SpaceX’s fully reusable Falcon 9 launch system has given it the ability to get objects into space much less expensively than ever before, and it started using that capability to launch Starlink internet satellites in 2018. Now, there are hundreds of satellites in orbit, and SpaceX is ready to start testing the service on a limited basis. Those lucky few who have gotten invitations to try the service will have to pay a hefty upfront cost, and the speeds aren’t amazing. Still, it’s a new generation of satellite internet.
According to SpaceX’s official count, there are just shy of 900 Starlink nodes in orbit of Earth—about 3 percent of the low-cost spacecraft have failed since launch. Regardless, that makes SpaceX the single largest satellite operator in the world, and it has plans for many, many more launches. SpaceX has approval to launch 12,000 internet satellites, but it has asked for permission to boost that number by 30,000. These numbers have astronomers worried as large satellite constellations have the potential to interfere with observations of distant objects and phenomena. SpaceX says it’s looking at ways to mitigate the risk, but it’s not slowing down deployments.
SpaceX has just now decided to launch a public beta test with all those satellites. According to invitations for the “Better Than Nothing” beta, those selected for the test will have to pay $500 upfront for the “phased-array terminal” to receive the signal. It comes with a mounting tripod and Wi-Fi router, but the dish (above) is best mounted on your roof. The brackets for that cost another $100, but that’s what you’ll have to do if you want to use the service long-term.
The monthly cost is $99 for a connection that SpaceX believes will run at 50-150Mbps with latency in the neighborhood of 20-40ms. That’s fast enough for streaming most videos, and it could even be usable for video chat. Most wireline broadband connections are capable of less than 20ms of latency. SpaceX also notes that there will be brief periods of no connectivity at all during the beta, which follows a free testing program that debuted earlier this year. People might be less forgiving of these intermittent issues when they’re paying $100 for the service, and calling it “Better Than Nothing” won’t prevent that.
Currently, all testing is confined to the northern US, but CEO Elon Musk has discussed expanding the program into southern Canada. The company has promised near-global coverage by 2021, which seems perhaps a little generous. Still, the beta is a step in the right direction.
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