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SpaceX Starlink Is on a Roll

Why Elon is smiling… captured from an interview during the virtual convention of the Mars Society, Oct 16, 2020.

This is an impressive list of achievements, but bear in mind that we are still in the early days of a yet-unproven technology and market in a complex geopolitical environment.

The last two months have seen a flurry of Starlink activity, including the following:

Bill Gates has a history of interest in satellite Internet and in September, Microsoft announced their Azure Obrital ground station service, which enables satellite access to its Azure cloud services. SES, Viasat, and Intelsat were announced as initial partners and SpaceX just signed up. Starlink+Azure Orbital will compete with Amazon's satellite constellation and its ground-station service. (For more on Azure Orbital, check out this podcast interview and transcript of product manager Nora Zhan).

SpaceX did some good and got good publicity by providing seven user terminals to the Washington State Emergency Management Division for deployment in at least one region hit hard by summer wildfires. Richard Hall, the emergency telecommunications leader of the Washington State Military Department's IT division, said he had "never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable" as Starlink.

This month, SpaceX provided connectivity to the Hoh Indian tribe west of Seattle. I don't know how many terminals were provided or the speed and latency of the service, but the response and publicity have been positive.

SpaceX has been running beta tests in the US at latitudes between 44 and 52 degrees north. SpaceX reported that it has observed a median latency of approximately 30 ms and a 95th percentile latency of 42 ms in over a million observations.

The FCC will award up to $16 billion over ten years to support fixed broadband service in unserved rural areas. They were initially skeptical of satellite service providers, saying they had not proved that they could meet the low-latency requirement under 100ms bidding tier. However, this month, after considering beta test results, the FCC invited SpaceX to bid in the rural broadband funding auction.

After receiving over 700,000 expressions of interest from all 50 states, SpaceX requested an increase in the number of authorized user terminals from one million to five million. They also announced that they are able to manufacture 120 satellites per month, keeping up with their target launch rate.

The capital cities of 17 relatively affluent European nations fall between 44 and 52 degrees north and SpaceX has applied for 3 internet gateway ground stations in France and is said to be looking for roof space on European datacenter roofs.

While the current beta test is in the US, several European capitals are between 44 and 52 degrees north, and SpaceX is able to serve them as well as the northern US.

SpaceX has begun the process of being able to offer service in Canada, but the final approval will not be considered for around 130 days.

SpaceX has registered 14 shell companies in 13 foreign nations (click here and enter entity number 10143028). I checked the street address of one, and it seems to be a postal box rather than an office, but I have been assured that establishing shell companies is common practice. Eight of them are named "TIBRO" (orbit spelled backward), so I assume they are at an earlier development stage than the others.

SpaceX successfully tested a laser link between two satellites, but, as far as I know, did not reveal details like transmission rate or time to establish a connection. I assume that the links were between two satellites in the same plane. (They initially planned five lasers per satellite and are now committed to having four — forward and backward in the same plane and two others linking to adjacent planes).

In an interview at the Mars Society Convention, Elon Musk spelled out a timetable for an unmanned Mars landing that included high volume Starship flights, each capable of launching up to 400 Starlink satellites, in 2022.

Perhaps as a result of the above, Morgan Stanley just raised its valuation of SpaceX from $52 billion in July to over $100 billion and speculated that it might be as high as $200 billion.

The above is an impressive list of achievements, but bear in mind that we are still in the early days of a yet-unproven technology and market in a complex geopolitical environment. Furthermore, we lack the sort of regulation and harmonization that has evolved over the years to govern the seas, and global problems like space debris and collision avoidance remain unsolved.

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.com. Visit Page

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