955 Starlink satellites into orbit. Furthermore, Elon Musk has plans to have over 1,000 Starlink satellites in orbit by the end of 2020.
Falcon 9 (60 Satellites per launch)
Starlink is currently launching satellites every two weeks using SpaceX’s re-usable Falcon 9 rocket and launch system. Each bi-weekly launch brings 60 satellites into space, equating to 120 satellites per month. Overall, Starlink is on-track to launch ~1,500 satellites per year, using the Falcon 9 rocket.
Falcon Heavy (250 Satellites per launch)
Starlink could also use SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. The Falcon Heavy, has the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs). This equates to a payload of ~250 satellites per launch.
Starship (400 Satellites per launch)
Finally, Starlink could also use SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket, once ready. The Starship can carry 100 metric tons to earth orbit, equating to a payload of ~400 satellites per launch.
Launch Profile for SpaceX’s Re-Usable Rocket Technology
Starlink and the LEO satellite broadband solution’s growing interest is being driven in-part by cheaper satellite costs, but mainly by investment in rocket technology. Specifically, re-usable rocket technology, which allows for a lower cost for each launch that Starlink does.
Specifically, the advanced heat-shield technology provides far more durability on re-entry for reusability. Indeed, Elon Musk has a goal of flying re-usable rockets twice within 24 hours. By doing this, it will help avoid the scenario where most of the equipment is discarded on each mission.
How Does Starlink Satellite Broadband Work?
Satellite broadband networks use their altitude of deployment and wide area coverage to bring global internet access from space to areas underserved by wireline networks. Satellites (below middle) are launched into space via rocket and positioned into the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). They facilitate two-way broadband service by simultaneously sending data “to” as well as receiving data “from” the ground station (below left) and the user terminal (below right).
Starlink Comprises Three Primary Components:
User Terminal (above right)
This is a small satellite dish, 1.5-feet in diameter that sits outside the user’s home. The satellite dish is electrically steered to ensure a connection with the appropriate satellites moving across the sky.
Starlink’s user terminal has a simple installation, with no technician need, simply point it at the sky and plug it in. Indeed, the terminal does need to be placed outdoors and requires and direct line of sight to the sky. In order to reach the internet, the terminal will send its request to one of the satellites crossing the sky.
Satellite (above middle)
Initially, Starlink satellites will use the Ku band. Eventually, Starlink will also use the Ka and V band frequencies. Overall, the primary frequency bands licensed to satellite networks are the: Ku band at 12 to 18 GHz, Ka band at 27 to 40 GHz, and V band at 40 to 75 GHz.
These bands are the frequencies with the resources and throughput best suited for transmissions via satellite. The satellite, in turn, beams the instructions to a ground station, which processes the request.
Ground Station (above left)
Starlink has more than 50 ground stations throughout the United States and will be building far more over time to reduce latency. The ground station is connected via fiber and is in close proximity to a data center to connect to the internet or a cloud on-ramp. Digital Infrastructure plays a critical role in the functioning of satellites, specifically the fiber and data centers that are enabling satellite connectivity to the internet.
Once instructions are received by the ground station, meaning the website is reached, the process is reversed as the ground station then sends the necessary data to the satellite through forward uplink, and then back to the user terminal through forward downlink. Therefore, the satellite provides both the fronthaul to the home and the backhaul to the data center.
Starlink Public Beta Test of Satellite Broadband Service
On October 27, 2020, SpaceX expanded the beta test of its Starlink satellite broadband service to the public for select users that expressed interest. SpaceX also launched an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband service. For the last few months, SpaceX had conducted a private beta test with employees.
Starlink’s pricing for its service is $99 per month and includes a $499 cost to order the Starlink system, plus a shipping fee of $50. The package includes a satellite dish (or user terminal), tripod mount, cabling, and a Wi-Fi router. Additionally, there are currently no data caps or contracts for the Starlink service.
Users are told to expect to experience data speeds from 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps and latency from 20 milliseconds to 40 milliseconds over the next several months. However, speed tests for beta users using Starlink’s broadband service in actuality are experiencing download speeds of 11 Mbps to 60 Mbps and upload speeds of 5 Mbps to 18 Mbps (i.e., lower). Indeed, Starlink’s performance will improve from the additional satellite launches, in the future.
Starlink’s public beta test targets the small set of U.S. subscribers that have little or no internet connection. Specifically, states receiving the service, are certain northern states along the Canadian border.
Elon Musk’s End Goal for the Starlink Satellite Broadband Service
Once fully developed, Starlink will offer high-speed, low latency satellite broadband to any location on earth. Elon Musk lays out the following targets for Starlink in terms of speed, latency, and capacity of the network.
Speeds of Starlink
Starlink tests have shown download speeds of over 100 Mbps and upload speeds of over 40 Mbps (see below), using standard user equipment.
Latency of Starlink
Satellite latency is driven by altitude. Therefore, Starlink’s low-latency, is a function of it orbiting at 550 kilometers (340 miles) above earth. Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband at total latency (ping) below 40 milliseconds to 50 milliseconds (see below). Furthermore, Starlink’s target latency is to be below 20 milliseconds, which is ideal for gaming, and below 10 milliseconds, over time.
Capacity (Network Throughput) of Starlink – per Satellite Basis
Starlink’s phased array antennas allow the system to automatically steer beams to optimize service to certain locations. Therefore, the system can dynamically adjust its capacity in certain locations to match consumer demand and regulatory requirements. Each satellite in the Starlink system provides aggregate downlink capacity to users, on average of ~20 Gbps.
Capacity (Network Throughput) of Starlink – Overall
Overall, each rocket launch by SpaceX adds 1.2 Tbps of capacity to Starlink’s network. This assumes 60 satellites in a Falcon 9 launch, with capacity, on average, of ~20 Gbps per satellite. Therefore, once Starlink’s 11,943 satellite constellation is built over the next 6 to 7 years (by 2026 or 2027), the system will be able to serve ~500,000 simultaneous United States households with speeds of 100 Mbps.
However, not all of Starlink’s customers will be online at the same time, using Starlink’s total capacity. Therefore, assuming a 4x oversubscription rate, implies that 2.0 million households in the United States could subscribe to Starlink’s broadband services.
As a comparison, the largest United States Cable providers have significantly more subscribers:
- Comcast (through Xfinity) has 30 million broadband subscribers
- Charter Communications (through Spectrum) has 28 million broadband subscribers
- AT&T has 15 million broadband subscribers
Digital Infrastructure – Supporting Elon Musk’s Starlink Satellite Network
Digital Infrastructure is the physical link driving connectivity as Internet traffic, mobile data traffic, and data storage needs increase. The four sectors of digital infrastructure, include Towers, Data Centers, Fiber, and Small Cells & Distributed Antenna Systems. Below are some highlights of how Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites and the different types of digital infrastructure will co-exist.
Microsoft Partnering with SpaceX and Starlink Using Azure Cloud
In mid-October 2020, Microsoft announced that it is collaborating with SpaceX to connect Starlink’s network to Microsoft’s datacenters. This partnership includes a new Azure Modular Datacenter service. Customers will use this service for cloud computing capabilities in hybrid or challenging environments, like in remote areas. This builds on Microsoft’s earlier rollout of Azure Orbital, which is a platform that processes data from satellites and provides ground station communications as a service.
What Does it Mean for 5G?
The wide area coverage of satellites bring worldwide services to areas still not covered by traditional optical fiber, hybrid fiber-coaxial, DSL, and wireless networks, complementing the 5G convergence. Resilience in internet access is mandatory for 5G use cases such as autonomous vehicles, emergency medical systems and the Internet of Things.
The role of reliable and ubiquitous satellite access is an integral part of existing wireline and wireless networks for bringing “connectivity-to-everything” in 5G. Satellite networks combine data transmission via wireless 5G and cable networks.
For example, satellites have much broader coverage than cellular towers, allowing for long-range transmission. Additionally, satellites do not face the physical constraints of a cable network. Therefore, satellites can provide connectivity in areas without coverage from these cellular tower and cable networks.
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