Published by Sandra Hadlock on August 25, 2021
SpaceX's new satellite high speed internet service, Starlink, is a promising and bold undertaking that could be a game changer for millions around the globe. With another launch coming up later this week, we ran some local numbers to highlight why people should be excited -. even if they don’t plan on signing up:
- Increased competition, for example to the 35% of Americans who don't have access to more than one internet provider with speeds over 100 Mbps
- Reduced taxes, as the US government currently gives internet providers money to build broadband to rural areas
- By reliably connecting rural schools, libraries, hospitals, and businesses to the internet at the speeds their counterparts in more urban areas enjoy, the digital divides in these remote communities are lessened and money is saved on (often incredibly expensive) business and government contracts
Announced in 2015, with its first satellite launch in 2019, Starlink aims to use a system of small satellites in low earth orbit to bring broadband internet across the globe. Starlink can extend to any location with a view to the sky making it possible to reach vast areas of the world that currently do not have high-speed, low-latency broadband access.
Earlier satellite providers have been plagued with high latency issues, making it difficult to keep up with the demands of today's video conferencing and gaming applications. Starlink solves this by using satellites orbiting at 340 miles from the Earth’s surface instead of the previous 22,000 miles used by other satellite internet services. It is fast enough to compete with traditional broadband providers, currently delivering 100 Mbps download speeds and a latency of between 20 ms and 40 ms, and is adequate for most home usage needs. Starlink's long term goals include upgrading speeds to 10 Gbps, making it a serious competitor in the ISP market.
Starlink is still in it’s beta testing phase and only available to a small group of people in the United States, Canada, and the UK but as of February 2021, boasted over 10,000 users. By May 2021, 500,000 people had already placed orders for the service in anticipation of Starlink coming to their area. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, hopes to unroll the service globally by the end of 2021.
In the United States, more than 20 million people do not have access to internet that is 100 Mbps or higher, with areas lacking fast internet mapped below. Not only does Starlink connect those who haven't had internet access at these speeds before, as more rural schools, libraries, hospitals, and businesses are able to connect to the internet at broadband speeds, the surrounding communities also benefit. For example, when schools were shut down in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, many urban areas in the United States were able to set up mobile hotspot areas for kids that didn’t have access to the internet at home to continue remote learning. Most rural areas lacked the infrastructure to offer that same amenity to their students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of students between five and 17 years old that have no access to the internet at home is roughly the same for both urban and rural areas in the United States, comprising nearly 13% of all students. This highlights the need for reliable and faster internet connections in remote areas of the country to keep pace with their counterparts in the more urban areas.
US Homes with No Internet Providers over 100 Mbps
% with no 100 Mbps+ internet providers
Starlink could also aid households where there is only one current provider with reasonable speeds. In the United States, nearly 35% of people cannot choose between two or more providers with speeds over 100 Mbps. These areas are mapped below. Customers in these areas with no competition have little recourse when rates and fees are raised. The FCC does not regulate how much an internet service provider can charge but Starlink's promise to keep their service at an affordable and comparable rate to what the average American is spending on high speed internet introduces a new competitor to the game. This could possibly force other companies to lower their rates and fees to keep loyal customers.
US Homes with No Internet Competition over 100 Mbps
% with fewer than two 100 Mbps+ internet providers
Another potential benefit that Starlink could give to those who aren’t even using the service is a reduction in taxes. The FCC has a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunities Fund designed to incentivize companies to bring broadband services to those that live in rural, unserved areas of the nation. Nearly 180 companies, including SpaceX, were granted funds in December 2020 from the first phase of this program. However, taxpayers have been helping to subsidize companies for years to bridge the digital divide between rural and urban United States. Fees have been assessed to every customer, regardless of location or income, to help support government programs investing in companies to build broadband to remote parts of the country, often with little results to show. Starlink’s arrival is transformational for the industry and as more companies foray into the satellite internet business, we may find that these subsidies are outdated.
Starlink is changing the landscape of high-speed internet across the world. Musk is not shy in saying that Starlink services are not for everyone. It is not meant for denser populated areas, where fast internet is a mainstay but rather designed for those in medium to low populated areas. While nearly 42% of the United States stands to benefit directly from it's utilization–either from the competition it will create with the one other provider in town or because it will directly connect them for the first time at high speeds with low latency–nearly every citizen could see some advantage from Starlink’s implementation. Click here to check if internet providers in your area have changed their prices to reflect Starlink’s arrival.