In a 2019 article, I wrote about how Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX is developing a telecommunications network called Starlink to offer broadband internet services to the entire globe. At that time, the company had only a handful of satellites in orbit.
But SpaceX has been launching groups of 60 satellites on a fairly regular basis over the last two years. Now, they have more than 1,200 satellites that are operational.
The number of satellites is still a long way from the final constellation configuration, which envisions blanketing the Earth with more 12,000 satellites in orbit to serve the Starlink network. But what Starlink already has is enough to offer a limited beta version to customers around the globe. In February 2021, Starlink sent out a notice to its email subscriber list that the service was available for use to a limited number of customers on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Three Implications of the Starlink Telecommunications Technology
In my previous article, I discussed how Starlink uses very low orbiting altitudes to offer low latencies and speeds that should be competitive with other more traditional options for internet service such as cable or digital subscriber lines (DSLs). But I didn’t get too deeply into the implications of this technology because it was too early to predict when Starlink telecommunications might actually be operational.
But now that we’re seeing the first customers actually come online, it’s worth considering the ways this new technology might revolutionize the world we live in. And I think there are at least three definite shifts.
First, Starlink will make the internet accessible to a huge portion of the world that does not currently have it. As of 2020, it was estimated that roughly 63% of the world’s population had access to the internet. The other 37% — nearly 2.5 billion people — do not have internet access, mostly due to a lack of infrastructure in underdeveloped nations or in rural areas of more developed regions.
That said, Starlink will require no infrastructure, aside from a small omnidirectional transceiver that customers will need to purchase when they subscribe. But as long as you have the transceiver and a device to connect to it (such as a laptop or cell phone), you can access Starlink’s internet from anywhere on the globe — sub-Saharan Africa, the Australian Outback, Antarctica, the North Pole…anywhere.
To be fair, the Starlink equipment is not cheap, and the service is not free. The transceiver is currently priced at $500 USD, and the service charge is $99 per month. So even though the service will be “available” to every human being on Earth, it’s worth noting that many in poorer areas simply will not be able to afford it — at least not right away.
But these costs — however much a barrier they may present for economically disadvantaged regions — are still a lot cheaper than the average costs associated with traditional data infrastructure. The expense of burying miles and miles of telephone or coaxial cable — or stringing it along poles mounted above ground — is tremendous by comparison. So although the use of Starlink may be cost-prohibitive for some people, it’s still a much more viable option than the alternative.
Second, Starlink may serve as a catalyst to create conflict or even revolution in countries that do not currently allow their citizens to access the internet without restrictions. China is a key example.
In China, the government uses a technology that has been called the “Great Firewall” to limit the content that people in China can access. For instance, certain news sites, social media sites, and anything disparaging of the Chinese government are heavily restricted or banned altogether.
China can control this information access by routing internet infrastructure through government-controlled system checkpoints where they can funnel and restrict data. But with a satellite internet service like Starlink, there is no ground-based cable infrastructure. Consequently, there is such no way for the Chinese government to exert total control over the flow of information.
Of course, Starlink users still need a transceiver, and it’s possible that China could simply outlaw the purchase or use of Starlink, including a ban on the transceivers. But this kind of prohibition is notoriously difficult to police and enforce. The transceivers are not very large, so they could be easily smuggled into the country and hidden in discreet mounting locations.
But another way China could attempt to restrict satellite internet usage is through policing its airspace. Each country on Earth has the right, under international treaty, to the sovereignty of its airspace, which includes the “outer space” above the “air space” as well. What this airspace sovereignty means is that no country has a right to fly planes, helicopters or even satellites over another country without permission. And if another country does, the country whose airspace is violated could shoot down such aircraft or spacecraft.
China demonstrated its ability to do this with satellites way back in 2007, when it shot a kinetic kill vehicle into space and blew up one of its own defunct weather satellites as a test of the space defense technology. It worked perfectly, although it was also highly controversial as the collision resulted in thousands of pieces of orbiting space debris that threatened the safety of other satellites in space.
SpaceX owner Elon Musk has publicly mused that China blowing up Starlink satellites would be a major concern. So Starlink would probably either need to a) negotiate an agreement with the Chinese government for restricted internet service consistent with current Chinese information access policies, or b) turn off the broadcasting abilities of their satellites whenever they enter Chinese airspace to prohibit Starlink service in China. Obviously, the former choice would be preferable to the latter, as China could be a huge market for Starlink subscribers.
In the second part of this article series, we’ll touch on one final way Starlink might change the world by enabling a more nomadic lifestyle.