Microsoft Azure has announced a partnership with the satellite Internet providers SpaceX Starlink, SES, and KSAT to enhance its cloud computing services. Microsoft has developed the Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) specifically to operate smoothly with a satellite Internet connection.
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The Azure MDC has been described as a data center built into a mobile, satellite-connected shipping container. It can function on its own or through satellite constellations like Starlink that will have the capacity to deliver low-latency Internet.
Like Starlink, the MDC could be used for applications that require mobility and the ability to function even when ground-based infrastructure and utilities might be limited or absent altogether. Microsoft has indicated that it might be useful for “mobile command centers, humanitarian assistance, military mission needs, mineral exploration, and other use cases requiring high intensity, secure computing.” Private companies and the U.S. military are already conducting trials of the MDC.
SpaceX has indicated that it would be interested in pursuing more enterprise-level partnerships for Starlink to develop applications for its satellite Internet constellation. This may be a response to potential competition from projects like Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which plans a similar constellation that might be able to work with Amazon Web Services.
Project Kuiper is, interestingly, being run by former SpaceX executives that Elon Musk fired for moving too slowly on Starlink. Such slowness may make it difficult for Project Kuiper to keep up with Musk’s preference to move quickly. Experts do not rule out the possibility that it could compete successfully with SpaceX in the satellite Internet service niche in the long run, however.
Stanford University assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics told IEEE Spectrum, “With Amazon, it’s a whole different ballgame. The thing that makes Amazon different from SpaceX and OneWeb is they have so much other stuff going for them,” such as the already-developed services being offered by Amazon Web Services that could be integrated into an Internet service package.
Just the fact that Musk fired the executives for being too slow indicates that he is not inclined to sit on his hands. SpaceX has launched almost 800 Starlink satellites just in the past year and recent information indicates that it could support up to 40,000 operational satellites if successful. (According to FCC filings, the original plan was for 12,000 satellites.) It can already reach speeds of 100 Mbps. Once complete, the constellation may be able to reach speeds of up to 1 Gbps with latency low enough to suit gamers and anyone else who like fast “response times” in their Internet service. Partnerships with companies like Microsoft Azure may simply mean that Musk is not ignoring the potential competition.
Not that the satellite Internet access business is an easy or cheap one. OneWeb had goals similar to SpaceX’s Starlink that included providing Internet access to regions where such access is simply nonexistent, but recently went through bankruptcy proceedings and has been bought out by a coalition that includes the British government. Existing satellite Internet service providers charge prices that could be seen as exorbitantly high for regions where satellite Internet is likely to be most popular because they have made such a high initial investment.
SpaceX may wind up finding Starlink a similar financial drag if it cannot reach target markets that include underserved and often impoverished “digital deserts.” Success will mean keeping its promise of providing satellite Internet service that most people can afford even in regions where the median household income is low.
Enterprise partners like Microsoft Azure will likely give Starlink the boost it needs to achieve that success in a sustainable way. Although some public entities like Washington State’s emergency services have had some success with helping to beta-test Starlink, the Azure Modular Datacenter may become the first widespread private use of Starlink.