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Starlink - Satellite connectivity in aircraft, trucks and boats?

This is a quicklook at Starlink, a new satellite-based broadband internet service engineered by SpaceX. Now 'in beta', it promises speeds up to 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload. Starlink currently has very limited coverage and availability having deployed just 1730 satellites so far (of a planned constellation of 4400). I say 'just' but actually this is a fantastic achievement given the first launch was only in 2019! These Starlink satellites are about the size of a table and orbit at an altitude of 340 miles (550 kms); much lower than current systems that typically orbit at around 22236 miles (35786 kms). It seems the visibility of the constellation in the night sky has been a surprise to everybody and it is proving to be a contentious issue with the 'star gazing community'; perhaps painting the satellites Vantablack might reduce reflectivity?

Now I am not a qualified 'Techie' but it seems that Elon Musk's Starlink network has the potential to provide a real alternative to Iridium, Inmarsat and other satellite communications brands. For example only, BT (British Telecom) delivers just 17Mbps download and 2-3 Mbps upload over a landline where I live, so Starlink has the potential to compete even with established landline providers.

Right now, some of the early Starlink adopters are moaning about breaks in connectivity but this should improve as the number of orbiting satellites and ground stations increase and folk learn how to position antennas with an uncluttered view of the sky. Clear line of sight is very important; any obstruction such as hills, trees or buildings can affect connectivity. Setup appears to be very straight forward and is assisted by use of an 'App' to aid location and orientation of the antenna.

Satellite voice, internet and data including video could finally be coming in reach of the masses. Commercially the 'low hanging fruit' is likely connection of business and domestic users especially in remote areas. More exciting perhaps, is the potential to bring the internet to classrooms in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

Thinking forward and assuming it is going to deliver 'what it says on the tin', then once reliability improves, Starlink could be a real game changer. It should mark a significant increase in performance over current satellite service providers and challenge current market cost models. It's a small step to produce a ruggedised / marinised covered antenna and to be able to fit Starlink in aircraft, vehicles and / or vessels including small craft at sea (providing of course there is to be polar and ocean coverage). Creation of a small portable unit similar to Iridium Go would open services to recreational markets and telemedicine in remote areas. Starlink could also replace the likes of Inmarsat's BGAN service, so popular with the likes of media broadcasters and exploration geologists.

Performance. Delivering speeds of 75Mbps (and it claims up to 100 Mbps or more are achievable) Starlink totally outperforms the Iridium and Inmarsat networks and matches Eutelsat's static offering in the UK.

Cost. Initial equipment cost ($499) is also very competitive. Iridium Certus equipment (the latest Iridium service) costs nearly $7k! A Eutelsat reseller offers free equipment with a 12 month contract in the UK which reduces a User's barrier to adoption but their coverage and services are geographically limited. Purchase of the Starlink system costs $200 less than an Iridium Go (given of course that this is a related but entirely different product and service). Monthly subscriptions ($99) are also very competitive and there is a greater potential for scope of services.

Integration. To maximise user value and open access to different markets and applications, integration of communications voice (including satellite, mobile and radio), email, data, video, text messaging, internet access to allow access to weather forecasts, traffic information and local information searches, navigation systems (charts / maps, wind, tides etc) and even the canbus within trucks, campers and vehicles is becoming more important. Integration presents opportunity for example to remote fault diagnosis, system monitoring and management (speed, braking, fluid levels, temperatures and pressures, turn on / off heating, monitor cargo temperatures, view security cameras etc). It can proactively improve safety by monitoring driving behaviour, especially in remote areas and in real time. Perhaps it will eventually be found in Tesla motor vehicles. It could facilitate communications between somebody on a satellite or mobile phone and another on a radio handset. I wonder if Adaptive Modules have this 'Inhand' (sorry.... pardon the pun, I just couldn't help it!).

At the risk of getting ahead of myself here, in the future potentially Starlink could even replace expensive mobile network roaming agreements for international business travellers (assuming they return post covid). Subject to capacity, when the network is fully operational and reliable, then its a small leap to include live tracking, smartphones and Search and Rescue (SAR) Beacons. Starlink would need a network of good 24 hr Operation Centres to handle SOS calls and maybe deliver new proactive safety services safeguarding lives and reducing costs through protecting equipment; it would be fun to put that together!

Just by way of example, a very basic comparison of service providers and some equipment capabilities and costs can be found below. Its just indicative and by no way exhaustive:

Download PDF • 103KB

First impressions - Starlink is definitely one to watch and I'd love to get my hands on a system to review and explore further.

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