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Elon Musk’s Starlink is not a threat to telecom industry

March 11, 2020 / Oshine Tripura
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  • Starlink will likely serve the "3 or 4 percent hardest-to-reach customers for telcos”.

  • Musk says the satellites settle into their orbits, they’re hard to spot.

  • The satellites would be re-engineered if need be to avoid interfering with astronomical observations.


SpaceX’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, answers internet’s most burning questions at the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington, D.C. about Starlink broadband satellite constellation. Musk says it’s not going to ruin astronomy or the telecom industry.


In a long, 45-minute talk at the Satellite 2020 conference, the SpaceX and Tesla CEO held forth on his plans to build enormous and rapidly reusable Starship rockets and bring bandwidth around the world with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation—and shared his views on learning, in both classrooms and companies.


Musk’s onstage interviewer, Satellite 2020 chair Jeffrey Hill, started the conversation by asking a nervous-looking Musk about the next major item on SpaceX’s to-do list: launching American astronauts to the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon capsule.


Starlink and Starship were the prime topics of the talk with conference chairman Jeffrey Hill. Musk didn’t unveil any major new initiatives, as he did during past conferences in Mexico and Australia. But he did get a chance to address some of the issues surrounding his multibillion-dollar space projects.


“It’s great that we’re about to launch to orbit. The thing that concerns me most right now is that unless we improve our rate of innovation dramatically, then there is no chance of a base on the moon or a city on Mars.”

-Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX


He noted that the Crew Dragon mission—which should break a Russian monopoly on transporting U.S. astronauts to the ISS that began with the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011—would come 18 years after SpaceX’s founding. “Kid could be in college by now,” he quipped, comparing his company’s age to a child’s growth. But despite struggles with Crew Dragon, including an explosion during a test of its launch-escape rockets, Musk said this spacecraft did not top his worries.


This enormous rocket, which is intended to either carry 100 tons to the surface of the moon or Mars, or transport up to 100 people on interplanetary flights, has only flown in the form of small prototypes. But Musk already has enormous expectations of it.


"I want to be clear, it's not like Starlink is some huge threat to telcos. I want to be super clear it is not," Musk said. "In fact, it will be helpful to telcos because Starlink will serve the hardest-to-serve customers that telcos otherwise have trouble doing with landlines or even with... cell towers."


Starlink will likely serve the "3 or 4 percent hardest-to-reach customers for telcos" and "people who simply have no connectivity right now, or the connectivity is really bad," Musk said. "So I think it will be actually helpful and take a significant load off the traditional telcos."


It seems unlikely that Musk would purposely forego revenue in large cities. He may be trying to delay conflict with big cable companies, which have a history of suing potential competitors to delay their progress. Or he may want to keep the public's expectations low until Starlink has enough capacity to serve large cities effectively. Starlink service is expected to launch in parts of the US this year, but it will take years to launch thousands of satellites. SpaceX has previously told the FCC it plans global coverage, including "service to the entire contiguous United States."


Learn more: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk touts Starlink satellites and robotic fighter jets at Air Warfare Symposium


SpaceX's Starlink satellite broadband will have latency low enough to support competitive online gaming and will generally be fast enough that customers won't have to think about Internet speed, Elon Musk said at a conference yesterday. Despite that, the SpaceX CEO argued that Starlink won't be a major threat to telcos because the satellite service won't be good enough for high-population areas and will mostly be used by rural customers without access to fast broadband.


“It will be a pretty good experience because it'll be very low latency. We're targeting latency below 20 milliseconds, so somebody could play a fast-response video game at a competitive level, like that's the threshold for the latency.”

-Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX


The Starlink project aims to put thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit, or LEO, to provide broadband internet access to those who are currently underserved (and to the U.S. military as well).


Flat-panel Starlink satellites are being produced at the rate of six per day at SpaceX’s factory in Redmond, Wash., and are being launched in batches of 60 from Florida on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The next batch is due to go up as early as this coming weekend, joining 300 others of the same breed.


Astronomers have voiced rising concerns about having so many satellites flitting through the night sky, but Musk argued that the concerns were overblown. Once the satellites settle into their orbits, they’re hard to spot, he said.


“I’ve not yet met someone who can tell me where all of them are, not even one person.” he said. “It can’t be that big of a deal.”


Nevertheless, he promised that the satellites would be re-engineered if need be to avoid interfering with astronomical observations. “I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That’s my prediction,” Musk said. “We’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero.”


Starship is being designed for a turnaround time of as little as an hour between landing at the end of one mission and launching to start the next mission. “We want to aim toward a capability of three flights a day for the ship,” he said.


Learn more: SPACEX IS BUILDING STARLINK SATELLITES FASTER THAN IT CAN LAUNCH THEM


Musk is targeting this year for the start of limited Starlink service, and for the first orbital launch of a Starship spacecraft. Those aspirational goals aren’t motivated merely by a fear or going bankrupt, but also by a fear of not going where Musk wants to go.

“If we don’t improve our pace of progress, I’m definitely going to be dead before we go to Mars,” the 48-year-old billionaire said. “I would like to not be dead by the time we go to Mars. That’s my aspiration here.”


So will Starlink be a good option for anyone in the United States? Not necessarily. Musk said there will be plenty of bandwidth in areas with low population densities and that there will be some customers in big cities. But he cautioned against expecting that everyone in a big city would be able to use Starlink.


"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."