Starlink is a satellite internet network that relies on thousands of satellites in close proximity to the Earth’s surface. This constellation of low-Earth-orbiting satellites transmits signals from satellite to satellite as well as ground stations to provide high-speed broadband internet services.
What Is Starlink Internet?
Starlink is a developing satellite constellation that transmits high-speed, low-latency broadband internet from thousands of low-Earth orbiting satellites. Operated by space exploration company SpaceX, the telecommunications service aims to provide global internet coverage.
Developed by Elon Musk’s space exploration company SpaceX, the telecommunication project aims to shoot 42,000 small satellites into space over the next couple of decades, forming a globe-encircling ring just 350 miles overhead. That number today stands at 3,634 satellites, according to independent research database BroadbandNow. (For context, there have been a total of 15,070 satellites launched into space since space exploration began, of which 9,790 are still in orbit.)
Since its launch in 2019, the telecommunications project has skyrocketed, now servicing more than one million users, SpaceX announced in a tweet.
How Does Starlink Work?
As with any satellite telecommunications service, Starlink involves beaming internet data via radio signals through the vacuum of space. Ground stations then broadcast those signals to orbiting satellites, which relay the data back to Earth-side users.
But what differentiates Starlink is the sheer volume and short, geospatial proximity of its satellites.
Volume + Proximity = Speed
Most satellite internet services bounce signals from a single, geostationary satellite. They’re about the size of a bus and orbit at 22,000 miles from the Earth’s surface. Traditional satellites typically max out at around 100 megabits per second, with an average of 31 megabits per second.
Comparatively, Starlink works across thousands of 22-foot-long satellites stationed 63 times lower in altitude. Their close proximity enables high-performance internet speeds, ranging from 100 to 250 megabits per second.
An additional factor to consider — latency — shows Starlink at 25 and 50 milliseconds compared to its competitors at 450 to 700 milliseconds, as tech-focused publication CNET reported.
“Starlink is innovative in that the constellation of lower-Earth-orbit satellites can be moved to provide a high density of service on demand,” Vincent Peters, a former SpaceX employee who worked within the information compliance and assurance sector, told Built In.
For example, during the Washington state wildfires in 2020, emergency service crews stayed connected via Starlink satellites while dousing fast-moving fires. In order to do so, ground terminals were placed near first responder sites. Depending on the amount of bandwidth required per transmission, Starlink satellites mobilized toward the coverage area to increase the level of service and connectivity available, according to Peters, who now designs non-fungible tokens as the founder and CEO of artificial intelligence and Web3 company inheritance Art.
“Starlink is innovative in that the constellation of lower-Earth-orbit satellites can be moved to provide a high density of service on demand.”
“The majority of other services have fixed bandwidth for a specific location [whereas] Starlink can be made on demand at any given point,” Peters said.
Starlink satellites have been upgraded to communicate through a laser-based network.
At the 36th annual Space Symposium in 2021, SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell announced that the next generation of satellites would be equipped with laser crosslinks to enable intra-constellation communication. This allows satellites to communicate with one another — share data — without having to travel all the way back to ground stations. With this feature, the need for terrestrial stations greatly decreases and internet accessibility becomes possible in areas where stations cannot be built, as reported by online publication Space.com.
How Much Does Starlink Cost?
Starlink offers three different types of subscription packages from its main line of products: residential, RV and business. Residential subscriptions cost $110 per month with a one-time hardware fee of $599. Starlink’s RV option — roaming internet access on an as-needed basis — costs $135 per month with a one-time hardware fee of $599. For company-wide coverage, business subscriptions cost $500 per month with a one-time hardware fee of $2,500.
Where Is Starlink Available?
Currently, Starlink internet services are available in 54 countries — but keep in mind that the project itself is an ongoing development. Of the 42,000 satellite end goal, only about nine percent of them have launched.
So, while the service itself is globally accessible, there are other factors impacting Starlink’s availability including international regulations, sanctions and government approval.
Where Is Starlink Available?
You can check Starlink’s availability through this interactive map on its website.
This means that some subscribers may experience limited coverage or be subject to a waiting list. Additionally, some regions have received approval with a service date pending. No countries have been discounted from joining the network, although SpaceX did limit Ukraine’s satellite connectivity once the company got word that Starlink was being used for controlling drones and other military purposes.
As for further expansion, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved SpaceX’s proposal to launch the second generation of its constellation — a batch of 7,500 satellites — in December.
Why Are People Using Starlink?
Starlink was especially designed to cut latency rates, or the time it takes for data to bounce from user to satellite and back, for those living in rural, remote locations without fixed-line connections. This includes the 14.5 million Americans living in areas lacking broadband access — standardized at a minimum of 25 megabits per second by the FCC — who are experiencing speeds as low as 0.38 megabits per second.
It may not, however, be the go-to option for city dwellers.
“Starlink is at its best in low- to medium-population density areas,” said Tyler Cooper, editor in chief at BroadbandNow. “Highly populated cities are not optimal for the technology in its current form, as the bandwidth between users in a local area is shared, meaning performance will suffer when hundreds of users are trying to connect at the same time.”
How to Connect to Starlink
Each Starlink residential or RV kit comes with a rectangular dish, a mounting base, Wi-Fi router, power cable and 75-foot cable to connect the router to the dish. Users will also need to download the Starlink app, which will guide the user through the process. Installation requires a clear view of the sky. The space above and around the dish should be unobstructed by any objects at a 100-degree circumference. Once the terminal is fitted and plugged in, users can open their Wi-Fi settings and join the Starlink network.
Traditional broadband is interconnected by copper wires and relies on physical infrastructure to provide connectivity to its customers. Highly mobile, Starlink’s fully above-ground network transmits from dish to satellite and comes in both roaming and stationary varieties.
“Starlink is not reliant upon a massive terrestrial infrastructure,” Peters said.
Despite the digital divide, it doesn’t exactly make the most business sense for fixed networks to build out their existing framework for so few customers, Peters said. So, while speeds for Starlink are a bit slower than fiber broadband, they’re a massive improvement compared to existing major mobile operators, he said, or the other alternative — going without.
“This technology is important because it provides equitable access to the internet,” Peters said. “Starlink covers these underserved customers with its network of lower-Earth orbit satellites that can provide internet service wherever a Starlink terminal is installed.”
“This technology is important because it provides equitable access to the internet.”
Following its deployment to Antarctica and Africa, the telecommunications project now spans all seven continents, as announced in a tweet by SpaceX on January 30.
In another tweet, Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria, celebrated his country’s achievement as the first African country with Starlink internet access.
“This is a new moment and we can be looking at unlocking many opportunities in rural Nigeria,” Ndubuisi Ekekwe, the lead faculty at the Tekedia Institute, a Nigerian business school, told Built In.
Mere months after Starlink’s approval by the Nigerian government, Ekekwe said that the Tekedia Institute launched a course titled “Satellite Internet In Nigeria: Business and Career Opportunities,” designed to prepare local professionals for what he calls “a new dawn of immersive connectivity.”
“We need to empower citizens with better jobs and economic opportunities to enjoy the promises [of internet access],” Ekekwe said.