SpaceX President Glynn Shotwell says SpaceX has launched 1,800 Starlink satellites, the minimum necessary for global coverage, and could start providing that coverage outside of the “Better than Nothing Beta” as early as September. Some of the most recently launched satellites are still maneuvering into their final orbits.
This is, of course, still pending regulatory approval by many countries. SpaceX has previously groused about the slow pace of Canada’s regulatory approval for placing the hardware needed to access Starlink within the country. This means Starlink is only accessible from the parts of Canada that are closest to its border with the United States.
Starlink’s beta is currently approved in 11 countries, including the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and parts of Europe. SpaceX currently has deals with the U.K. and United States to develop broadband infrastructure for rural areas and low-income regions that have previously been neglected by ISPs and Internet infrastructure developers.
According to the FCC, 19 million Americans did not have access to the Internet in 2020. Some experts say that this number might have been overly conservative and as many as 42 million Americans don’t have reliable Internet access. They may be able to access it in public spaces and businesses that offer free Wi-Fi, but not at home. 3.7 million students run the risk of falling behind in their studies because they don’t have Internet access or even a home computer.
This is a problem that was especially highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which students were expected to access virtual learning but couldn’t because their parents couldn’t afford Internet access and places that would have normally provided free Wi-Fi were all closed. At least one student hiked to school every day even though it was closed just so he could access the Internet. Attempts to solve this problem included a deal between SpaceX and one school district in Texas to provide Internet access for low-income students.
So it wouldn’t be hard to see how global coverage for the Internet could benefit people who don’t have reliable access, though dealing with the regulators is always a challenge if Elon Musk’s companies’ experience is any indication. Tesla has previously complained about the slow pace of regulatory approval for the completion and opening of Gigafactory Berlin and SpaceX has certainly had its share of flaps with the regulators in the wake of four fiery losses of Starship prototypes in a row. Now the FAA is demanding an environmental review that could delay the launch of an orbital test of Starship, though SpaceX was seen stacking the prototype that will be used for that test despite that.
Beta testers have reported speeds up to 209.17 megabits per second and good performance even in harsh winter conditions. On the flip side, Starlink terminals apparently go into frequent thermal shutdowns in intense summer heat in some U.S. States like Arizona. This could cause problems in some regions that would benefit the most from reliable access to high-speed Internet if SpaceX won’t fix the overheating problem with its terminals.
Despite the issues, Elon Musk said that demand for Starlink access is strong, with preorders exceeding 500,000. Shotwell previously mentioned that Starlink could help fund Musk’s ambitions for crewed missions to Mars if its ambitious schedule of launching more satellites every couple of weeks pays off. SpaceX plans to have a constellation of 42,000 Internet satellites in low Earth orbit when it is complete.
This has caused occasional annoyance for competitors who are launching their own satellites despite OneWeb being caught exaggerating the close call that one of its satellites had with a Starlink satellite. Elon Musk has previously expressed annoyance with competitors’ regulatory challenges, including a recent challenge to the FCC’s approval of SpaceX’s application to launch some satellites into a lower orbit.
The current pricing for Starlink access is $99 a month plus $499 for the equipment needed to access it and SpaceX has previously denied plans for tiered pricing, though it later said that it might be willing to consider a reduced rate for low-income customers.