In October, the American company SpaceX began public beta testing of the Starlink global satellite system. According to the promulgated terms, access to the network will cost $ 499 (one-time payment for equipment, excluding taxes, delivery, and installation) plus $ 99 per month (subscription fee). Currently, users from the USA and Canada will be able to take advantage of this offer. Lenta.ru tells Lenta.ru about what Starlink is, how important this project is for SpaceX and why it is unlikely to appear in Russia shortly.
“Expect data rates to range from 50 megabits per second to 150 megabits per second and signal latency from 20 milliseconds to 40 milliseconds over the next few months as the Starlink system improves. There will also be brief periods of no connection at all. As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations, and improve our network software, data rates, latency, and uptime will dramatically improve. As for the delay, we expect that by the summer of 2021 it will reach 16-19 milliseconds, says a letter with a proposal to test Starlink sent by SpaceX to potential subscribers from the US states bordering southern Canada.
The internet connectivity equipment includes a phased array user terminal, which the company says is more advanced than fighter jets amounting tripod, and a Wi-Fi router. From the beginning of the installation of this equipment to going online, according to SpaceX, it will take no more than ten minutes. The applications available in the Apple App Store and Google Play, which contain instructions on how to set up and manage the network, should facilitate the connection to Starlink. In addition to the standard kit, roof mounts can be purchased for an additional fee, which will likely increase the time required to mount the equipment.
SpaceX’s designated subscription fee for access to a full high-speed broadband internet turns out to be extremely beneficial for users in the United States, where the average monthly fee for such services is estimated at 70 dollars. Moreover, given the claimed speed and ping of Starlink, the offer turns out to be more profitable than purchasing access to the network from other satellite providers, with which SpaceX, in general, needs to be compared. It also cannot be ruled out that in the future, as the number of satellites and the number of Starlink users increases, the cost of the terminal and the network subscription fee will decrease. According to the head of SpaceX Elon Musk, users will be offered various terminal options, the cost of which ranges from $ 100 to $ 300. The subscription fee may vary depending on traffic. The commercial use of Starlink around the world is slated to launch in 2021.
It is Starlink, and not the launch business of launching spacecraft with used Falcon 9 rockets or the delivery of NASA astronauts using the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), in the next few years, can bring SpaceX multibillion-dollar profits. This will bring the flight of the first people to Mars even closer to reality, for which, according to Musk, the company appeared. According to the head of SpaceX, the expected investment in Starlink by the mid-2020s will be at least $ 10 billion.
Investment bank Morgan Stanley estimates SpaceX’s base value, which was $ 52 billion in July, topped $ 100 billion in October. The main contribution (81 billion) to this figure, according to the credit institution, is made by the Starlink system of near-earth satellites. In second place is the startup business (12 billion). The third is the Big Falcon Rocket reusable transport system (BFR, 9 billion), with the help of which Musk, in particular, plans to begin the colonization of Mars.
By comparison, investment bank Jefferies Group estimates that SpaceX earned about $ 2 billion from Falcon 9 launches in 2018, more than its competitors from the United States and other countries, in particular the United Launch Alliance (ULA, 1.75 billion dollars) and Northrop Grumman (1.2 billion) – the main partners of Roskosmos in the United States, using Russian rocket engines RD-180 and RD-181, respectively.
Significantly, SpaceX hopes to receive funding from the US FCC, which would provide a subsidy to equip rural areas with the Internet. According to the regulator’s requirements, the ping should not exceed 100 milliseconds, and the speed should not fall below 25 megabits per second, which the company has already demonstrated. The maximum amount that SpaceX can receive from the FCC is $ 16 billion over 10 years, which should cover a significant portion of the costs of creating Starlink.
Starlink operation assumes the presence of two segments – space and ground. The first involves the deployment of satellites in low Earth orbit, the second – the presence of a network control center, gateway stations, and subscriber terminals. Currently, the main part of the terrestrial network is built on the Google infrastructure, terrestrial routing is carried out over fiber-optic communication lines, the servers are probably located in the same place as the gateway stations.
With one launch of Falcon 9, 60 Starlink spacecraft are launched. The design life of one such spacecraft in low Earth orbit is estimated at five years, after which the satellite should descend and burn up in the atmosphere. By the mid-2020s, the company plans to deploy at least 12,000 Starlink spacecraft. Now there are about 900 launched, and the average launch speed is 120 satellites per month.
The spacecraft, being in an orbit with an altitude of more than 500 kilometers, is capable of covering a circular area with a radius of about 900 kilometers under it on Earth. Considering that the satellite relative to the subscriber terminal moves at a speed of more than 400 kilometers per minute, one such spacecraft will be in the visibility zone of a particular gateway station or subscriber terminal for only a few minutes, as a result of which the parabolic antennas of ground terminals must have time to turn behind the satellite (at a speed of approximately several tens of degrees per minute).
To work in the Starlink network, at least one gateway station must be in the coverage area of the satellite signal with which the subscriber terminal communicates. In the summer of 2020, SpaceX began testing a laser connection between Starlink spacecraft, which allowed about 100 gigabytes of data to be transferred between a pair of satellites. The company assures that the full-scale use of this technology will make Starlink one of the fastest data transfer options around the world, which will not only provide low ping but also attract the US military to invest in Starlink for communication with fighters. Also, the use of lasers will make it possible to do without gateway stations where their placement is difficult not only physically, for example, at sea, but also for other reasons.
Since the throughput of one Starlink spacecraft is estimated at 17 gigabits per second, it becomes clear that in conditions of dense urban development, for example, in Moscow and Chinese cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, SpaceX’s Internet is at least of the declared configuration, will be inferior to the usual wired, as well as wireless 4G and 5G networks, which cannot be said, for example, about the hard-to-reach regions of the Far North. While SpaceX is not currently tasked with providing Internet access from the Arctic, it cannot be ruled out that the Pentagon’s interest in the region will make Starlink available there as well.
Starlink has two opponents in Russia. The first is Roscosmos, which categorically refuses to cooperate with SpaceX on satellite Internet, calling the American company a Pentagon contractor. However, this does not prevent the state corporation from selling rocket engines in the United States, which are used, among other things to launch military satellites and to advocate the deployment of gateway stations on the territory of Russia, a direct competitor to Starlink the system of the British company OneWeb. The latter is probably not connected with the desire of the state corporation to give access to satellite Internet to Russian users, who practically do not notice any obvious benefit from the Russian satellite constellation, but primarily with the purchase of OneWeb through the European operator Arianespace medium missiles Soyuz-2 for launching satellites and using the latest Russian components.
The second party that opposes Starlink is the FSB. In fact, the security forces are not directly opposing the SpaceX project, but against OneWeb, although the starting legal positions of these companies in Russia are equivalent. This is because the interests of OneWeb in Russia volunteered to represent Roscosmos in the person of the operator of the only Russian low-orbit satellite communications system, Gonets. The latter states that the FSB has two main complaints about OneWeb. The first is the electromagnetic compatibility of the system with Russian satellite systems, the second is the issues of ensuring the system of operational-search measures (SORM).
The International Telecommunication Union has now recognized the compliance of OneWeb satellites with emission power flux density standards. Thus, the second claim remains, which implies an integrated approach to controlling traffic passing through the system, authenticating subscribers, and analyzing the possibility of using OneWeb to commit illegal actions. The FSB says that statements that the satellite communication system is not of an intelligent nature and cannot harm the interests of the individual and society of Russia are largely declarative in nature and cannot be reliably verified. In fact, this means that Russia refuses to place OneWeb gateway stations on its territory. Thus, SpaceX’s use of a laser connection, which eliminates the need for gateway stations, together with the position of Roscosmos, practically excludes Starlink’s work legally in Russia.
According to the requirements of the State Commission on Radio Frequencies, which were promptly updated in 2018, the import of mobile satellite terminals into Russia by persons other than telecom operators is prohibited. Nevertheless, according to the current Russian legislation, the use of Starlink terminals by individuals in Russia is not yet clearly prohibited, although it is likely that the origin of such a device for its user in the country may raise questions. It is curious that instead of OneWeb or Starlink, which has comparable capabilities, the Russians are not offered anything, and the Ministry of Defense prefers not the Russian Messenger, but the American Iridium. This is due to the low bandwidth and low speed of the former compared to the latter. What is even more interesting – the desire to cooperate with OneWeb in Messenger is explained by the savings on capital costs in the form of an orbital constellation.