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Starlink’s Space Speed-Up: A Battle for Internet Leadership

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SpaceX’s Starlink microsatellite internet service now delivers downloads of around 90.55 Mbps in the United States, according to a recent analysis by Ookla. The speed test company reports that the median downlink speed in the first quarter of 2022 in the U.S. has “dramatically increased” by 38%, up from 65.72 Mbps in Q1, 2021.

Indeed, Ookla finds that Starlink is delivering some of the fastest satellite–based internet download speeds across the countries it operates in worldwide. The analysts say that Starlink offers median downlink transfers of 124.31 Mbps in Australia, 105.91 Mbps in Mexico, and 100 Mbps+ in all the European countries it offers service in. Specifically, this service is designed for rural users rather than city slickers.

Satellite performance vs. fixed broadband internet in North America. (Source: Ookla) (Click image to enlarge)

This means Starlink should deliver enough speed for streaming, gaming, and other tasks that rural users typically wish to perform. SpaceX still warns of service outages, though. The company said in an FAQ that it is “constantly trying to improve Starlink service by expanding the Starlink satellite constellation through additional launches.”

On July 7, 53 new Starlink satellites lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, adding to the more than 2,500 satellites SpaceX currently has in orbit.

Billionaire and SpaceX owner Elon Musk told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in mid–May that Starlink has over 400,000 subscribers globally. The satellite service currently operates in 36 countries worldwide and is planning to add new nations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East in 2023.

The satellite download speeds aren’t remotely as fast as the best cable services in major metro areas or even the fastest mobile 5G carrier in the U.S. As Ookla points out, however, this kind of service can prove a revelation for users in the boondocks, who haven’t had access to speedy internet.

“As we’ve continued to see over the past year, Starlink’s low–earth orbit satellites (LEOs) provide a life–changing service for consumers in rural areas that might not otherwise have access to high–speed internet,” Ookla writes. “However, more companies are looking to compete with Starlink and launch their own LEO constellations, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which recently received FCC permission to test their own satellite service and is slated to launch later this year, and Viasat which is set to merge with Inmarsat and launch new constellations by 2023.”

The Starlink service isn’t cheap, costing $110 monthly after you’ve bought and installed the $599 dish. In May, SpaceX added a portability feature for U.S. users of the Starlink service that enables customers to move their dish to another area in the country for an extra $25 a month.

Moving swarms

The SpaceX service is making its next big move in the U.S. The FCC just granted SpaceX permission to use Starlink in many types of moving vehicles.

“We agree with SpaceX… that the public interest would benefit by granting with conditions their applications,” the FCC said in its order approval. “Authorizing a new class of terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port, or while on a domestic or international flight.”

The company has just added a maritime option for all kinds of shipping — from luxury yachts to oil rigs — to deliver internet in the coastal waters around the Americas, Australia, and Europe at present. The satellite link is enabled by paying $10,000 for two terminals that are ruggedized against sea salt to maintain the connection in choppy seas and heavy storms. The service itself costs $5,000 a month.

In April, Hawaiian Airlines became the first major U.S. airline to sign on to use Starlink’s internet on its planes. Several other U.S. airlines have also been testing the service.

It’s likely that SpaceX will add further services for vehicles in motion over time.

An ongoing 5G battle

Starlink is battling with Dish Network over its plans to use 12GHz spectrum for a 5G network in the U.S., claiming that a 5G network in that frequency will make Starlink’s satellite internet connections “unusable” for most.

In a June 21 letter to the FCC, David Goldman, senior director of Satellite Policy at SpaceX, writes of Dish’s interference studies, warning that a 5G network would subject the satellite service to a total outage 74% of the time. “No reasonable engineer could believe they represent an honest interference analysis,” Goldman said.

Nearly 96,000 Starlink users have also signed an online petition to the FCC protesting Dish’s plans.

On July 7, Dish fired back at SpaceX, claiming that the satellite company’s recent submission to the FCC is inaccurate.

“After failing to submit any expert technical input during the public comment and reply comment periods in the proceeding, Starlink has only now submitted a self–produced political document in the guise of a technical analysis,” Dish and other members of the 5G for 12GHz Coalition responded. “This ‘study’, which was not produced by an independent expert, is both scientifically and logically flawed.”

The coalition says that Starlink’s study extrapolates a nationwide outcome from a simulation it conducted in the Las Vegas area, the home of Dish’s first 5G market. The coalition says that Vegas is nearly 10× as unfavorable for 5G/satellite co–existence as the national average.

The group also claims that SpaceX “grossly overstates” the number of 5G base stations that Dish would have to deploy to achieve a nationwide 5G network.

No doubt, this catfight between Dish and SpaceX will continue apace for now.

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