Back in my childhood hometown in Calhoun County, West Virginia, my high school friend Bill Bailey says his DSL connection gives him an “average speed of 27Kbps.” That’s Kilobits per second. He might do better with a modem. It’s not just him. Tens of millions of Americans who live in the country can only dream of having broadband. The answer to their internet dreams may lie in the skies above them, with SpaceX Starlink satellites.
SpaceX has applied for the Federal Communication Commission’s up-to $16 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). This is a plan to bring broadband — with download speeds of at least 25Mbps — to six million homes and businesses, which currently have no broadband. As part of its presentation, Starlink showed internet performance tests with download speeds of between 102Mbps to 103Mbps, upload speeds of 40.5Mbps to not quite 42Mbps, and a latency of 18 milliseconds to 19 milliseconds. That’s much better than conventional satellite internet, comparable to low-end cable internet, and far beyond what most rural internet users can get.
Other independent third-party tests are showing lower performance numbers. Users posting to TestMy.Net are showing an average download speed of 37.04Mbps, with a top speed of 91.04Mbps. Other tests show a top download number of 103Mbps, an upload speed of 41.99Mbps, and a latency of 18 milliseconds. That’s still much better broadband than many rural users have been seeing.
Of course, the Linux-powered Starlink satellites are still in beta. And, with about 775 Starlink satellites now in orbit, the service is far short of its initial goal of 12,000 satellites. SpaceX has applied to the FCC to launch 30,000 Starlink satellites. According to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX needs about 400 Starlink satellites to provide “minor” coverage and 800 for “moderate” coverage.
Pent-up demand for Starlink’s fast Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) internet is also increasing. SpaceX recently applied for an FCC license to roll out five million ‘UFO on a stick’ end-user terminals over its original request for a million terminals. This came after 700,000 US residents signed up to be updated about the service’s availability.
It’s not just broadband-hungry individuals who want Starlink services. Rural governments, such as the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), are also looking to the sky for broadband. “We know today our citizens require greater connectivity than 50/10 megabits per second,” said FONOM president Danny Whalen in a recent press release. And, “FONOM believes that the Starlink program is our best option.”
So, why aren’t we seeing more beta testers or even an early release program? The answer is there aren’t enough terminals in the production pipeline. A close reading of the SpaceX FCC request to modify the Starlink satellite constellation orbits reveals SpaceX is “on track to produce thousands of consumer user terminals per month, heading toward high-rate production.” If they’re on track to produce thousands, that implies they’re now only producing hundreds of terminals per month.
This theory is further supported by a search for SpaceX Starlink job openings. This LinkedIn search revealed that the company is actively looking for “talented production associates to help establish a new manufacturing and test processes and eventually ramp to full-scale production for the user terminal.” The company is also looking “for skilled and well-rounded maintenance technicians to help ensure high productivity and reliability of our high volume Starlink User Terminal manufacturing facility.” SpaceX is also seeking “manufacturing engineers to spearhead the development of millions of consumer-facing devices that will sit in our customers’ homes.”
Put it all together and what I see is that, while Starlink satellites are capable of delivering the broadband goods, it will still be months more before enough SpaceX’s CA-based factory can meet the demand for first hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of terminals.