Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite broadband service, today announced that it now has over 10k users on its network and plans to use its $886m of government support from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program, known as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), to fuel its rapid deployment of internet service to underserved Americans.
Background – SpaceX and Starlink
Starlink is a creation of SpaceX, which is a subsidiary of Tesla. Starlink offers the world’s first high-speed, low-latency satellite internet service. Indeed, Starlink operates the world’s largest fleet of satellites to deliver consistent service to the world’s most disconnected areas, including those in the United States.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized SpaceX in 2018 to deploy and operate a constellation of more than 4.4k satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). In the two years following SpaceX’s authorization, the company established a U.S.-based manufacturing capability for Starlink satellites, customer premises equipment (known as user terminals or CPE) and ground station antennas.
As a result, SpaceX has created a ground-based network that currently communicates with over 1.0k Starlink satellites in orbit. In turn, this has allowed Starlink to commence its beta service with thousands of users located across multiple states.
Overall, Starlink has the capacity to support high-throughput, low-latency broadband service to unserved or underserved communities. Specifically, these include even the most remote and rural areas of the United States. Additionally, Starlink promises to materially contribute to closing the digital divide, a key goal of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Starlink – Public Beta Program Update
Currently, over 10k users in the United States and globally are using the Starlink service. Indeed, the Starlink network has already surpassed key performance benchmarks from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), including:
- Download Speeds: 100 megabits per second to individual users
- Upload Speeds: 20 megabits per second to individual users
- Latency (Round-Trip): 95% of network measurements at or below 31 milliseconds
- Voice Services: successful tests over the Starlink network
At the same time, Starlink’s network performance continues to improve, as SpaceX launches additional satellites into orbit. Indeed, SpaceX is currently averaging two Starlink launches per month. In turn, these additional satellites launched by SpaceX will add significant on-orbit capacity to Starlink’s network.
Furthermore, Starlink is also activating additional gateways, also known as ground stations. This will improve performance and expand service coverage across the U.S. Indeed, gateways are specialized satellite stations located on earth and used to telecommunicate with Starlink’s satellites in space.
Satellite Network Architecture – Starlink and SpaceX
The Starlink network has two primary components, which include the space segment and ground network.
(1) Space Segment
SpaceX is able to maintain a frequent launch cadence by re-using the first stages of the Falcon 9 rocket. Specifically, the Falcon 9 rocket can be flown at least 10 times and can be refurbished for re-flight in under two months. Importantly, SpaceX has a system whereby satellites can be stacked and utilizes an innovative deployment approach. These unique aspects of SpaceX allow it to cost-effectively launch the Starlink constellation.
Overall, SpaceX is able to launch 60 Starlink satellites at a time, with a launch occurring every two weeks. SpaceX’s frequent launch cadence has cumulatively brought more than 1.0k satellites in orbit. Indeed, this satellite constellation surpasses the size necessary for Starlink to provide uninterrupted internet service to much of the United States.
Starlink delivers service to users by coordinating the delivery of thousands of radio-frequency (RF) beams across the satellite fleet. Specifically, Starlink is able to dynamically allocate connections between the satellites in space and users on the ground.
Starlink’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites operate 65 times closer to the earth than geostationary (GEO) satellites. Therefore, the first generation of Starlink’s satellites are able to generate ultra-small spot size beams. In turn, Starlink is able to deliver higher speed and lower latency services to its customers.
(2) Ground Network
Gateways (Ground Stations)
SpaceX’s satellite constellation communicates with a ground network of gateways, also known as ground stations. Indeed, SpaceX already has more than 50 gateways throughout the United States and will be building far more over time. Additional gateway deployments will be located to optimize service and reduce latency for consumers across the United States.
The gateways connect via fiber and are in close proximity to a data center to connect to the internet or a cloud on-ramp. Each satellite currently has two Ka- band parabolic antennas that form connections back to the internet backbone. These antennas connect to ground station sites deployed across the United States that directly connect via fiber to SpaceX’s points-of-presence (PoPs), inside data centers.
Starlink Kits (User Terminal)
SpaceX provides customers with their own phased-array terminal to be deployed at their home to connect directly to the satellite’s Ku-band radio-frequency (RF) beam, assigned to the user’s service area. Because the Starlink satellites are constantly moving, the network plans these connections on 15-second intervals. Specifically, Starlink continuously re-generates and publishes a schedule of connections to the satellite fleet and hands-off connections between satellites.
Importantly, the Starlink network can leverage these hand-offs to optimize its ability to meet customer needs. At the same time, the network can deliver high-speeds of >100 megabits per second and low-latency of <30 milliseconds. To accomplish these frequent hand-offs, Starlink uses advanced phased-array technology for both the satellite and the customer Starlink kit. Indeed, this allows for nearly instantaneous hand-offs between different satellites with no mechanical transitions.
Phased-array technologies facilitate efficient spectrum sharing by allowing both the satellite and user antennas to adjust the direction where they steer their radio-frequency (RF) beams. This is done purely by adjusting the signal of individual antenna elements that make up the combined phased-array.
Both the user terminal and the satellite phased-array are made up of hundreds of antenna elements. These antenna elements are controlled by digital beamforming chips that SpaceX has designed for dynamic hand-offs. Indeed, the ability to control hand-offs through software, with millisecond precision, allows SpaceX to turn the constant motion of the constellation into a key advantage for the Starlink network. These micro-adjustments enhance Starlink’s reliability and enables more efficient management of capacity in real-time.
Agreements and Network Demand – Starlink and SpaceX
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has certified all Starlink customer premises equipment. Specifically, this comprises a user terminal, power supply and Wi-Fi router, for residential use. Indeed, this means that Starlink has all authorizations necessary to offer mass-market consumer satellite internet service.
To-date, SpaceX has entered into service agreements, with underserved indigenous communities, first responders, and schools. Additionally, demand for Starlink is strong and widespread. Firstly, Starlink has over 10k users already on the system globally. Secondly, hundreds of thousands of individuals spread across all 50 states have registered their interest for the service at Starlink.com.
Rural Digital Opportunity Fund – SpaceX and Starlink
In January 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to ensure continued and rapid deployment of broadband networks to underserved Americans. The Phase 1 auction concluded in late November 2020 and awarded a total of $9.2bn in support over 10 years. Indeed, SpaceX was awarded $886m of this support to provide broadband and standalone voice services in 35 states. In December 2020, SpaceX assigned its winning bids to Starlink, its subsidiary.
Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) – Starlink
Starlink today submitted a petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC). Indeed, the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) designation is a requirement in all census blocks that Starlink will serve as part of the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Specifically, these states include Alabama, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Designating Starlink as an ETC will enable the company to receive support that will facilitate its rapid deployment of broadband and voice service to the states it won in the FCC RDOF auction. Starlink has requested that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grant this petition by June 7, 2021. Overall, this timeline allows Starlink to meet the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deadline for ETC designation for the purposes of receiving RDOF support.