Space X’s Starlink satellite broadband service promises to deliver better, faster broadband to those just out of reach of cable, fiber, or DSL. But while early speed tests show the service could prove hugely-beneficial for rural Americans without other options, experts say the service won’t be quite as disruptive to the broken U.S. broadband market as you might think.
Starlink relies on lower-orbit satellite constellations capable of providing faster speeds at lower latency than the dumpster fire that is traditional satellite broadband. Whereas traditional satellite is “laggy,” slow, expensive, and usage-capped, Starlink (and similar efforts by companies like Amazon) promise faster, lower latency broadband almost anywhere in the continental U.S.
Early speed test results linked to Starlink IP addresses are promising. Speed tests from those participating in the Starlink beta show peak download speeds upwards of 114 Mbps, with upload speeds topping out at around 40 Mbps. That’s notably faster than many DSL lines, and on par with many mid-tier cable broadband offerings. Average speeds are notably slower, but still a big improvement for rural Americans struggling with traditional satellite or DSL lines that haven't been upgraded in years.
Starlink will be particularly welcome news to the 42 million Americans currently out of range of broadband, a problem that’s been highlighted by pandemic lockdowns forcing some kids to huddle in the dirt outside of Taco Bell just to get online.
But while Starlink will certainly help bridge this “digital divide” by bringing better options to rural Americans, Elon Musk has acknowledged the service won’t have the capacity to seriously disrupt regional U.S. telecom monopolies like AT&T, Verizon, Spectrum, and Comcast.
"I want to be clear, it's not like Starlink is some huge threat to telcos. I want to be super clear it is not," Musk told attendees of a satellite conference earlier this year. While Starlink will provide the kind of speeds and latency that should work for many services and games, Musk said the company simply won’t have the capacity to compete in major metro markets—a caveat often left unmentioned in Starlink coverage. “It's not good for high-density situations," Musk said. "We'll have some small number of customers in LA. But we can't do a lot of customers in LA because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough." As a result, Starlink won’t do much for the estimated 83 million Americans stuck under a broadband monopoly (usually Comcast), or the millions more whose only options are a duopoly; usually either the cable company or a sluggish DSL line from the local phone company. Ernesto Falcon, a telecom lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard that Starlink is simply no substitute for deploying fiber at scale across the United States, something U.S. taxpayers keep subsidizing—yet mysteriously never materializes. “Consumers will continuously need greater speeds year after year with new applications and services,” Falcon said. “This is why fiber is so critical, because it’s the only infrastructure that is well ahead of the consumption curve and has the capability to stay ahead for decades.” Space X still hasn’t indicated how much the service will cost. It also hasn’t indicated whether Starlink connections will feature the kind of throttling, usage caps, or obnoxious overage fees seen with cellular and traditional satellite broadband. Christopher Mitchell, director for the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Motherboard he’s concerned that Starlink will leech customers from better, local broadband projects trying to fund the delivery of cheaper, more reliable fiber. “It is not designed to be able to connect every home in a given rural area because of limits from each individual satellite,” Mitchell said. “That means it won't solve the rural broadband challenge but it will harm business models that can offer a connection to every family.” Mitchell, whose group helps communities build locally-owned and funded broadband alternatives to national telecom monopolies, noted that a rural ISP with a business model needing a 60 percent subscription rate to break even could find itself struggling to lure enough customers in the face of deep-pocketed Starlink marketing campaigns.
“If you want to trade stocks in northern Michigan, it will be great,” Mitchell said. “If you want to connect every family in northern Michigan, your job just got harder.”
Starlink comes with other costs as well; namely the severe impact scientists and astronomers say low-orbit satellite constellations will have on scientific research and the night sky. Musk initially claimed such light interference wouldn’t happen or could be easily mitigated. More recently, experts have said there’s no way to effectively mitigate the problem. Warts aside, Starlink will be a notable improvement for those just out of reach of existing broadband options. But those waiting for the technology to revolutionize the extremely broken U.S. broadband market (or the feckless leaders responsible for it) shouldn’t hold their breath.