Washington State Uses Starlink to Assist With Combating Wildfires

SpaceX is currently lending Starlink’s Internet service capacity to Washington State’s Emergency Management department to assist with the wildfires that have been ravaging the United States’ west coast. This has helped with coordination of efforts in an environment where ground-based utilities are frequently inaccessible.

Starlink is already being used in cases like Malden, WA, a small village of 200 residents in which every building was destroyed by the wildfires. Satellite-based Internet access can be made available on a limited basis without unduly taxing emergency management resources.

“Glad SpaceX could help! We are prioritizing emergency responders & locations with no Internet connectivity at all,” Elon Musk said in a tweet responding to Washington Emergency Management’s official Twitter account.

Recent unofficial reports from beta testers indicate that Starlink was capable of speeds of up to 60 Mbps as of mid-August 2020. SpaceX has launched more satellites since then and currently has 640 of the planned 12,000 satellites in the Starlink constellation in orbit. When completed, SpaceX promises speeds of up to 1 Gbps with latency times as low as 20 milliseconds.

There are hints that SpaceX is using its close relationship with the military to expand the beta testing of Starlink. Some observers are already speculating that this explains why Washington State Emergency Management, a military department, was able to procure the early access.

SpaceX and Elon Musk have repeatedly stated that Starlink exists for reasons like this, to serve communities that have been neglected by “traditional” Internet service providers or have lost their Internet access due to disasters like the currently ongoing wildfires. The 60 Mbps speeds is already comparable to the best Internet speeds that many rural Internet users can access. Eventually, Starlink may compete with Internet service providers in more densely populated regions.

Musk has indicated that SpaceX may eventually consider spinning Starlink off as its own company, possibly with an Initial Public Offering (IPO). He does not expect this to occur until Starlink has cash flows that will be more attractive to investors, which he anticipates may take several years if an IPO happens at all. His recent kerfuffles with regulators over Tweets that were interpreted as attempts to manipulate Tesla’s stock value may cause him to hesitate when it comes to issuing publicly traded stock in any other of his companies, however. He has occasionally said that he prefers to keep SpaceX private, with only a few venture capitalists involved, in order to avoid the pressure of prioritizing quarterly reports over technical innovation. Venture capitalists are often more patient than traders of publicly traded stocks when it comes to earning a profit.

In the meantime, the Washington Emergency Management department is likely to become a good case study for how satellite Internet service can help communities that have been hit hard by natural disaster and lost access to the Internet on top of everything else. Residents can still communicate with the outside world even in cases where their Internet access and phones may not otherwise work and emergency services can still communicate even when utilities are out.