Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Starlink and the Return of Satellite Internet Service

Posted on | December 2, 2020 | No Comments

Arthur C. Clarke’s extraordinary vision and engineering analysis of “rocket stations” circling the Earth and providing global radio service has been challenged and surpassed over the years. It was an extraordinary vision, but technological innovations have continued to offer new designs and solutions. The current Starlink satellite system is a radical departure from Clarke’s original vision to put satellites into geosynchronous orbits along the equator. This post looks at a new satellite system being put into place by Elon Musk and his SpaceX operations and how it can reach remote locations traditionally underserved by traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs).


Musk’s new company hopes to eventually launch as many as 42,000 satellites providing data services throughout the world from orbits as low as 400 km. In 2018 Space X received approval from the FCC for 7518 Ka-band and V-band (40 to 75 gigahertz-GHz) satellites at 335-kilometer orbits in addition to the 4425 satellites initially approved.

Clarke’s vision was achieved in the mid-1960s as part of the Apollo Space Program when three Intelsat satellites were put into geosynchronous orbit. It provided a telecommunications footprint over most of the world that could facilitate many telephone calls or a television broadcast. Many satellites followed, and global services such as CNN became available. The Iridium satellite system was designed and rolled out in the 1990s to provide mobile services. Its business model had difficulty competing with wireless companies and went into bankruptcy by 2000. It uses 66 active satellites in LEO (781 kilometers) for service to mobile phones and special antennas and has found its niche with government and international organizations.

Starlink connects its smaller, low earth orbit (LEO) satellites with laser communications. Light moves faster in the vacuum of space than through the glass conduits of fiber optic cables. Undersea cables transmitting light signals have largely replaced satellites for global communications, so connecting these smaller spacecraft provides a significant threat to the status quo.

Speed is very attractive for financial companies and other industries that need to move data with little latency. Transmitting across continents and oceans is much faster by light, and the lower altitudes make radio communications with earth-based antennas quicker. Significant customers are expected to be banks, hedge funds, and other financial operations that engage in high-frequency trading. eSports game competition is one area that I expect will take off globally as the diminished latency will literally create a “level playing field” between gamers around the world.

One of the benefits of satellite communications has been its ability to bypass borders of geography and nationality. It holds new promise for people in rural areas that have trouble accessing internet service providers. The man in this video, Brett Batie in Idaho, installs a Starlink antenna on his home and shows the process of “unboxing” and setting up the satellite connection.

The Starlink antenna is part of the beta testing of the satellite service, and the data is still being collected about the quality of the service. In this case, the service allows him to download data at 40 to nearly 100 Mbps and uplink at 10-25 Mbps. Quite a difference from the 2Mbps that he struggled to get previously from his ISP.

Musk announced the satellite program on Jan 18, 2015, with the launch of SpaceX. He had to file plans and get approval from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Federal Communications Commission in the USA. The plan was to initially serve Northern US and Canada. Those testing the Starlink service report that their antennas end up pointing north, so I expect that a string of satellites have been placed in in along a northern latitude. Geosynchronous satellites are placed exclusively along the equator.

Musk also announced that the Starlink program is designed to produce cash for SpaceX’s missions to Mars.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he was on the on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in Korea and Marist College in New York. He started his career at Victoria University in New Zealand. He spent a decade as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii researching ICT4D. Originally from Goshen, New York, he now keeps a home in Austin, Texas.


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