SpaceX has filed an application with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Office of Experimental Testing (OET) to test a new version of the Starlink user terminal that has a smaller receiving antenna. The transmitting antenna remains unchanged in the new version.
The change in the receiving antenna would reduce its range by lowering its gain, or ability to convert radio signals into electrical signals that can be interpreted by a connected computer. It would, however, increase the area that the device can cover, which increases its ability to pick up signals from Starlink satellites as they move across the sky.
SpaceX may have seen the move as necessary, considering that it recently received approval to operate some of its satellites at a lower orbit over the objections of competing satellite Internet services like OneWeb and Amazon’s “Project Kuiper,” both of which the company appears to have a fledgling rivalry with. Objects in a lower orbit have a faster ground speed, which reduces the amount of time that a terminal can receive signals from them as they move from horizon to horizon.
The new test terminals will operate at sites in Washington, Texas, Utah, Colorado, and California and use the same frequencies that are used by existing terminals used for the “Better than Nothing Beta” program. Beta testers have reported that Starlink terminals work well even in harsh winter conditions that could knock out electronics that aren’t hardened against harsh weather and frigid conditions.
Although very little has been said about when Starlink will come out of beta, it has already received approval to operate in some parts of Canada, the United States, and Australia and is working with the United States and United Kingdom to bring improved broadband Internet access to rural areas. SpaceX has also worked with the Native American Hoh Tribe in Washington State and a school district in Texas to provide early access to Starlink’s Internet service to individuals and families who lack reliable access to the Internet.
SpaceX plans to cover most of Earth with Starlink so that people who have lacked access to reliable Internet service can access the same online resources as the more connected populations. The phenomenon of wide swaths of the world not having access to affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet has been called the “Digital Divide” and has been blamed for some populations not being able to access the same opportunities as everyone else. The Hoh Tribe, for instance, was thrilled with SpaceX’s willingness to work with them because it could increase access to virtual education opportunities and telehealth services.
The company has no plans to offer tiered pricing for its satellite Internet service, but has indicated a willingness to offer a reduced subscription fee for low-income customers. In recent comments, SpaceX president Glynn Shotwell mentioned that the possible global market for broadband Internet services could be as high as $1 trillion if the Digital Divide could be eliminated – money that SpaceX could use to fund research and development for its plans to send people to Mars if it can snag a big enough market share.
If the new terminals pass their tests, they could improve Starlink’s ability to provide access by increasing the amount of time that they can connect to the Internet service satellites in the newly planned lower orbits.