Video: Watch the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket test flight
SpaceX made headlines when it put a Tesla on its way to Mars, with the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy. Now, much closer to Earth, a Falcon 9 is getting ready to take its first two Starlink internet satellites into orbit on Feb. 17.
If all goes well, they'll be followed by 11,923 other Starlink satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The first two, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, are test systems. These satellites will form a constellation of satellites, which will deliver broadband internet across the world.
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According to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's Elon Musk is working on this because, "Elon tends to find an industry where customers are very angry and frustrated. Let's build little communications satellites and provide global broadband capability for reasonable prices." If this works, Musk plans to use the same design for a Martian internet.
These mass-produced satellites will use the relatively little-used V band, which covers 40GHz to 75GHz, to communicate with each other in a mesh network. They'll then work with Earth-bound receivers to deliver broadband internet. How fast will that be? Good question.
By 2022, SpaceX predicted -- to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -- that: "Once fully optimized through the Final Deployment, the system will be able to provide high bandwidth (up to 1Gbps per user), low latency broadband services for consumers and businesses in the US and globally." And 1Gbps is much better than most of us get on the ground.
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Satellite internet isn't new. HughesNet has been delivering internet from space since the 90s. But, even today, its latest offering, HughesNet Gen5, tops out at only 25Mbps. It also has data plans with caps of 10GB, 20GB, 30GB, and 50GB, plus an additional 50GB of data, which is only available from 2 am to 8 am.
The real show-stopper for satellite internet, though, has always been latency -- the time between when you start an activity over the internet and when you get a response back. Earth-bound broadband gives you a latency of about 8 milliseconds to 20 milliseconds (ms). Traditional satellite internet, thanks to the distance of it geosynchronous satellites, sticks with you with a latency of over 600ms. That makes it nigh unto impossible, for example, to do video-conferencing or gaming over it.
All that said, when you need internet out in the country, and the closest terrestrial internet provider is 50 miles away, HughesNet delivers the broadband.
SpaceX's VP of satellite government affairs, Patricia Cooper, promises that StarLink will only have latencies as low as 25ms. That will make it far more useful.
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SpaceX isn't the only one working on a constellation of LEO internet satellites. OneWeb hopes to get its network up into space with Amazon's Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rockets starting in 2020.
OneWeb already has the FCC's approval for its constellation. FCC chairman Ajit Pai has endorsed SpaceX's plan, but the full FCC has yet to vote on it. There seems no doubt that the FCC will approve SpaceX's satellite-borne internet.
The Falcon 9 launch is scheduled for 9:17 am EST from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Besides the experimental Starlink satellites, its main cargo will be the Spanish Paz satellite. Paz is a radar imaging satellite designed to collect views of Earth for government and commercial customers. It also carries ship tracking and weather sensors.
So, if all goes well, in a few years, whether you're in my family home in backwoods West Virginia or in Silicon Valley, you may be getting your internet from space. Considering how little broadband competition there is, SpaceX entering the market may be just what both business and consumer internet users need.