Space X Tempers Expectations As Starlink Better-Than-Nothing Broadband Beta Starts

By Karl Bode, Nov 3, 2020 | Original Techdirt article here.

Space X has begun sending invites out to folks interested in participating in the company’s Starlink low-orbit satellite broadband service. Users took to Reddit to note that Starlink is promising users speeds of 50-100 Mbps downstream for about $100 per month, plus $500 down for a connection terminal and antenna. The company is also promising significantly lower latency (20 to 40ms) than what you’ll typically see with satellite broadband (often 200ms or higher). The best part, no monthly usage caps and overage fees (so far):

"Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mbps to 150Mbps and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.

As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations, and improve our networking software, data speed, latency, and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.

The Starlink phased-array user terminal, which is more advanced than what’s in fighter jets, plus mounting tripod and Wi-Fi router, costs $499 and the subscription costs $99/month.

Space X is clearly attempting to get ahead of expectations that the offering poses a serious challenge to entrenched U.S. broadband monopolies. So much so that the company is calling this the "Better Than Nothing" beta. And for good reason. As we’ve noted previously, Musk himself has repeatedly acknowledged the system will lack the capacity to provide service to anything outside of rural markets.

From a conference earlier this year:

"The challenge for anything that is space-based is that the size of the cell is gigantic… 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."

How Space X decides to manage capacity constraints should prove interesting. With the FCC and net neutrality rules effectively lobotomized, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see throttling implemented to help manage the load, a reminder that it’s hard to beat traditional fiber. Still, Starlink could do some good things in a country where 42 million Americans are currently unable to access any broadband whatsoever. Even though for many Americans cost is the biggest obstacle, and it’s not particularly clear a $600 first month bill is something a lot of these struggling users can actually afford.

In other words, Starlink will be great if your only option is currently traditional satellite broadband, a technology long despised for being slow, expensive, capped, and having high latency. It’s also probably great for users who’ve been forced to rely exclusively on a capped and throttled wireless connection. And it’s particularly great for folks who’ve been just out of reach of any broadband entirely. But how well Starlink differentiates itself will probably come down to how annoying its network management practices wind up being on a crowded, fully loaded network.

For most everybody else it will be a non starter. And you can probably expect a disconnect between Starlink’s attempt to set realistic expectations (which should be applauded for a company not unfamiliar with hype), and regulators eager to portray Starlink as something more than the sum of its parts.

Captured regulators from both parties historically enjoy portraying emerging broadband technologies as near-miraculous examples of why regulatory oversight isn’t needed. As in, "we don’t need competitive policies because amazing competition is already happening." Or, as Michael Powell did with doomed powerline broadband technology in the early aughts, trying to claim that pandering mindlessly to AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast is a good idea because the free market and innovation will swoop in and save the public from monopolistic harms.

That may be true in more functional, healthier markets, but it’s simply not true in the monopoly-dominated U.S. telecom sector. As such, the several million users Starlink is expected to help is a drop in the bucket in a country where

  • 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband,
  • 83 million more are trapped under a broadband monopoly
  • Tens of millions more are stuck with an apathetic duopoly.

Starlink will be more akin to a band aid than a cure. Raise a skeptical, arched eyebrow at anybody claiming otherwise in the months to come.