Will SpaceX change the broadband game?

Elon Musk has never dreamt small. His idea for creating Starlink, a full satellite-based broadband infrastructure, is one of his most ambitious. The FCC has already granted approval for this large-scale, five-year project, and SpaceX has launched two test satellites to prove viability. The full implementation of the Starlink project would theoretically allow for the cheap, rapid deployment of fast internet service to the entire planet. Is it possible? And how would the success of the Starlink constellation impact broadband service providers (both cable and FTTH)?

The Starlink constellation

Musk’s ambitious plan is to launch more than 4,000 small satellites that would offer a much lower latency than that of current satellite offerings. Currently, many satellite services can achieve an average latency of about 600 milliseconds. In stereotypical hyperbolic fashion, Musk believes he can bring that down to 25-35 milliseconds. That, combined with global coverage, would make it a serious contender with cable and fiber-optic services.

The key to the Starlink constellation would be its ability to operate in low earth orbit (LEO). One of the issues connected with latency is the distance of the satellite from the Earth; by placing many satellites 684-823 miles above the Earth, Starlink could reduce the amount of time it takes for signals to travel back and forth. Of course, this would require thousands of satellites, each covering its own small area.

But launching this equipment will be less challenging for SpaceX than other hopeful satellite providers because the company has its own reusable rockets and infrastructure. Even with the potential cost savings of do-it-yourself space runs, however, the Starlink constellation project is still a pricey gambit, with an estimated cost of $10-$15 billion.

What could go wrong?

Although the Starlink constellation has the personality and drive of Elon Musk and the space infrastructure and know-how of SpaceX behind it, the project still faces serious challenges. The most obvious is cash: SpaceX could always run out of money – other companies, such as Globestar and Iridium Communications, certainly have while attempting to blanket the Earth with satellites. Even though Musk is a billionaire, not all of his projects generate significant cash flow. Specifically, he may need to invest more in Tesla, which has faced a range of expensive challenges.

Besides the obvious money obstacles, the FCC could always change its mind. The commission’s original approval is conditional, and SpaceX must launch half of its satellites into space by 2024. (However, SpaceX does not only need to deal with the FCC; it must also be able to gain approval from other government agencies. For example, Musk mentioned that he would require Chinese governmental support to place satellite dishes or other equipment on the mainland, a challenging proposition.)

There is, of course, a reasonable chance that the Starlink satellite network will never be achieved due to technical issues. The sheer volume of satellites and equipment needed is clearly an obstacle to completion, since once the system is established, the satellites would need regular maintenance and replacement. LEO satellites are not stationary, so as one leaves a specific area, another satellite would need to be close behind to ensure continuity of service. There are also reasonable concerns about the increasing volume of objects orbiting in LEO.

Competitors could beat SpaceX to the punch. There are satellite-based internet services already (Boeing launched its e-BIRD more than a dozen years ago, and O3b recently added two more satellites to its own constellation in medium earth orbit), and many other companies and countries are jumping into the arena. Starlink will have some stiff competition, and it is already beginning to feel the strong headwinds in this niche market. For example, OneWeb has petitioned the U.S. government for a buffer zone between Starlink’s satellites and its own.

The impact on cable companies

In a worst case scenario, the success of Starlink (or a competing project) could spell trouble for broadband service providers. A satellite constellation that works as well as Musk hopes would be able to deliver internet services over a much broader range than that currently offered, providing a connection to areas that currently cannot get service, such as some rural communities.

However, in light of the many challenges facing Starlink and other satellite constellations, it is more likely that U.S. broadband providers have little to fear. The ability to successfully manage a large-scale satellite constellation is extremely challenging. It involves a high degree of political agreement, a significant investment of cash and resources (for example, even with three million subscribers, Starlink would still be more costly per subscriber than FTTH), a large volume of equipment, numerous maintenance teams and the ability to successfully track and manage thousands of satellites, some of which could become “lost” or crash into other orbiting objects. While there is nothing wrong with big dreams, satellite internet is likely to remain a niche part of the market.