Why you should sign up for the Starlink public beta

The future is coming soon from a low-earth orbit satellite near you. Don't be late for the launch.

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The biggest change in how the world connects is coming this year. I'm talking about the dawn of the new satellite internet era, which is going to change everything.

The leader in this revolution is SpaceX, which plans to launch a public beta of its Starlink service before the end of the year.

To date SpaceX has launched 775 Starlink satellites -- 728 of them remain in orbit. (The company has already decommissioned and destroyed 47 satellites, mainly from the initial batch, for unannounced reasons.)

SpaceX needs 800 to serve North America and plans 42,000 (eventually) to serve the whole planet. At press time, SpaceX intended to launch dozens more satellites on Sunday, Oct. 18, followed by another launch on Wednesday, Oct. 21. That will give SpaceX all the satellites they need for the beta, although it will take a little time for them to settle into their positions in orbit.

Starlink satellites orbit at around 340 miles above the Earth. Each satellite is about the size of a washing machine. They have four phased-array antennas for downlink and uplink transmissions.

Subscribers will be loaned terminals with a small satellite dish that will be automatically pointed at the most optimal satellite. Beta testers reported download speeds between 11 Mbps and 60 Mbps, plus upload speeds of 5 Mbps to 18 Mbps. The all-important latency numbers range from 20 ms to 94 ms. It should cost around $80 per month.

The public beta and initial launch will happen in the United States and "hopefully" in Southern Canada, according to Musk. The company has reportedly signed up some 700,000 interested people and has gotten permission from the FCC to serve an initial 5 million beta customers.

Starlink in the news

Even before the beta, SpaceX has been in the news and demonstrating an intent to make a big difference in how the world works.

It's been doing a kind of separate beta test in the State of Washington, for example. The company installed a few terminals in the tiny remote town of Malden, which was heavily damaged in September by wildfires, which also destroyed the town's broadband infrastructure.

The company also hooked up Washington's tiny and remote Hoh Tribe Reservation (with a population of 116 people), which had been trying to get reasonably fast internet for many years. Representatives of the tribe say that Starlink has launched them "into the 21st Century," saying that it has transformed online education, telehealth and other important facets of life.

SpaceX has also won a $2 million government contract from the US Space Force's Space and Missile Systems Center to study the feasibility of using Starlink satellites to offer a new weather data service. Details are cloudy. But one theory is that sensors bolted to satellites could collect data; another suggests the Starlink system would merely distribute the service.

SpaceX has also won approval to bid on a multi-billion dollar rural-broadband auction to bring faster internet to the American countryside. The FCC didn't consider SpaceX until they demonstrated very low latency performance. SpaceX didn't win the contract. They'll be competing for the job with Altice USA, CenturyLink, Charter, Cincinnati Bell, Cox, Frontier, Hughes, US Cellular, Verizon, Viasat, Windstream, and many other companies.

How Starlink will change everything

Starlink isn't just for homes and businesses. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said this week that Starlink will be able to serve internet connectivity to fast-moving vehicles, such as trains. The company plans to test the service on ships. It should also be usable by cars and trucks.

Once global, Starlink may finally seriously erode the digital divide, bringing low-cost internet to far-flung communities around the world. Using cheap solar and Starlink internet, even the most remote village will have access to the world's information.

It will also enable tech workers to live off the grid, so to speak. Solar power recently became the cheapest form of power in history. That means it becomes far less expensive to buy a very large piece of wilderness and build a house there than it does to live in an urban tech center. (Another Musk company, Tesla, will help you with the solar power and batteries.)

This technology, combined with the coronavirus-driven trend of knowledge workers fleeing urban areas and companies embracing permanent remote work policies, should result in far more white-collar workers living in blue-collar parts of the country and the world.

Added competition should lower broadband prices in many markets, erasing that part of the digital divide caused by poverty.

And for large organizations, Starlink offers strong implications for improved enterprise fleet management because it should provide high-bandwidth connectivity to trucks and other vehicles no matter where they go.

Starlink's Dark Side

The Starlink constellation is threatening astronomy, according to astronomers. Capturing distant objects using light requires long exposures, and the Starlink satellites leave streaks on those images as they fly past. The satellites interfere with radio astronomy, as well, by using up frequencies previously available to the telescopes.

SpaceX has taken steps to mitigate some of these concerns (such as making sure the underbelly of the satellites are dark), but the satellites are probably a bad thing for astronomy.

There are currently some 2,666 satellites in orbit. Starlink's plans would increase the total number of satellites orbiting our planet by 16x. Nobody knows what will happen to the sky with that many objects in orbit.

To avoid contributing to the growing space debris problem -- just this month Chinese and Russian space junk barely missed each other, which could have created dangerous space shrapnel -- Starlink satellites are designed to kill themselves when decommissioned by simply falling out of orbit and burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.

So there's good news and bad news about the coming satellite internet revolution. But it is coming. And I would strongly advise you to get in on the beta program and start testing this service to find out how it can be deployed for your organization -- for your fleet and for your remote workers, especially.