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Starlink Explained: What You Need to Know About Elon Musk's Satellite Internet Service

CNET 12/2/2022 Ry Crist
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from Kennedy Space Center. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images © Provided by CNET A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from Kennedy Space Center. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

When you think of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, chances are high that you think of his electric car company, Teslaspace exploration venture SpaceX or his eventful purchase of Twitter. Maybe you know him as one of the richest people on Earth.

You might be less familiar with Starlink, a venture from Musk that aims to sell internet connections to almost anyone on the planet through a growing network of private satellites orbiting overhead.

After years of development within SpaceX, Starlink picked up the pace in 2021. Now, nearly two years and dozens of successful launches later, Starlink boasts over 2,000 functional satellites orbiting overhead. 

Starlink now offers service in 37 countries worldwide, though the budding broadband provider still faces a backlog of prospective customers waiting to receive equipment and start service. That list of countries includes Ukraine, where Musk said in February that additional satellite internet terminals were en route following the Russian invasion (and amid Russian attempts to jam the signal), a move that cost US taxpayers $3 million, according to a report from the Washington Post.

Starlink isn't without its controversies. Scientific community members have raised concerns about the impact of Starlink's low-earth orbit satellites on night sky visibility. Meanwhile, satellite internet competitors, including Viasat, HughesNet and Amazon's Project Kuiper, have also noticed Starlink's momentum, prompting regulatory jousting and attempts to slow Musk down. Most recently, Dish has taken issue with Starlink and its claims that 5G expansions in the 12GHz band would interfere with its satellite signals. This August, nearly two years after Starlink secured nearly $885.5 million in grant funds from the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC decided to reverse that decision and cancel Starlink's subsidies, claiming that the service "failed to meet program requirements."

"We cannot afford to subsidize ventures that are not delivering the promised speeds or are not likely to meet program requirements," said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, while also noting that Starlink's technology "has real promise." 

We'll continue to monitor Starlink's progress moving into 2023. For now, here's everything you should know about it.

Let's start at the beginning: What is Starlink?

Technically a division within SpaceX, Starlink is also the name of the spaceflight company's growing network of orbital satellites or "constellation." The development of that network began in 2015, with the prototype satellites launched into orbit in 2018.

In the years since, SpaceX has deployed thousands of Starlink satellites into the constellation across dozens of successful launches, the most recent of which took place on Oct. 27 and delivered another 53 satellites into low-Earth orbit. That brings the total number of satellites in orbit to just over 3,200.

Do those satellites connect my home to the internet?

That's the idea, yes.

Like existing satellite internet providers like HughesNet and Viasat, Starlink wants to sell internet access -- particularly to people in rural areas and other parts of the world who don't already have access to high-speed broadband.

SpaceX's Starlink hardware includes a satellite dish and router, which you'll set up at home to receive the signal from space. SpaceX © Provided by CNET SpaceX's Starlink hardware includes a satellite dish and router, which you'll set up at home to receive the signal from space. SpaceX

"Starlink is ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge," the Starlink website reads. "Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable."

All you need to do to make the connection is set up a small satellite dish at your home to receive the signal and pass the bandwidth on to your router. The company offers several mounting options for rooftops, yards and the exterior of your home. There's even a Starlink app for Android and iOS that uses augmented reality to help customers pick the best location and position for their receivers.

Starlink's service is only available in select regions in the US, Canada and abroad at this point, but it can now boast nearly half a million customers and is active on all continents. Expect the coverage map to grow as more satellites enter the constellation. Eventually, Starlink hopes to blanket the entire planet in a usable, high-speed Wi-Fi signal, including for moving vehicles and in-flight Wi-Fi.

According to Ookla, Starlink offered average download speeds of approximately 53Mbps in the US during the third quarter of 2022. That is down approximately 17% from just three months prior. Ookla © Provided by CNET According to Ookla, Starlink offered average download speeds of approximately 53Mbps in the US during the third quarter of 2022. That is down approximately 17% from just three months prior. Ookla

What speeds should you expect from Starlink's internet service?

According to the internet speed-tracking site Ookla, which analyzed satellite internet performance during the third quarter of 2022, Starlink offered average download speeds of approximately 53Mbps in the US. That's down significantly from the end of 2021 when Starlink had median download speeds of just over 100Mbps. Still, the results are nearly double those for satellite rival Viasat and just shy of triple the median numbers of HughesNet. Still, Starlink falls well shy of the numbers for the entire fixed broadband category, which includes satellite and other forms of delivering connectivity to peoples' homes.

"Users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds in most locations over the next several months," Starlink's website says, while also warning of brief periods of no connectivity at all. "As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically."

To that end, Musk tweeted in February of last year that he expected the service to double its top speeds to 300Mbps by the end of 2021. In 2022, such claims are difficult to evaluate, as speeds will vary depending on time and location. Significantly, Starlink recently announced plans to enact a data cap to try to mitigate some of the issues caused "by a small number of users consuming unusually high amounts of data," Starlink said in an email to customers.

In 2021, CNET's John Kim signed up for Starlink at his home in California and began testing it at various locations. At home, he averaged download speeds of around 78Mbps and latency of around 36ms. You can see more of his first impressions in this article's video embedded higher above.

Starlink's preorder page lists its higher prices of $110 per month and $599 for the hardware. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET © Provided by CNET Starlink's preorder page lists its higher prices of $110 per month and $599 for the hardware. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

How much does Starlink cost?

Starlink is now accepting orders on a first-come, first-served basis, so you'll need to request service, put down a $99 deposit, and then wait your way through the backlog. During its beta in 2021, Starlink said that some preorders could take as long as six months to fulfill -- in some regions, Starlink now says that new orders may not be fulfilled until late in 2023. 

The service was initially billed at $99 per month (plus taxes and fees) and an initial payment of $499 for the mountable satellite dish and router you'll need to install at home. In March 2022, despite earlier predictions from SpaceX executives that the hardware costs would come down over time, SpaceX raised those prices to $110 per month and $599 upfront.

$110 per month is a lot for an internet connection, especially one that isn't nearly as fast as a fiber connection. Still, Musk is betting that the cost will be worth it for people who have thus far lived without access to a reliable connection. 

In April of 2021, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that Starlink wanted to keep pricing as simple and transparent as possible and had no plans to introduce service tiers into the mix. However, that approach changed in 2022 with the introduction of a new premium tier with a scan array that's twice as big as the standard plan and with download speeds ranging from 150-500Mbps. That tier costs $500 per month, plus an initial payment of $2,500 for the equipment. Starlink is taking orders for that tier now and will launch the service shortly.

Where is Starlink available?

This FCC coverage map shows areas serviced by Starlink as of June 2021. Future FCC releases will better look at how much availability has grown. FCC/Mapbox © Provided by CNET This FCC coverage map shows areas serviced by Starlink as of June 2021. Future FCC releases will better look at how much availability has grown. FCC/Mapbox

Despite promising to blanket the entire globe in coverage by this fall, Starlink service is currently limited to select regions in select countries. Still, the coverage map will grow considerably as more satellites join the constellation. 

Per Musk, the list of countries currently serviced by the growing network of low-earth orbit satellites includes the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. Starlink's preorder agreement includes options for requesting service in other countries, including Italy, Poland, Spain and Chile.

There's still a ways to go -- Starlink will likely need at least 10,000 satellites in orbit before it can claim to offer full service to a majority of the globe (and SpaceX has shown signs that it wants as many as 42,000 satellites in the constellation). Right now, it's only about 20% of the way there, at best, with coverage focused on regions sitting between 45 and 53 degrees north latitude.

Still, Musk has been bullish about the Starlink timeline. During an interview at 2021's Mobile World Congress, Musk said that Starlink would hit worldwide availability except at the North and South Poles starting in August. Earlier in June, Shotwell expressed a similar sentiment and said that Starlink would reach global serviceability sometime this fall.

"We've successfully deployed 1,800 or so satellites, and once all those satellites reach their operational orbit, we will have continuous global coverage, so that should be like [the] September time frame," she said.

In September, a Twitter user asked Musk when Starlink would finish its beta phase. "Next month," Musk replied.

According to the FCC, which recently added Starlink to its database of broadband providers, the service was available to 26.70% of Americans as of June 2021. At that point, 100% of customers had access to max download speeds of 100Mbps and upload speeds of up to 10Mbps. Future FCC releases will give us a good look at how much the service is growing.

Why go with satellite service, anyway? Isn't fiber faster?

Fiber, or internet delivered via ground-laid fiber-optic cable, offers upload and download speeds that are much faster than satellite internet -- but, as companies like Google will tell you, there's nothing fast about deploying the infrastructure necessary to get fiber to people's homes. That's not to say that there's anything simple about shooting satellites into space, but with fewer sharp-elbowed competitors -- and with a lot less red tape to cut through -- there's every reason to believe that services like Starlink will reach the bulk of underserved communities long before fiber ever will. Recent FCC filings also suggest that Starlink could ultimately double as a dedicated phone service, too.

And don't forget that this is Elon Musk we're talking about. SpaceX is the only company on the planet with a landable, reusable rocket capable of delivering payload after payload into orbit. That's a mighty advantage in the commercial space race. On top of that, Musk said in 2018 that Starlink would help provide SpaceX with the revenue needed to fund the company's long-held ambition to establish a base on Mars. 

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If that day arrives, it's also likely that SpaceX will try to establish a satellite constellation on the red planet, too. That means that Starlink customers are potentially doubling as guinea pigs for the Martian wireless networks of the future.

"If you send a million people to Mars, you better provide some way for them to communicate," Shotwell said in 2016, speaking about the company's long-term vision for Starlink. "I don't think the people who go to Mars are going to be satisfied with some terrible, old-fashioned radios. They'll want their iPhones or Androids on Mars."

Starlink's terms of service includes a Mars clause in which users must agree that Mars is a free planet unbound by the authority or sovereignty of any Earth-bound government. Starlink/Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET © Provided by CNET Starlink's terms of service includes a Mars clause in which users must agree that Mars is a free planet unbound by the authority or sovereignty of any Earth-bound government. Starlink/Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

As CNET's Jesse Orral noted in a video about Starlink, you'll even find hints of Musk's plans for Mars in the Starlink terms of service, which at one point reads:

"For services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities." 

Still, with top speeds currently pegged at 150Mbps, Starlink's satellite internet won't be anywhere near the gigabit fiber speeds people on Earth are used to anytime soon -- and that's due to the sheer distance each transmission needs to travel on its round trip from your home to the stratosphere. It's a factor that also jacks up latency, which is why you'll often notice awkward lulls in the conversation if you're talking to someone over a satellite connection.

That said, Starlink promises to improve upon existing expectations for satellite connections by placing satellites into orbit at lower altitudes than before -- 60 times closer to the Earth's surface than traditional satellites, per the company's claims. This low-earth orbit approach means less distance for those Starlink signals to travel -- thus, less latency. We'll let you know how those claims hold up once we can test the Starlink network for ourselves.

What about bad weather and other obstructions?

Struggles with inclement weather are definitely a downside to satellite internet. Per Starlink's FAQ, the receiver can melt snow that lands on it, but it can't do anything about surrounding snow build-up and other obstructions that might block its line of sight to the satellite.

"We recommend installing Starlink in a location that avoids snow build-up and other obstructions from blocking the field of view," the FAQ reads. "Heavy rain or wind can also affect your satellite internet connection, potentially leading to slower speeds or a rare outage."

Are there other issues with Starlink's satellites?

There's plenty of concern about the proliferation of privately owned satellites in space and controversy in astronomical circles about the impact of low-orbiting satellites on the night sky. 

This long-exposure image of a distant galaxy group from Arizona's Lowell Observatory is marred by diagonal lines from light reflecting off Starlink satellites, shortly after their launch in 2019. Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory © Provided by CNET This long-exposure image of a distant galaxy group from Arizona's Lowell Observatory is marred by diagonal lines from light reflecting off Starlink satellites, shortly after their launch in 2019. Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

In 2019, shortly after the deployment of Starlink's first broadband satellites, the International Astronomical Union released an alarm-sounding statement warning of unforeseen consequences for stargazing and the protection of nocturnal wildlife.

"We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten both," the statement reads.

Since then, Starlink has begun testing various designs intended to reduce the brightness and visibility of its satellites. At the start of 2020, the company tested a "DarkSat" satellite that included a special, non-reflective coating. Later, in June 2020, the company launched a "VisorSat" satellite that features a special sunshade visor. In August, Starlink launched another batch of satellites -- this time, all of them were equipped with visors.

"We want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure little kids can look through their telescope," Shotwell said. "It's cool for them to see a Starlink. But they should be looking at Saturn, at the moon ... and not want to be interrupted."

"The Starlink teams have worked closely with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the specifics of their observations and engineering changes we can make to reduce satellite brightness," the company website reads.

OK. Where can I learn more about Starlink?

We'll continue to cover Starlink's progress from various angles here on CNET, so stay tuned. You should also be sure to read Eric Mack's excellent profile of Starlink. Among other issues, it closely examines the project's goals and challenges and the implications for underserved internet consumers and astronomers concerned with light pollution obstructing views in the night sky.

Beyond that, we expect to continue testing Starlink's network for ourselves as it expands. When we know more about how the satellite service stacks up as an internet provider, we'll tell you all about it.

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