SpaceX's Starlink: everything you need to know!​

Elon Musk. The name will ring a bell. Chances are that when you hear “Elon Musk” you think of self-driving electric cars, the person who wants to colonize Mars, or simply one of the richest people on Earth.

One of his most recent escapades is the rockets (trains) that he launches on a regular basis. This has to do with the Starlink internet. With this, Elon Musk wants to establish a worldwide internet connection. So operators everywhere, watch out because Starlink is on its way and we at Mercuron are one of the first in Belgium to get the chance to test it out!

What is Starlink?

Starlink is a division of the SpaceX program. To get a correct picture of this, it is useful to know what it is part of. So the question we need to ask first is, what is SpaceX?

SpaceX is a private organization, controlled by our Tesla magnate Elon Musk. They design, manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft. In 2002, Elon founded the company to revolutionize space technology with the ultimate goal of living on other planets. The first steps have been taken and every year we get a little closer to our first colony on Mars.

Tesla and Neuralink were founded on the basis of this revolutionary vision. Starlink is no different. But… It is not an undertaking in itself, it remains part of the program. So Starlink is a division under SpaceX, which shares its name with the network of satellites orbiting the Earth. Development of the satellites started in 2015 and the first prototypes were sent into space in 2018. These are still floating by the way.

Since then, more satellites have been launched regularly. In January, SpaceX launched 60 satellites using a landable rocket! This reusable rocket allows them to speeds up the project. The most recent launch in May brought the number of satellites in orbit to more than 1,700. Note that these include the first prototypes, which are no longer an active part of the Starlink network.

Does Starlink give us internet anywhere in the world?

Technically, yes. Nevertheless, there are some nuances here: Starlink is currently still in the Beta phase. This means that only one tenth of the planned satellites are operational, this means that there is not yet an all round coverage. Don’t worry, Belgium is already part of the beta testing landscape. We at Mercuron also have a Starlink antenna in our possession.

So our provider’s Wi-Fi internet will soon be redundant?

Yes and no. The purpose of Starlink internet is to provide fast and stable bandwidth for those who currently do not have it. More specifically, the target audience is the population in rural and remote areas. Nevertheless, the applications are endless. For example, you can mount the antenna on your mobile home and always have an internet connection while driving. The antenna is designed for stationary use, but future models will be operational on the go.

Currently, the Starlink internet works best in rural and remote areas. In large cities there is too much interference, and a lack of open space disrupts the signal. Tall buildings, trees, and other elements that break the line of sight between the antenna and the satellites have a negative effect on the internet connection.

How much does Starlink satellite internet cost?

The price tag consists of two elements; the purchase cost and the subscription. The purchase cost includes your satellite dish and a router. This amounts to €499 excl. VAT. The subscription ensures that you can always be connected to the Starlink network. This Wi-Fi subscription will cost you €99 excl. VAT per month. According to SpaceX, this subscription gives you unlimited data, up to 250Mb/s and a latency of 20-40. This is currently the only formula. It is not known whether SpaceX will bring other formulas to the market.

The above mentioned prices are solely for the testing phase we are currently in. According to Elon Musk, Starlink is busy redesigning the satellite dish and associated equipment to reduce costs and, consequently, the price. Elon Musk: “Lowering Starlink terminal cost, which may sound rather pedestrian, is actually our most difficult challenge”.

How do you install Starlink Internet?

Strange but true. As complicated as the whole “internet over satellite” system may seem, installing your satellite dish and router couldn’t be easier. You simply install an app on your mobile phone, set up the antenna, and connect to the Wi-Fi. Once you have given the Wi-Fi a new name and assigned a password, the Starlink internet is up and running. The video channel, “ How To Do it All ” made a nice video about this.

When can you see starlink satellites over Belgium?

An avid SpaceX fan has set up a website that, based on your location, indicates where and when to look to see one of the Starlink trains.

The website you need to visit for this is: https://findstarlink.com/

After your location is entered, the site will show times with good, average, and poor visibility around that area. It tells you which direction to look, how long the satellites are observable and how high to look.

On this website you will find the location of the so-called trains. What is meant by trains can be summarized as follows.

Starlink satellites are launched per 60. Once in orbit around the Earth, these remain one behind the other and form a train of satellites, as it were. The live map on the website only shows trains 24 to 27. This is because a train only stays together for a limited period of time. Over time, the satellites change course and spread around the world. These are then no longer so obvious for a Starlink fan to follow.

Why Satellites? What else lies behind the Starlink network?

SpaceX is the only company in the world with a landable, reusable rocket that can put payload after payload into orbit. As mentioned before, the ultimate goal of SpaceX is to colonize Mars. This costs money, a lot of money. Starlink internet will contribute to the cost of financing this gigantic project.

Once on Mars, SpaceX will try to establish a satellite connection there as well. This means that you can also view the Starlink project on Earth as a gigantic test, so that it can later be implemented quickly and without problems on Mars. The goal is to copy the living standards of Earth to Mars as soon as possible. Keeping in mind that the Martians would not be content to communicate with old-fashioned radios, hopefully they will be offered the opportunity to use their smartphones there too. A network of satellites around Mars that is in contact with the Earth is an ideal solution for this.

Fun fact: Elon Musk’s plans for Mars can already be found in the terms of service of the Starlink internet. The clause is located in the “Governing law” section and states the following: “For Services rendered on Mars, or in transit to Mars via a spaceship or other spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet that no government on Earth has authority over or has sovereignty over the activities of Mars. Accordingly, disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith at the time of the settlement of Mars.” The terms of service can be found on Starlink’s website (https://www.starlink.com/legal/terms-of-service-preorder). How the various governing bodies on Earth feel about this clause is still unclear today. With this clause, SpaceX is already trying to minimize the earthly influences regarding its operations on Mars.

Reliability, obstructions, weather and current issues

As mentioned above, this technology is still in its infancy. As a result, there are still many areas without signal, and in areas with signal there are occasional times when it drops out. The intended solution for this is to launch more and more satellites in order to guarantee better coverage.

As you can read in our blog “which materials are harmful to the mobile phone signal”, there are manmade , but also natural elements that can cause an obstruction of the signal. This is no different with signals sent and received by satellites. A practical example is when you have a Starlink satellite dish on your roof and it suddenly starts to rain heavily. Water is a very good conductor and therefore absorbs much of the signal. The same applies to physical obstructions such as buildings or trees. Just think of a house in the middle of a densely wooded area: The signal in the forest and the signal above the forest will differ enormously. We regularly see this fact when tackling 4G network problems. Homes in forests, such as in the Flemish Ardennes, often have little to no 4G network coverage.

As you can see, Elon Musk’s network is not running smoothly, yet. In addition to the inherent problems with the product itself, there is also the controversy from third parties. Some groups within the conservation and astronomy sector are questioning the impact that satellites in low orbit can have on the night sky and on nature (especially nocturnal animals).

President and COO Gwyne Shotwell said the criticism came as a surprise, but at the same time, the problem was immediately tackled. From the first wave of criticism, the SpaceX research team has been scrutinizing this issue. In early 2020, they came up with the first prototypes of a dark satellite called “Dark Sat”. This satellite came with a special non-reflective coating. Building on this idea, they launched “VisorSat” in June 2020. As the name implies, the satellites have visors or sunshades. Since then, this has become the standard for all current and future satellites in orbit (launched and operated by SpaceX). Shotwell had this to say on the brightness issue: “We want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure little kids can look through their telescope. It’s cool for them to see a Starlink. But they should be looking at Saturn, at the moon… and not want to be interrupted.”

How fast is the Starlink internet?

It is difficult to put a fixed value on this. As mentioned above, there are not enough operational satellites, so the stability of this technology has not yet been proven. What we can say with certainty is that when we have a (temporarily) stable connection, the speeds can still exceed the values promised by SpaceX.

SpaceX promises to anyone with a Starlink download speeds of more than 100 megabits per second, an upload speed of more than 20 Mbps, and a ping (latency) of less than 31 milliseconds.

What we already notice in the first phases of the Starlink internet is that the download speeds can reach 270 Mbps (very occasionally peaks of 350-370 Mbps have been reached) and the upload speeds can reach 70 Mbps. On the other hand, we also see a lot of data in areas where Starlink is underrepresented and the download speeds drop to 50-60 Mbps. To get an idea of the different speeds you can take a look at the reddit Starlink page. Measurements are sent here on a daily basis. It is important to note that environmental factors vary enormously in time and place. Low speeds can also be related to setting up the antenna in a wooded area or on a stormy day.

How and why does Mercuron want to get involved in this story?

We monitor the innovations in the RF environment on a daily basis. In other words, we want to achieve expertise in everything that has to do with GSM, Wifi, Astrid, etc. When we first heard about SpaceX’s plans with Starlink, we were instantly hooked. We immediately registered as one of the first beta testers in Belgium and we have been following the developments closely ever since.

We strongly believe in the opportunities that this technology brings. Belgium as a country is very well connected to everything and everyone, yet there are places that have difficulty maintaining a signal, let alone streaming high definition movies or even play video games. As a company, this challenge is right up our ally. One Starlink gives us enough coverage to provide everyone in the office with 3x faster internet. There is currently no provider that can match these speeds in our location. This is of course only possible if SpaceX guarantees us a stable connection.

A weak signal is not often caused by your mobile phone... Mercuron finds the cause and the solution

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