SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk reckons its Starlink satellite broadband will have enough capacity to watch high-definition videos and play online games without the user noticing speed issues.
The entrepreneur has told a conference that the Starlink space network will have latency of about 20 milliseconds, making it suitable for online gaming applications.
But he said due to the size of the cells on the satellites, it will only be good for low-density environments rather than high-density urban areas, which are already well served by broadband and cellular networks.
SpaceX launched a batch of 60 Starlink satellites in mid-February and has another 60 ready for launch in March. It’s launched 300 Starlink satellites into low earth orbit since May 2019. Musk estimates that 800 satellites will provide moderate coverage in North America and expects near global coverage by 2021.
But Starlink isn’t intended for blanket coverage of North America and the rest of the world, though he thinks space-delivered broadband has a potential value of about $30bn.
“I want to be clear: it’s not like Starlink is some huge threat to telcos,” he said. “In fact it will be helpful to telcos because Starlink will serve the hardest-to-serve customers that telcos otherwise have trouble dealing with with landlines or even with cell radio stations.”
He said Starlink will be suitable for the 3% to 4% of the population who are hardest to reach through terrestrial networks as well as for consumers with no or very bad connectivity.
“I think it will take a significant load off traditional telcos,” he said. “We can’t do a lot of customers in LA because the bandwidth is simply not high enough.”
Musk said the Earth-based terminals in peoples’ homes would like a “little UFO on a stake”. Previously SpaceX execs have said users will need to install a “beautiful” user terminal, but whether it’s a standalone device or a cable modem or router remains to be seen.
The first version of the terminal will have actuators – an electrical component for physically controlling a piece of equipment – to automatically shift its antenna’s direction and ensure packets from space are received optimally.
“It’s very important that you don’t need a specialist yourself to install. The goal is that the instructions in the box will – well there’s just two instructions – and they can be done in either order, a point at sky and just plug in.”
“If you can’t see the satellites, the satellites can’t see you.”
Musk brushed aside concerns by astronomers that Starlink satellites would obstruct observatories due to reflections from the satellites. He predicted “zero” interference but also clarified that SpaceX is working with astronomers to minimize the potential for reflection.
“I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries – zero, that’s my prediction. We’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero,” he said.
“There’s so much people that get a little excited [about] because when the satellites are first launched, they’re tumbling a little bit, so they’re gonna blink because they haven’t stabilized.
“They’re raising their orbits so they’re lower than you’d expect and they’re kind of necessarily reflect in ways that it’s not necessarily the case when they’re on orbit. But now that they’re actually on orbit I’ll be impressed if anyone can actually tell me where all of them are.”