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SpaceX Starlink Beta and Beyond

SpaceX began public beta testing of the Starlink Internet service in the northern US late last October. Since then, they have made many software updates based on the beta experience and have expanded the uninterrupted-coverage area by launching new satellites. By the end of the year, they had begun beta service in southern Canada and sent beta test invitations to a few UK users. The beta-eligibility area is expected to expand from the current 45-53 degree latitude this month or next.

SpaceX is actively seeking permission to operate in other nations. The legal ins-and-outs are confusing, but it has foreign affiliates in at least 5 European countries, and one of those, Starlink Holdings Netherlands B.V., has subsidiaries in 4-6 other European nations, including Germany and Greece, and in Argentina. SpaceX also has foreign affiliates in Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa and is in discussion with the Philippine government.

SpaceX will have to establish relationships with every nation they plan to operate in, and these affiliate companies are an important asset. They also have contacts through their launch business, for example, in Argentina, where they launched the SAOCOM satellites. This is obviously a fast-changing situation, and you can watch the list grow and find more information by following this FAQ wiki and the Starlink discussion on Reddit.

The cost of the beta service in relatively affluent nations seems to be roughly the same. In the US, beta testers are paying $99 per month for the service and $499 for a terminal, including a tripod and WiFi router. In Canada, it's $649 CAD and $129 CAD per month and £439 and £89 per month for service in the UK. There are no data caps for now, but that might change if demand outstrips the evolving capacity. Elon Musk claims that users can easily install the terminal themselves — just point it at the sky and plug it in — and, while that may be true for users with a clear view of the sky, others will have the added expense of creating custom mounts to avoid trees and other obstacles.

What about the prices in less affluent nations like the Philippines, South Africa, Chile, Columbia, and Argentina?

The percent of the rural population that can afford the current beta prices is lower in those nations than in North America and Europe and the gap is even wider in many other nations. SpaceX will either charge less in poor nations in order to fully utilize capacity or focus on organizations like schools and clinics rather than individual consumers.

In addition to licenses, SpaceX will need ground stations with fiber connectivity to the regions they serve. The map shown here shows ground stations in North America and Australia, but it is somewhat out of date. They are also working on ground stations in France and New Zealand and, as with licenses, Reddit is a good place to follow current developments. SpaceX has a clear lead over other would-be low-Earth orbit Internet service, providers. They have 874 working satellites in orbit, beta-testers in four nations, affiliates in others, and superior launch technology, but this is just the start of the game. Satellite broadband is a dynamic, multi-dimensional market; technology is changing rapidly and SpaceX has formidable competition. The situation reminds me of "IBM and the seven dwarfs" in the 1960s.

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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