Starlink has the potential to beckon in a new age of connectivity. You could be in the middle of the Sahara, up Mt Everest, on a boat in the middle of the Pacific or in a jet over the Atlantic and thanks to Starlink could stream 4K movies on Netflix, make an emergency call or even get 5G signal for your phone. But creating such a service is no mean feat, and Musk has faced some serious problems over the past year that has significantly stifled Starlink's ability and growth. But thanks to a recent FCC licence and some clever redesigns, nothing stands in the way of Starlink and world domination.
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Before we dive into the recent breakthroughs, we first need to understand the problems Starlink has faced and is facing.
Basically, Starlink is just too successful. I’ve covered this before (click here for that article), but the short version is that Starlink currently has too few satellites to service its hundreds of thousands of customers. You see, Starlink presently has just over 3,200+ satellites in orbit, beaming down internet to 400,000+ customers. Quite simply, this isn’t enough satellites to provide the massive bandwidth this number of customers demand, meaning Starlink’s internet speeds have been dramatically reduced. To remedy this situation, Elon has upped the price of Starlink and imposed data limits across the globe in the hope of slowing down the ever-growing customer base, giving them time to launch more satellites to solve this issue properly.
But Starlink has had two huge problems here. To solve this bandwidth issue and be able to meet the growing demand, Musk needs to launch literally thousands, preferably tens of thousands of satellites. But getting clearance for such a massive launch is incredibly hard, as the FCC is incredibly worried about orbital junk and collision risks of Starlink. Moreover, Starlink needs to use its more capable Gen 2 satellites to grow its constellation, as these can service nearly ten times the bandwidth of the Gen 1s (meaning one Gen 2 in orbit can do the same as almost 10 Gen 1s). But they are so massive that only SpaceX’s Starship can launch them. But Starship has been massively delayed, and it will likely be years until SpaceX has a large enough Starship fleet to launch that many satellites.
However, SpaceX and Starlink have recently overcame both of these hurdles.
A while ago, SpaceX sent an application to the FCC to obtain a licence to launch a whopping 30,000 satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). After lots of umming and arghing, along with going through objections from rival space-internet companies such as Amazon’s project Kuiper, the FCC approved SpaceX to launch 7,500 Gen 2 Starlink satellites. This is far less than what Starlink planned, but it should be enough as combined with their satellites already in orbit will give them a total of 10,700 active satellites. The minimum number of satellites Starlink needs to offer a “full cover” is 10,000. This means that this licence will allow Starlink to achieve a fast and global coverage for the first time, solving their bandwidth problem. But it does mean that Starlink will have bandwidth issues again further down the line if it becomes wildly popular.
SpaceX has also redesigned the Gen 2 satellite to enable it to fit into their current Falcon 9 rocket. This redesign came about because SpaceX realised that Starlink needed to grow faster than Starship would enable, even once it goes into operation. You see, Starship can theoretically carry 120 of the 1 Gen 2 satellites into orbit, meaning getting 7,500 into orbit would take 63 launches. Musk is aiming to do around 100 Starship launches in 2023, but he famously overpromises and misses deadlines. Moreover, many of those launches will be for third-party paying customers. In short, unless SpaceX can build a large fleet of Starships in the next year, they will really struggle to grow the Starlink constellation fast enough. So the redesign to make the Gen 2 smaller means they can commence their launches as soon as possible and can more rapidly deploy them over the coming years.
All of this now means that the only thing stopping Starlink from fulfilling its potential is time and money. The time component can’t be speeded up, as satellite manufacturing is a delicate and lengthy process. But Musk has solved the money issue. You see, Starlink doesn’t really make a profit from its current customers. It’s more of a break-even situation. But the Gen 2 satellite can beam down a high-speed 5G mobile signal. Sadly, Starlink doesn’t have its own 5G licence, so it can’t offer this service directly to customers. But it can sell this to companies that do, enabling them to provide a near-complete high-speed 5G coverage. T-Mobile has already partnered with Starlink in this way (read more here). This will bring in another far more lucrative source of income and help fund this massive expansion.
It really seems like there is now nothing in the way of Starlink and world domination. I genuinely think this indicates we are entering a new era. Not only do we now have the technology where building such a vast, complex and capable space-based infrastructure is possible and feasible, but this technology will also directly impact the lives of those stuck on Earth's surface.