SpaceX has officially opened the public beta version of its satellite Internet service, made possible by the Starlink satellite constellation. However, there’s a catch: Beta testers have to pay $99 a month for access, plus buy equipment that will enable the connection for $499.
The $499 reportedly buys a phased-array downlink antenna, a mounting device for the antenna, and a Wi-Fi router. Some prospective beta testers have indicated that they might be willing to pay more for better equipment.
The beta version of Starlink will initially only be available in the northern United States and southern Canada. SpaceX intends to expand coverage as it launches more satellites. With the most recent launch of 60 satellites, Starlink currently consists of over 800 satellites out of a planned constellation of 12,000 satellites.
Better Than Nothing
SpaceX refers to the public beta as the “Better Than Nothing Beta,” possibly referring to regions around the world, and even in the U.S., that suffer from unreliable, slow, or non-existent access to the Internet. Existing satellite Internet service providers often charge subscription fees that are prohibitively high to low-income populations that might otherwise consider using them.
Even when ground-based services are available in rural or low-income areas, they are often slow and expensive. Residents of some areas have to pay as much as $60 a month for download speeds as low as 60 Mbps. Starlink has already far surpassed that speed and currently stands at an average of 100 Mbps with response times as low as 20 milliseconds.
SpaceX has previously made the case that inexpensive, high speed, low latency satellite Internet can be attractive to people like the Native American Hoh Tribe and low-income students at Texas’ Ector County Independent School District. These populations can take advantage of virtual learning opportunities, telehealth services, and possibly even online job opportunities that they would not be able to find without Internet access.
Possible Competition Could Bring Prices Down
So why the price of $99 per month and $499 for the equipment? It may be that SpaceX is attempting to recoup the cost of launching so many satellites and could bring the price down when more competition hits the market.
Amazon, for instance, is also planning to launch its own satellite Internet service, which it calls Project Kuiper. Interestingly, Project Kuiper employs former SpaceX executives whom Elon Musk sacked for being too slow in developing Starlink. Amazon may plan to include Project Kuiper as part of select Amazon Web Services packages.
Although OneWeb did have to file for bankruptcy, it was recently purchased by a group of investors that includes the British government. OneWeb’s original goal was to bring the Internet to less advantaged populations around the world, including some developing countries. Its original investors included the Virgin Group, which makes a wide variety of products ranging from phones to soda and originally had plans to provide launch services for OneWeb through Virgin Galactic. Coca-Cola had also been a surprise investor, perhaps hoping that a chance to increase the opportunities available in “digital deserts” would also increase sales of the beverage and snack brands that it owns.
So SpaceX may eventually have incentive to bring the monthly cost of its Internet access down to be more on par with “traditional” ground-based Internet services. It may also choose to pursue partnerships with nonprofit organizations and schools to help provide access to low-income populations who have trouble getting reliable Internet access. Until then, beta testers who are willing to pony up a few hundred bucks for equipment can help SpaceX with its public beta of Starlink.