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SpaceX's Starlink Internet Service Will Target End Users on Day One

Larry Press

Internet users per 100 inhabitants (source)It sounds like SpaceX is planning on offering broadband service to end users who will order the service online and set up their own ground stations.

Starting with Teledesic in 1990, would-be Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations have been justified to the FCC, other regulators, and the public as a means of closing the digital divide. Teledesic's goal was "providing affordable access to advanced network connections to all those parts of the world that will never get such advanced capabilities through existing technologies." Today's low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite companies make the same claim, but Telesat, OneWeb and Leosat seem to be targeting commercial markets first.

As far as I know, Telesat is the first LEO provider to sign up a customer and that customer is Omniaccess. Headquartered in the "yachting capital of the Mediterranean," Palma de Mallorca, OmniAccess provides broadband and IPTV service to over 350 vessels — superyachts, boutique cruise lines, and prestigious research & exploration organizations. The Telesat agreement provides OmniAccess with limited exclusivity to serve the "superyacht" market — in other words, they will be connecting the yachts of Russian oligarchs.

In 2003, OneWeb founder Greg Wyler worked on 3G mobile and fiber access to homes and schools in Rwanda. In 2007, he founded O3b Networks, a middle-Earth orbit satellite Internet service provider to connect the "other three billion" unconnected people. OneWeb was founded in 2012 with goals of 1 billion subscribers by 2025 and the elimination of the global digital divide by 2027. Their first marketing-oriented move was to partner with Airbus, Delta, Sprint, and Airtel, establishing the Strategic Air Alliance to develop standards to enable them to provide passengers seamless, in-cabin connectivity. It looks like their first customers will be airline passengers, ships at sea and mobile phone companies.

Leosat has focused on enterprise and government customers from the start.

Elon Musk followed a similar strategy in bootstrapping his electric car company, Tesla. He started with expensive, high-end vehicles and followed several years later with the lower-priced Models 3 and Y, but it looks like the SpaceX Starlink Internet service will focus on end users from the start.

SpaceX sister company, SpaceX Services, filed an FCC application for "a blanket license authorizing operation of up to 1,000,000 earth stations that end-user customers will utilize to communicate with SpaceX's LEO constellation." Those end users will be individuals, libraries, schools, etc. "throughout the contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands." They assert that this license will "enable SpaceX to bring high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband service to consumers in the United States and around the world, including areas underserved or currently unserved by existing networks." (Note that these initial satellites would have the capacity to serve Cuba and other Caribbean nations).

Their user terminals will "employ advanced phased-array beam-forming and digital processing technologies to make highly efficient use of Ku-band spectrum resources by supporting highly directive steered antenna beams that track the system's LEO satellites." Since SpaceX plans to begin launching operational satellites in 2019 and they are already conducting successful satellite-ground communication tests, they must be confident that they can mass produce such antennas at a low cost. (Note that a former SpaceX executive has recently joined Mynaric, a German laser communications startup focused on satellite and airborne platforms. Perhaps SpaceX and Mynaric will collaborate on the antennas).

Ground stations that can track fast-moving satellites, switching seamlessly from one to another when they go out of view, will be easy for end-users to install. It sounds like SpaceX is planning on offering broadband service to end users who will order the service online and set up their own ground stations.

Click for more on the SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat and Leosat LEO Internet-service projects.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University – He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
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