SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband will have latency low enough to support competitive online gaming and will generally be fast enough that customers won’t have to think about Internet speed, Elon Musk said at a conference yesterday. Despite that, the SpaceX CEO argued that Starlink won’t be a major threat to telcos because the satellite service won’t be good enough for high-population areas and will mostly be used by rural customers without access to fast broadband.
“It will be a pretty good experience because it’ll be very low latency,” Musk said in a Q&A session at the Satellite 2020 conference (see video). “We’re targeting latency below 20 milliseconds, so somebody could play a fast-response video game at a competitive level, like that’s the threshold for the latency.”
Latency of less than 20ms would make Starlink comparable to wired broadband service. When SpaceX first began talking about its satellite plans in late 2016, it said latency would be 25ms to 35ms. But Musk has been predicting sub-20ms latency since at least May 2019, with the potential for sub-10ms latency sometime in the future.
The amount of bandwidth available will be enough to support typical Internet usage, at least in rural areas, Musk said. “The bandwidth is a very complex question. But let’s just say somebody will be able to watch high-def movies, play video games, and do all the things they want to do without noticing speed,” he said.
So will Starlink be a good option for anyone in the United States? Not necessarily. Musk said there will be plenty of bandwidth in areas with low population densities and that there will be some customers in big cities. But he cautioned against expecting that everyone in a big city would be able to use Starlink.
“The challenge for anything that is space-based is that the size of the cell is gigantic… it’s not good for high-density situations,” Musk said. “We’ll have some small number of customers in LA. But we can’t do a lot of customers in LA because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough.”
Starlink will help telcos, Musk says
This may help explain Musk’s comment that telcos won’t be threatened by Starlink. He noted that major broadband companies often don’t serve the lowest-density parts of America and that 5G is better suited for big cities than rural areas because “you need range” for sparsely populated environments.
“I want to be clear, it’s not like Starlink is some huge threat to telcos. I want to be super clear it is not,” Musk said. “In fact, it will be helpful to telcos because Starlink will serve the hardest-to-serve customers that telcos otherwise have trouble doing with landlines or even with… cell towers.”
Starlink will likely serve the “3 or 4 percent hardest-to-reach customers for telcos” and “people who simply have no connectivity right now, or the connectivity is really bad,” Musk said. “So I think it will be actually helpful and take a significant load off the traditional telcos.”
It seems unlikely that Musk would purposely forego revenue in large cities. He may be trying to delay conflict with big cable companies, which have a history of suing potential competitors to delay their progress. Or he may want to keep the public’s expectations low until Starlink has enough capacity to serve large cities effectively. Starlink service is expected to launch in parts of the US this year, but it will take years to launch thousands of satellites. SpaceX has previously told the FCC it plans global coverage, including “service to the entire contiguous United States.”
On the ground, Starlink’s future customers will rely on user terminals that “look like a UFO on a stick,” Musk said. The devices will have actuators that let them point themselves in the right direction as long as they’re pointed at the sky.
“It’s very important that you don’t need a specialist to install it,” Musk said. “The goal is that… there’s just two instructions and they can be done in either order: point at sky, plug in.”
SpaceX has not said how much Starlink will cost, but the company once pointed out that millions of US residents pay $80 per month to get “crappy service,” perhaps indicating that Starlink will cost less than that.
Musk talks spinoff, avoiding bankruptcy
SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell recently said the company is likely to spin out the Starlink broadband business and take it public, and a CNBC report said that could happen sometime “in the next several years.”
But when asked about Shotwell’s spinoff comment yesterday, Musk said he’s not thinking about it yet. “We’re thinking about that [a Starlink spinoff] zero. Zero. We need to make the thing work,” he said.
Previous companies that deployed low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites went bankrupt, a fate SpaceX is trying to avoid, Musk said. “That’ll be a big step to have like, more than zero [LEO satellite companies] in the not-bankrupt category,” he said.
Several other companies are in various phases of planning and launching LEO constellations, including OneWeb, Amazon, Facebook, Space Norway, and Telesat. Musk said SpaceX is willing to launch other companies’ satellites into space even if those companies compete against Starlink.
“The world seems to have an insatiable appetite for bandwidth, so we’re certainly happy to launch other satellites,” Musk said. “And, you know, we don’t think Starlink is going to destroy all other satellites or something like that, definitely not.”
Musk says Starlink won’t ruin astronomy
Musk addressed Starlink’s potential impact on astronomy, as astronomers have complained about SpaceX satellites interfering with astronomical observations. “I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That’s my prediction. We’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero,” Musk said.
That doesn’t mean Starlink satellites aren’t visible shortly after they’re launched. Musk said:
People get a little excited because when the satellites are first launched, they’re tumbling a little bit so they’re kind of like, they’re gonna blink. And because they haven’t stabilized, they’re raising their orbits, they’re lower than you’d expect, and they’re kind of naturally going to reflect in ways that is not the case when they’re on orbit. But now that the satellites are on orbit, I’d be impressed if somebody can actually tell me where all of them are. I have not met someone who can tell me where all of them are, not even one person, so it can’t be that big of a deal.
Musk said SpaceX has worked with astronomers “to minimize the potential for reflection of the satellites.”
“We’re running a bunch of experiments to, for example, just have a phased array antenna, black instead of white,” he continued. He said SpaceX is also working on a sunshade to minimize the possibility of reflections. “Even like, aesthetically, this should not be an impact,” Musk said.
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