Starlink explained: Everything you should know about Elon Musk's satellite internet venture
The billionaire SpaceX CEO is launching satellites into orbit and promising to deliver high-speed broadband internet to as many users as possible.
When you think of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, chances are good that you think of , or his recent stint (to say nothing of or ). Maybe you just know him as one of the richest people on Earth.
Something you might be less familiar with is a venture of Musk's called Starlink, which aims to sell internet connections to almost anyone on the planet by way of a growing network of private satellites orbiting overhead.
After years of development within SpaceX -- and after securing nearlyat the end of 2020 -- Starlink's progress seems to be accelerating in 2021. In January, after about three years' worth of successful launches, the project surpassed 1,000 satellites delivered into orbit -- now, in June, SpaceX says the number sits . In February, Musk's company disclosed that . The service is in the process of , with people currently living without access to high-speed internet as one of the top priorities.
SpaceX says that it expects Starlink-- though regional availability will depend on regulatory approval. During a talk at Mobile World Congress in June of this year, Musk told an audience that Starlink would be available worldwide except at the North and South Poles .
The budding internet service isn't without its controversies. Members of the scientific community have raised concerns about the impact of Starlink's low-earth orbit satellites plenty of regulatory jousting and attempts to slow Musk down.. Meanwhile, including , and have taken notice of Starlink's momentum, too, prompting
All of that makes Starlink well worth keeping an eye on in 2021. For now, here's everything you should know about it.
Video: Testing out SpaceX Starlink satellite internet
OK, start at the beginning: What is Starlink, exactly?
Technically a division within SpaceX, Starlink is also the name of the spaceflight company's growing network -- or "constellation" -- of orbital satellites. The development of that network began in 2015, with the first prototype satellites launched into orbit in 2018.
In the years since, SpaceX has deployed over 1,000 Starlink satellites into orbit across dozens of successful launches. In January, for its first Starlink mission of 2021, SpaceX launched 60 satellites into orbit from Kennedy Space Center using the landable, relaunchable Falcon 9 orbital rocket. Subsequent launches, the most recent of which delivered another 60 satellites into orbit on May 26, have brought the total number of satellites in the constellation up to 1,737, though some of those satellites are prototypes or non-operational units that aren't functioning parts of the network.
And those satellites can connect my home to the internet?
That's the idea, yes.
Just like existinglike , Starlink wants to sell internet access -- particularly to people in rural areas and other parts of the world who don't already have access to high-speed broadband.
"Starlink is ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge," the Starlink website reads. "Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable."
All you need to do to make the connection is set up a small satellite dish at your home to receive the signal and pass the bandwidth on to your router. There's even a Starlink app for Android and iOS that uses augmented reality to help customers pick the best location and position for their receivers.
Starlink's service is only available in select regions in the US, Canada and abroad at this point, but the service now boasts, and the coverage map will continue to grow as more satellites make their way into the constellation. Eventually, Starlink hopes to blanket the entire planet in a usable, high-speed Wi-Fi signal.
How fast is Starlink's internet service?
"Users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds in most locations over the next several months," Starlink's website says, while also warning of brief periods of no connectivity at all. "As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically."
To that end, Musk tweeted in February that he expects the service by the end of 2021.
CNET's John Kim signed up for the service at his home in California and recently began testing it out at a variety of locations. At home, he averaged download speeds around 78Mbps, and latency around 36ms. You can see more of his first impressions in the video posted above, or by.
How much does Starlink cost?
Starlink has begun accepting preorders from customers interested in joining. The cost of the service is billed at $99 per month, plus taxes and fees, plus an initial payment of $500 for the mountable satellite dish and router that you'll need to install at home.
Starlink says that it's taking orders from customers on a first-come, first-served basis and that some preorders could take as long as six months to fulfill.
$99 per month is a lot for an internet connection, especially one, but Musk is betting that the cost will be worth it for people who have thus far lived without access to a reliably fast connection at all.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently told a forum on satellite technology that Starlink had no plans to add speed or pricing tiers, with the intention of keeping the service's pricing as straightforward as possible. Additionally, Shotwell said that she expects the $500 upfront cost of the receiver dish .
Where is Starlink available?
For now, service is limited to the northwest US, adjacent parts of Canada, parts of the UK and select other areas, but the coverage map will grow considerably as more satellites join the constellation. There's still a ways to go -- Starlink will likely need at least 10,000 satellites in orbit before it can claim to offer full service to a majority of the globe (and SpaceX has shown signs that it wants as many as 30,000 satellites in the constellation). Right now, it's only about 20% of the way there at best, with coverage focused on regions sitting between 45 and 53 degrees north latitude.
Still, Musk has been bullish about the Starlink timeline. During an interview at 2021's Mobile World Congress, Musk said that Starlink will hit worldwide availability except at the North and South Poles. Earlier in June, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell a similar sentiment, and said that Starlink .
"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 [the] September time frame," Shotwell said.
Why satellites, anyway? Isn't fiber faster?
Fiber, or internet delivered via ground-laid fiber-optic cable, offers upload and download speeds that are indeed much faster than satellite internet -- but, as a dedicated phone service, too., there's nothing fast about deploying the infrastructure necessary to get fiber to people's homes. That's not to say that there's anything simple about shooting satellites into space, but with fewer sharp-elbowed competitors -- and with a lot less red tape to cut through -- there's every reason to believe that services like Starlink will reach the bulk of underserved communities long before fiber ever will. Recent FCC filings also suggest that Starlink could ultimately double
And don't forget that this is Elon Musk we're talking about. SpaceX is the only company on the planet with a landable, reusable rocket capable of delivering payload after payload into orbit. That's a mighty advantage in the commercial space race. On top of that, Musk said in 2018 that Starlink will help provide SpaceX with revenue needed to fund the company's long-held ambition to establish a base on Mars.
If that day arrives, it's also likely that SpaceX will try to establish a satellite constellation on the red planet, too. That means that Starlink customers are potentially doubling as guinea pigs for the Martian wireless networks of the future.
"If you send a million people to Mars, you better provide some way for them to communicate," Shotwell said in 2016, speaking about the company's long-term vision for Starlink. "I don't think the people who go to Mars are going to be satisfied with some terrible, old-fashioned radios. They'll want their iPhones or Androids on Mars."
"For services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities."
Still, with top speeds currently pegged at 150Mbps, Starlink's satellite internet won't be anywhere near the gigabit fiber speeds people on Earth are used to anytime soon -- and that's due to the sheer distance each transmission needs to travel on its round trip from your home to the stratosphere. It's a factor that also jacks up latency, which is why you'll often notice awkward lulls in the conversation if you're talking to someone over a satellite connection.
That said, Starlink promises to improve upon existing expectations for satellite connections by placing satellites into orbit at lower altitudes than before -- 60 times closer to the Earth's surface than traditional satellites, per the company's claims. This low-earth orbit approach means that there's less distance for those Starlink signals to travel -- and thus, less latency. We'll let you know how those claims hold up once we're able to test the Starlink network out for ourselves.
Is Starlink reliable?
Early reports from outlets like Fast Company and CNBC seem to indicate that Starlink's first customers are satisfied with the service, though the company warns of "brief periods of no connectivity at all" during beta.
The website DownDetector.com, which tracks service outages, lists four disruptions to Starlink in 2021, one each in January, February, and April, with the most recent outage occurring on May 6. For comparison, DownDetector lists no major outages in 2021 for HughesNet, and one in February for ViaSat.
Starlink users spanning from Arizona to Alberta, Canada noted the May outage on Reddit -- for most, service seemed to resume within a few hours.
What about bad weather and other obstructions?
That's definitely one of the downsides to satellite internet. Per Starlink's FAQ, the receiver is capable of melting snow that lands on it, but it can't do anything about surrounding snow build-up and other obstructions that might block its line of sight to the satellite.
"We recommend installing Starlink in a location that avoids snow build-up and other obstructions from blocking the field of view," the FAQ reads. "Heavy rain or wind can also affect your satellite internet connection, potentially leading to slower speeds or a rare outage."
Are there any other issues with Starlink's satellites?
There's plenty of concern about the proliferation of privately owned satellites in space, andabout the impact low-orbiting satellites have on the night sky itself.
In 2019, shortly after the deployment of Starlink's first broadband satellites, thewarning of unforeseen consequences for stargazing and for the protection of nocturnal wildlife.
"We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten both," the statement reads.
Since then, Starlink has begun testing a variety of new designs intended to reduce the brightness and visibility of its satellites. At the start of 2020, the company tested a "DarkSat" satellite that included a special, nonreflective coating. Later, in June of 2020, the company launched a "VisorSat" satellite that features a special sunshade visor. In August, Starlink launched another batch of satellites -- this time, all of them were equipped with visors.
"We want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure little kids can look through their telescope," Shotwell said. "It's cool for them to see a Starlink. But they should be looking at Saturn, at the moon ... and not want to be interrupted."
"The Starlink teams have worked closely with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the specifics of their observations and engineering changes we can make to reduce satellite brightness," the company website reads.
OK. Where can I learn more about Starlink?
We'll continue to cover Starlink's progress from a variety of angles here on CNET, so stay tuned. You should also be sure to read Eric Mack's excellent profile of Starlink -- among other issues, it takes a close look at the project's goals and challenges, as well as the implications for underserved internet consumers, and for astronomers concerned with light pollution obstructing views in the night sky.
Beyond that, we expect to continue testing Starlink's network for ourselves throughout this year. When we know more about how the satellite service stacks up as an internet provider, we'll tell you all about it.