This page gives a brief overview of the Starlink system and my own opinion. Starlink is currently the most famous satellite constellation. The project was launched by Elon Musk and started under the umbrella of SpaceX. It aims to provide global broadband connectivity, everywhere on earth.
The Starlink system is composed of thousands of smallsats (in the 250kg category) in LEO orbit (from 350 to 550km). It uses Ka and Ku band for frequencies.
The satellites are currently launched by batch of 60 with Falcon 9. Starlink expects to be able to use the Falcon Heavy to launch probably more than 400 satellites simultaneously, which will speed up the completion of the system in orbit.
While there has not been much publicity around this, Starlink has demonstrated a unique capability to mass produce satellites, leaving all other companies in the dust. Once again, Elon Musk has shown its capability to industrialize what used to an artisanal activity – building satellites and launching them…
With over 1700 satellites in orbit at the end of summer 2021, Starlink is the largest constellation ever put into orbit, with no launch failure to-date, although some satellites have failed in orbit.
The next generation of satellites should include optical satellite inter-connectivity, using lasers, while at this stage each satellites just offers bent-pipe connectivity, requiring large ground infrastructure and limiting capacity.
Starlink subscribers will receive a dish antenna that they need to install preferably on a roof, in an area with no sky obstruction (trees, cables…). This antenna is quite simple to install and is in fact an elctronically steered antenna that points itself towards the satellite. It connects to a kind of router inddor that is the Internet access point. In 2021, the service is still in beta stage, only available in some countries (US, UK, Germany, France…) with downlink speeds ranging from 50Mbps to 150Mbps and a latency below 20ms.
Pricing for the beta service is fairly simple: $499 for the antenna and then a $99 service fee, with unlimited data but no guarantee of service quality! This can be considered as extremely expensive (if you already have a good fiber link) or extremely cheap if you don’t have any access…
Starlink targets the consumer market and is ideal for “rural and remote communities” as described on their WEB site. As a matter of fact, many areas in developped countries such as the US are either unserved (most of Alaska for example) or do not offer a good data speed (below 1Mbps). In February 2021, Elon Musk anounced that the company had more than 500K pre-orders in the US. This gives an idea of the market potential (and interest) in the US alone. A 2019 FCC (Federal Communications Commission) study outlined the fact that 14M Americans (4% of the population) still lacked fixed broadband access at a minimum of 25Kbps, typically the target market for Starlink.
In addition, the integration of inter satellite optical links could open the door to new market opportunities. As light travels faster in space than in optical fiber, the speed of delivering data say from New York to London could be faster by 20%-30% using Starlink. While gaining some ms on data transfer might not seem to be a priority, it can be crucial in industries like finance (for automated trading) of telemedicine services. Typically professional services that could be less sensitive to price than consumers.
As SpaceX does not publish financial figures, this part is quite difficult to estimate. The cost of Starlink is today supported by SpaceX and will certainly be in the tens of billions range. A figure of 10 billions is the last estimate given by SpaceX. According to Crunchbase, SpaceX raised a total of 7B$ in equity, the latest round being in summer 2021 (1,6B$). This is cleraly unsufficient to finance all of Elon Musk’s space related projects… More fund raising around the corner!
On the revenues side,with currently 100K subscribers, Starlink revenues are already a whopping 10M$/month, but quite not enough enough to breakeven. Elon Musk stimated that Starlink could reach 30B$ in revenues which would require 30 million customers: there is still a long way to go to reach this goal, but he demonstrated in the past brilliant marketing capabilities… However, there is one specific hurdle in the satellite industry: the infrastructure degrades quickly in space, require new capitakl expenditures, even without customers… This is what happened to the first constellations in the past: they all filed for bankrupcy, and Elon Musk ois perfectly awre of this.
Due to its sheer size, the Starlink constellation faces new issues.
The first one is the fact that Starlink satellites are clearly visible in the sky, disturbing astronomic observations. Well maybe astronomers should go on the moon with their telescopes, eh?
In addition, Starlink will generate far more space debris than any other system. Thgis increases significantly the risk of space collisions as many new projects are ready to go or on the drawing board. Unfortunately, at this stage there is no international regulatory body to organize spacecrafts in orbit.
One can only admire the technological success of Starlink: launching that many satellites in such a short timespan is extraordinary. WIll they reach 12000 or more satellites? The future will tell but the current achievements are already fantastic.
The key issues for Starlink will probably be the same as other satellite ventuires namely financing and market uptake, only at a scale never met before! Many past project were ultimately save by the US government, especially the DoD. Given the numbers, this might be difficult in the future if ever Starlink runs into trouble…
Officiel Satrlinh site