Though the system still has a ways to go
During the launch of its latest batch of internet-beaming Starlink satellites, SpaceX revealed key details about the planned constellation’s abilities, claiming that the satellites have shown “super low latency and download speeds greater than 100 mbps.” The speeds are still not as fast as what SpaceX originally claimed for the constellation, but they are slightly faster than what early user testing has shown.
Starlink is SpaceX’s ambitious plan to launch nearly 12,000 satellites into low orbits around Earth in order to provide broadband coverage to the ground below. Users of the system are meant to tap into the constellation using personal antennas on the ground, what SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has described as looking like a “UFO on a stick.” Early photos of the device have been revealed in the source code of SpaceX’s Starlink website.
After today’s launch, SpaceX has put more than 700 satellites in orbit, more than the 400 needed to provide “initial operational capability,” according to Musk, and close to the 800 needed to provide “significant operational capabilities.” This summer, SpaceX began early beta testing of the constellation, with employees using Starlink to test out the download speeds. “The Starlink team has been collecting latency statistics and performing standard speed tests of the system,” Kate Tice, senior program reliability engineer at SpaceX, said during the launch broadcast today. “This means that we’re checking how fast data travels from the satellites to our customers, and then back to the rest of the internet. Initial results have been good.”
Tice stated that the download speeds were greater than 100 megabytes per second (MBps), while SpaceX’s Twitter account repeated that claim. The statement seemed to be an error, though, as SpaceX then deleted the tweet to clarify that the download speeds were actually 100 megabits per second (Mbps). Tice also said the latency speeds have been “low enough to play the fastest online video games, and our download speed is fast enough to stream multiple HD movies at once and still have bandwidth to spare.”
It sounds impressive, but it’s still not quite the gigabit speeds that SpaceX promised in its original filing with the Federal Communications Commission. SpaceX noted in the filing that it would need to deploy its first full constellation of more than 4,400 satellites to get up to those speeds. Tice also clarified that there is still a lot of work to be done with Starlink, too. “Our network, of course, is very much a work in progress,” she said. “And over time, we will continue to add features to unlock the full capability of that network.”
The 100 Mbps speeds are also slightly more impressive than what early tests have shown through Ookla’s speedtest.net tool, a service designed to test download and upload speeds. In mid-August, Reddit users posted tests from supposed beta testers using the Starlink constellation who were receiving average download speeds of between 11 Mbps and 60 Mbps. Such speeds are on the low end compared to traditional broadband internet, although they may still be faster than speeds currently available in many rural areas of the US. SpaceX does hope to roll out the Starlink service to rural or hard-to-reach areas where even lower speeds might be an improvement of the status quo.
Still, demonstrating faster speeds is going to be key for SpaceX, as it’s vying for funds from an FCC auction slated for October of this year. The FCC is offering up to $16 billion to companies that can help bring broadband services to “over six million homes and businesses in census blocks that are entirely unserved by voice and broadband.” And the FCC is looking for downloads speeds of at least 25 Mbps, with upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.
SpaceX claims that it has just achieved a big breakthrough with its Starlink satellites that could help with data sharing. During the webcast, Tice noted that SpaceX had successfully tested two satellites in orbit that had inter-satellite links, “space lasers” that allowed the satellites to transfer “hundreds of gigabytes of data” between the two spacecraft. Prior to launching its first Starlink satellites, SpaceX said that all of its satellites would have inter-satellite links like the one demonstrated recently. “Once the space lasers are fully deployed, Starlink will be one of the fastest options available to transfer data around the world,” Tice said.
In the meantime, SpaceX is about to open up public beta testing. Interested users can sign up through the company’s Starlink website, providing their email and address to see if they qualify for the program. In an FAQ found in the source code of the Starlink website, SpaceX said that beta testing would focus first on rural communities in Washington, expanding to the northern United States and southern Canada. Public beta tests should provide better real-world results than these early beta tests, though users will likely have to sign nondisclosure agreements, according to SpaceX’s original source code. “You may NOT discuss your participation in the Beta Program online or with those outside of your household, unless they are SpaceX employees,” the website’s FAQ stated.