Earlier today, SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink satellites, bringing the total up to 1,440 functioning Starlink satellites in orbit. Elon Musk also indicated that 500,000 customers have placed an order or made a deposit for the service.
The “Better than Nothing Beta” currently has 10,000 testers who paid the somewhat steep $499 fee for equipment and subscribed to the service for $99 per month. Current data suggest that SpaceX is currently manufacturing the terminals used to access Starlink for $1,500, which means that it is taking a loss on every equipment purchase.
SpaceX space operations engineer Siva Bharadvaj said during live coverage of today’s launch, “With every launch, we get closer to connecting more people across the world.”
Some reporters like Michael Sheetz did express doubts that the Starlink constellation as it exists now would be able to keep up with demand even though new satellites are being launched every couple of weeks and SpaceX recently received regulatory approval to launch some of them into a lower orbit. Sheetz noted that the $99 deposit was fully refundable. Elon Musk was confident that the company could comfortably deliver service to the 500,000 customers who are currently signed up, however.
Things may become more challenging when SpaceX is brought out of beta and millions of potential customers start signing up. This challenge may be the reason the company plans a final constellation of 42,000 satellites, which can provide redundancy and low latency for the high expected demand.
The United Nations recognizes access to reliable Internet service as a fundamental human right. However, millions of people live in regions where access to the Internet is unreliable, nonexistent, or too expensive. Governments around the world often control which online resources that residents in their countries can access. This has caused them to miss out on virtual education, telehealth services, investment opportunities, and potential for remote employment that most more “connected” people take more granted.
Even in industrialized countries, rural or low-income regions may lack reliable and affordable Internet access due to lack of investment in these areas. SpaceX is currently working with the UK’s Project Gigabit and the United States’ Federal Communications Commission to bring more reliable broadband Internet to rural and low-income areas that might have previously been neglected by Internet infrastructure development plans and service providers.
SpaceX president Glynn Shotwell has recently indicated that bringing reliable high-speed Internet service to the world is not an end game in itself, however. She said that SpaceX may use revenue from Starlink to fund future Martian settlement efforts spearheaded by the company. Astute Starlink customers have also noticed a clause in Starlink’s Terms and Conditions that recognizes Mars as an independent planet.
With today’s launch, SpaceX continues to add to the capacity of the Starlink satellite Internet constellation. It has previously shown a willingness to work with low-income communities and school districts to grant early access to Starlink to disadvantaged segments of the population. It also plans to issue lower-cost plans for low-income customers. Beta testers have also said that the service truly is “better than nothing” even in frigid winter weather in which some satellite Internet services might have stopped working. This stellar early performance is a likely reason that 500,000 customers have been willing to place orders or at least make the $99 refundable deposit.