Musk Targets Telecom For Next Disruption With Starlink Internet
Elon Musk became the world’s richest person this month by upending the global auto industry and disrupting aerospace heavyweights with reusable rockets. Musk Targets Telecom For Next Disruption With Starlink Internet
Now he’s setting his sights on another business dominated by entrenched incumbents: telecommunications.
Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has launched more than 1,000 satellites for its Starlink internet service and is signing up early customers in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. SpaceX has told investors that Starlink is angling for a piece of a $1 trillion market made up of in-flight internet, maritime services, demand in China and India — and rural customers such as Brian Rendel.
Rendel became a Starlink tester in November after struggling for years with sluggish internet speeds at his 160-acre farm overlooking Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After he paid about $500 for the equipment, FedEx arrived with a flat dish and antenna. For $99 a month, Rendel is now getting speeds of 100 megabytes per second for downloads and 15 to 20 for uploads — far faster, he says, than his previous internet provider.
“This is a game changer,” said Rendel, a mental health counselor, who can now easily watch movies and hold meetings with clients over Zoom. “It makes me feel like I’m part of civilization again.”
For months, SpaceX has been launching Starlink satellites on its Falcon 9 rockets in batches of 60 at a time, and the 17th Starlink launch was on Jan. 20. There are now roughly 960 functioning satellites in orbit, heralding an age of mega-constellations that have prompted worries about visual pollution for astronomers.
But the Starlink array in low-Earth orbit, closer to the planet than traditional satellites, is enough to enable SpaceX to roll out service along a wide swath of North America and the U.K. As SpaceX sends up more satellites, the coverage area will grow, expanding the potential customer base — and revenue stream — beyond the initial stages of today.
SpaceX didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“The big deal is that people are happy with the service and the economics of Starlink versus other alternatives,” said Luigi Peluso, managing director with Alvarez & Marsal, who follows the aerospace and defense industries. “SpaceX has demonstrated the viability of their solution.”
Last year, SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said that Starlink is a business that SpaceX– one of the most richly valued venture-backed companies in the U.S. — is likely to spin out and take public. That dangles the possibility of another Musk enterprise offering shares after last year’s sensational stock-market gains by Tesla Inc.
Starlink will face plenty of competition. While fiber optic cable is widely considered too expensive to lay down in remote regions and many rural locations, cellular connectivity is expected to make big advances with 5G and then 6G. Meanwhile, a number of innovative attempts to extend cellular to unserved areas are being developed by other well-heeled companies such as Facebook Inc.
“There will always be early Starlink adopters who think that anything from Elon Musk is cool,” said John Byrne, a telecom analyst at GlobalData. “But it’s hard to see the satellite trajectory keeping pace with the improvements coming with cellular.”
SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, is primarily known for launching rockets for global satellite operators, the U.S. military, and NASA. Last year, SpaceX made history by becoming the first private company to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.
Starlink marks SpaceX’s first foray into a truly consumer-facing product. Maintaining strong service while growing the customer base is something SpaceX has never tried before.
“Like any network, Starlink is going to enjoy rave reviews while it is underutilized,” said industry analyst Jim Patterson. “However, it will be challenged with the same congestion issues as their peers as they grow their base.”
Then again, SpaceX says the service will improve as it builds out more infrastructure.
“As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will all improve dramatically,” Kate Tice, a senior engineer at SpaceX, said in a livestream of a Starlink mission in November.
Starlink is gearing up for a big 2021, hiring software engineers, customer support managers, a director of sales, and a country launch manager.
The fan fervor that made Tesla cars such a hit with consumers and retail investors extends to Starlink. Facebook groups, Reddit threads and Twitter are filled with reports from early customers sharing images of their download speeds. You Tube has videos of people “unboxing” their Starlink dish and going through the initial set-up.
Ross Youngblood lives in Oregon and works remotely as an engineer for a tech company in San Jose. He owns a Tesla Model X and follows All Things Musk pretty closely. He got Starlink before Thanksgiving.
“I just plugged it all in and it started to work,” said Youngblood. “It’s going to be very disruptive, and I don’t think enough people are paying attention.”
Many other customers are waiting in the wings. In December, the Federal Communications Commission awarded SpaceX $885.5 million in subsidies as part of a wider effort to bring broadband to over 10 million Americans in rural areas. SpaceX will focus on 35 states, including Alabama, Idaho, Montana and Washington.
“We can’t continue to throw money at aging infrastructure,” said Russ Elliot, director of the Washington State Broadband Office. “With Starlink, you can be anywhere. The cost to build in deep rural or costly areas is now less of an issue with this technology as an option.”
Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Elliot connected SpaceX with members of the Hoh Tribe in far western Washington. The Native American community had struggled for years to bring high-speed internet to their remote reservation, which spans about 1,000 acres and has 23 homes. Kids struggled to access remote learning, and internet connections were so slow that downloading homework could take all day.
“SpaceX came up and just catapulted us into the 21st century,” said Melvinjohn Ashue, a member of the Hoh Tribe, in a short video produced by the Washington State Department of Commerce.
In a phone interview, Ashue said that the first thing he did once he connected to Starlink was download a long movie: Jurassic Park. Now most of the reservation’s households have Starlink, making it possible for families to access not just online schooling but tele-health appointments and online meetings.
“Internet access is a utility. It’s no longer a luxury,” said Maria Lopez, the tribal vice chairwoman. Lopez said that Starlink was easy to hook up. The scariest part was climbing up a ladder to set up the dish on her roof.
“Every now and then it will glitch,” she said. “But it quickly reboots itself.”
SpaceX Flies ISS Crew In First Trip On Used Capsule, Rocket
Four astronauts are cruising to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX capsule, in the company’s first crewed trip with previously flown equipment.
The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the orbiting lab early Saturday, slightly more than 23 hours after blasting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 5:49 a.m. in Florida. The capsule was performing as expected in orbit Friday about 125 miles (200 kilometers) above Earth. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We wish you a great mission,” SpaceX launch engineer Jack Healy told the crew minutes before liftoff. “Good luck and enjoy the ride.”
The voyage on a capsule and rocket that have flown before marks another milestone for Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s success at pioneering reusability in the launch business. Founder Elon Musk has championed the goal of designing spacecraft for multiple missions as the only practical and economical method to lower launch costs and expand human exploration — specifically to Mars.
At a post-launch news conference, Musk talked up the goal of reusing spacecraft and fielded a wide range of questions, despite a NASA spokeswoman’s entreaties to reporters to focus on the day’s mission.
The billionaire said he only recently came to believe that a large rocket such as SpaceX’s futuristic Starship can become “fully and rapidly reusable.” Figuring out how to do that is a thorny problem that will be the key to making humans a multiplanetary species, he said.
Starship, SpaceX’s newest and biggest rocket, could be ready for human flights in two years, he said, while acknowledging that his track record for timing often has been overly optimistic. Starship prototypes suffered four mishaps in the first four test flights in South Texas. A fifth attempt could occur as soon as this month.
“Obviously, we need to not be making craters” with the Starship tests, Musk said.
SpaceX’s lunar lander for NASA could be ready for flight in 2024, he added.
The Dragon capsule on Friday’s mission already had taken two astronauts to and from the space station last year on SpaceX’s first crewed test flight for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Falcon 9 rocket on the latest flight last flew in November to carry four astronauts to the space station for SpaceX’s first regular ferry trip for NASA, a mission known as Crew-1.
On April 28, SpaceX is scheduled to bring back the four crew members from the November flight, with a splashdown off the Florida coast. The company’s next mission to the station is tentatively set for October.
NASA last year agreed to allow its space station crew rotations to be conducted on previously flown equipment. The agency studied the entire Falcon 9 fleet, including more than “400 certification products,” and conducted its own analysis on the engines, thermal-protection elements and other parts of the Falcon-Dragon system, said Steve Stich, director of NASA’s commercial crew program.
Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, applauded the agency’s close partnership with SpaceX in recent years. Last week, the agency selected SpaceX to land astronauts on the moon as part of the Artemis program.
The flight on Friday is “the third launch in less than a year after almost a 10-year gap in launching astronauts on U.S. rockets from U.S. soil,” he said after the launch.
SpaceX has flown another one of its Falcon 9 rockets nine times without people, and its Dragon capsule is certified for as many as five flights. The Hawthorne, California-based company is keen to learn the useful life of a Falcon 9, although crewed launches won’t be part of those tests.
Musk said the rocket’s first stage has no “obvious limit” on how many times it can fly and that the company will soon use one on a 10th flight to deploy its Starlink satellite constellation.
SpaceX will use the booster stage “until we see some kind of failure with the Starlink missions,” he said. NASA flights won’t be among those flown on Falcon 9 “life leaders.”
The NASA Crew-2 mission is commanded by Shane Kimbrough, 53, a retired U.S. Army colonel, helicopter pilot and father of three, who is taking his third trip to space. The crew is expected to return to Earth in late October.
Three Other Astronauts Are On Board:
* Pilot Megan McArthur, 49, an oceanographer selected by NASA as an astronaut in 2000. She flew on the final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009. McArthur is married to Bob Behnken, who flew on the same Dragon vehicle during SpaceX’s last test flight for NASA to the space station. The couple has a son.
* Mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide, 52, an astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who has flown to space twice, in 2008 and 2012.
* Thomas Pesquet, a former Air France pilot who joined the European Space Agency as an astronaut in 2009. Pesquet, a 43-year-old native of Rouen, France, spent six months aboard the space station from November 2016 to June 2017.
The Commercial Crew Program is a keystone of NASA’s effort to contract with private companies where possible for astronaut and cargo transport, along with other services.
In 2014, NASA awarded upstart SpaceX and Boeing Co. a combined $6.8 billion in contracts to revive the ability of the U.S. to fly to the orbiting lab without buying seats on Russian Soyuz capsules. A second test flight of Boeing’s Starliner vehicle, without a crew, is set for later this year after a botched mission in December 2019.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets, and NASA has been a key partner and customer. A cargo version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule makes regular runs to the space station.
Elon Musk’s Starlink To Deliver Internet Nearly Worldwide Within Weeks
Elon Musk’s satellite network Starlink is on track to beam broadband internet everywhere in the world except polar regions by August, he said on Tuesday.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has launched more than 1,500 satellites so far and has Starlink operations in about a dozen countries, Musk said during a presentation at the Mobile World Congress conference. That’s costing a lot. SpaceX’s total investment in the network will be between $5 billion and $10 billion before cash flow is positive, he said.
“We recently passed the strategically notable number of 69,420 active users,” Musk joked. “We’re I think on our way to having a few hundred thousand users, possibly over 500,000 users within 12 months.”
SpaceX aims to offer broadband to as much as 5% of the world’s population where conventional fiber and wireless networks can’t reach. Musk said he’s signed two deals with “major country” telecom operators but he couldn’t name them yet, and he’s in discussions with more.
Starlink will provide so-called “data back haul” spines for their networks. The satellite network currently moves about 30 terabits of data per second, and Musk said he’s targeting a user latency — or network response time — of less than 20 milliseconds.
Musk, who turned 50 on Monday, discussed several additional upgrades in the works during an update on the $74 billion SpaceX business.
The company is set to launch a new version of Starlink’s satellites next year that will have inter-satellite laser links to help them cover polar regions. Its engineers are developing a new ground terminal to stem losses: the dishes customers are currently installing on rooftops cost more than $1,000 to make but only retail for half that, he said.
SpaceX is also planning an orbital flight of its giant Starship rocket “in the next few months” he said.
German Startup Plans ‘Fast Taxi’ To Launch Satellites Into Orbit
Isar Aerospace wants to connect the 4 billion people without internet access.
Germany’s Isar Aerospace Technologies GmbH is one of a slew of so-called New Space businesses—think OneWeb Ltd. and Astroscale Holdings Inc.—that are tapping into rising demand for services such as satellite broadband and observation. Space companies could generate sales of more than $1 trillion by 2040, up from $350 billion today, according to Morgan Stanley.
At the Bloomberg New Economy Catalyst event, Bloomberg reporter Thomas Seal spoke with Isar co-founder Daniel Metzler about his company’s plans to create a “fast taxi” for smaller satellite systems requiring regular, flexible trips into space to undertake repairs and performance enhancements. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Seal: Can You Introduce Us To What Isar Does And Tell Us How You Differ From The Competition?
Metzler: We build orbital launch vehicles focused on small satellites and satellite constellations. So we design, test, manufacture, and then also operate rockets that transfer satellites up to about 1,000 kilograms into Earth orbit.
We have hundreds of rocket engineers at the company building what I like to say is a small and fast taxi, so we can enable small satellite manufacturers to access space very flexibly with respect to time, but also at very low cost.
I Know Sustainability Is An Important Part Of What Isar Does. Can You Tell Me About That?
We will launch a lot of observation satellites that help manage the Earth’s climate. How do we know about climate change?
It’s actually satellites that give us the data in the first place, and you can’t manage what you can’t measure.
So we have to get the data through satellites. Then within the rocketry itself, we’re using sustainable propellants. On top of that, we don’t create any space debris.
What Kinds Of Services And Applications From Your Potential Clients Look The Most Promising?
We’ve already signed customers such as Airbus Defence and Space. We see a lot of Earth observation and connectivity customers. The big driver in the entire space industry has been commercialization and the standardization of satellite components.
So you can build communication satellites, whether for IoT [internet-of-things] or providing high-speed internet, or Earth or radar satellites, which we can use to analyze what’s happening on Earth with a very high degree of frequency and also with detailed geographic resolution.
The Auto Industry Is Going To Be Increasingly Relying On Space As Well?
Absolutely. Imagine if you could connect every car on the earth. If you want to push a software update, you can just broadcast that to the entire globe. The possibilities are endless in terms of applications.
Connectivity is one of the big drivers, especially if you think that today, 4 billion people don’t have internet access. If you put enough satellites in orbit to cover every single part of Earth, you can offer continuous service on a global scale.
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Monty H. & Carolyn A.