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SpaceX's Starlink in action: Internet satellites keep emergency workers online amid wildfires

Washington state emergency responders say they're impressed with Starlink's latency and bandwidth in trials.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

It's emerged that SpaceX's Starlink satellites have been delivering internet services since early August to the Washington state military's emergency management unit helping residents recover from recent wildfires.

As noted by CNBC, providing services to Washington emergency responders is the first publicly known application of the satellite broadband service.   

SpaceX is currently conducting private Starlink beta trials with residents in some parts of northern US and lower Canada, including remote communities in Washington state, Starlink revealed in an FAQ posted on Reddit in July

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The Washington emergency division has been using seven Starlink user terminals, which SpaceX Elon Musk has previously described as like a "UFO on a stick", with a skyward-facing disk that measures 48cm, or 19 inches, in diameter.  

Musk has previously described the end-user terminals as being as easy to set up as "point at sky and just plug in". 

Richard Hall, the emergency telecommunications leader of the Washington State Military Department's IT division, appears to confirm Musk's claim. 

"I have never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up and anywhere near as reliable [as Starlink]," Hall told CNBC. 

Hall also suggested Starlink was superior to other satellite broadband services his unit has used previously. Starlink satellites orbit Earth at an altitude of about 500km, or 311 miles, far closer to Earth than traditional conventional satellite broadband services. 

According to Hall, Starlink offers double the bandwidth of other services and said he'd seen more than 150% decreases in latency. "I've seen lower than 30 millisecond latency consistently," he said. 

That's a pretty good third-party reference for Starlink, which has faced doubts from the Federal Communications Commission as to whether it can deliver round-trip latencies below the 50ms that it has claimed in an FCC application to launch 30,000 satellites. In fact, Hall's experience is closer to the 20ms Musk has previously claimed

SpaceX needs to prove to the FCC it can deliver a low-latency service to optimize its chances of securing part of the FCC's up-to $16bn Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to bring broadband to six million homes and businesses with current speeds below 25Mbps. 

SEE: Starlink starts to deliver on its satellite internet promise

But SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation of fewer than 800 Starlink satellites is just a fraction of the 12,000 satellites it has been approved by the FCC to launch.      

Hall said it took between five and 10 minutes to set up and connect a Starlink terminal compared with other satellite ground units. 

Musk responded to WA Emergency Management's tweet disclosing its use of Starlink satellites, saying that SpaceX was "prioritizing emergency responders and locations with no internet connectivity at all". 

According to Hall, Washington's Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency are also interested in trialing Starlink satellite broadband services. 

In a recent presentation in aid of its RDOF application, SpaceX showed internet performance tests with download speeds of between 102Mbps to 103Mbps, upload speeds of 40.5Mbps to not quite 42Mbps, and a latency of 18 milliseconds to 19 milliseconds. 

It's still early days for SpaceX's Starlink ambitions. The company has applied to the FCC to deploy five million end-user terminals in the US, but it is currently only "on track to produce thousands of consumer user terminals per month". 

SpaceX is scheduled to launch another batch of 60 satellites on Friday, October 2 at 9:43pm EDT. This launch marks its 13th Starlink mission and should nudge its total satellite count to over 800, which Musk has said is required for moderate coverage of North America. 

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