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Starlink: Elon Musk's satellite internet explained

Elon Musk's latest project is bringing high-speed internet access to people in rural areas who don't currently have access to it. We take a closer look at the new service.

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Shutterstock

What is Starlink?

Elon Musk's satellite internet explained

  • Starlink is a satellite internet company owned by Elon Musk, the founder of aerospace company SpaceX.
  • The company's first priority is bringing high-speed internet to rural areas that don't currently have it.
  • The beta price for the internet service is an upfront cost of $499 for hardware and a monthly cost of $99 for internet service.

Elon Musk is famous for his technology innovations when it comes to his companies, Tesla and SpaceX. But his latest project hits closer to home for many people: bringing high-speed internet access to people in rural areas who don't currently have access to it. Musk is accomplishing that through Starlink, a satellite internet company within SpaceX. Starlink is rapidly growing its customer base and expects to serve even more customers in 2021, according to predictions by Forbes.

What do you need to know about Starlink?

In 2002, Elon Musk founded SpaceX to revolutionize space technology and reduce space transportation costs. In 2020, the company expanded its efforts to provide satellite internet service.

According to Starlink, its primary mission and the first order of business is to bring high-speed internet to people who don't currently have access to it, meaning primarily homes in rural areas. In fact, in late 2020, the Federal Communications Commission awarded SpaceX more than $885 million to help fund its efforts to make high-speed internet more accessible.

SpaceX was just one of many companies awarded the grant, and the company has been assigned by the FCC roughly 643,000 locations in 35 states to bring high-speed internet to.

SpaceX's internet service Starlink won't only be available to rural customers. The company is currently in beta — calling it "Better Than Nothing Beta" — meaning only certain people have access to it. The company is quickly expanding and accepting preorders from people who would like to sign up when the service is available in their area.

Because the service is in beta, you can expect it to change and improve over time. In fact, a tweet from Musk in late February indicated it was testing system upgrades, and customers might see much higher download speeds at times.

How does Starlink work?

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Shutterstock

Starlink is a satellite internet service, which uses a satellite to transmit a signal to your home. First, the internet service provider gets the internet signal via fiber from satellites in space. Then, the signal is moved to a central location called a network operations center.

Finally, the internet company transmits that internet signal to individual customers. In the case of a satellite internet company like Starlink, customers receive it using individual satellite dishes.

SpaceX has already launched more than 1,000 satellites into space. And according to Starlink, the satellites are closer to earth, which will reduce latency (the time it takes for the signal to be transferred).

What internet speeds does Starlink offer?

According to Starlink's website, beta customers can expect to see speeds of anywhere from 50 to 150 Mbps. It expects those speeds to increase as its system is enhanced.

But the real question is, how do these speeds compare to other internet providers?

To start, 150 Mbps is considerably slower than the speeds of up to 1,000 that many other internet service providers offer. But Starlink is a satellite internet company, and that type of internet is often slower than fiber-optic. When compared just with other satellite internet providers like HughesNet and Viasat, 150 Mbps is actually quite fast.

The other good news for Starlink customers is that it doesn't currently have data caps, meaning customers get the same speeds no matter how much data is used.

How much does Starlink cost?

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Starlink's beta service comes with a price tag of $99 per month. There's also a $499 upfront cost to cover the Starlink Kit, which includes all of the necessary hardware, such as a small satellite dish, as well as a router, power supply, and mounting tripod.

Keep in mind that these rates are just for beta customers. Prices could fluctuate when the service becomes more readily available.

How to pre-order Starlink

Customers can preorder their Starlink kit on the company's website.

Starlink is currently in beta, meaning not everyone can sign up. The service is presently only available to a limited number of users per coverage area, and orders are fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis.

When visiting the company's website, customers are prompted to search their addresses and find out if it's available in their area. In the likely event that the company hasn't expanded coverage to your area yet, you can preorder your internet service.

Customers will pay a $99 up-front preorder cost to reserve a spot on the waiting list, but the full amount will not be due until the Starlink Kit is ready to ship.

According to the company's website, roughly 10,000 customers currently have access to Starlink. It plans to expand into many service areas later in 2021.

Will Starlink be worth it?

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If everything that SpaceX claims Starlink will be is true, then maybe. The price tag of $99 a month is steep for speeds of only 50 to 150 Mbps. In context, that's faster than current satellite internet providers, but not as fast as the top high-speed internet providers, which can reach at least 940 Mbps. 

However, considering rural internet service is notoriously slow or completely unavailable, Starlink meets an otherwise unmet need for connecting rural homes to high-speed internet. Furthermore, Musk's indications that higher download speeds could be available after system enhancements means that Starlink could be the next hot ISP.