Starlink’s Path to Success Part 3

The third area where SpaceX needs to make progress in order to be successful with Starlink is satellite to satellite communication. Let me see if I can explain.

Right now, a Starlink customer has an antenna that connects to a satellite, and that satellite connects to a nearby ground station where SpaceX has a high capacity link to the terrestrial internet. The satellites are acting as a one hop relay to the regular old Earth-based internet network and SpaceX must maintain not only the satellite constellation but a whole bunch of ground infrastructure spread out across any geography where they want to do business.

To support U.S. customers alone, SpaceX already maintains almost 50 of these ground stations where their satellite network meets the terrestrial network. Any time they want to add service in a new geography, they have to add more of these ground stations.

To save on this cost, SpaceX wants to enable satellite to satellite communication so that your signal can go up to a Starlink satellite, then hop from one to the next until it eventually reaches a satellite that’s over one of SpaceX’s high capacity links to the internet backbone where it drops down to rejoin the internet. In essence Starlink becomes just another part of the internet backbone.

This will mean that Starlink can deploy to any geography in the world (where it’s legal to do so) without needing ground infrastructure there (unless it’s legally required to do so). Rather than having hundreds, maybe thousands of ground stations around the world to serve all of the unserved and underserved, SpaceX could have just a few large ground stations in strategic locations (where politics are amenable and there’s an affordable hookup to the internet.)

Not only will this ultimately save time and money, it will also allow SpaceX to reach new customers with Starlink — people who don’t live near any ground infrastructure at all. The laboratories at the poles come to mind, and ships on the oceans, and airplanes flying over the poles and oceans. Probably plenty of other remote places as well.

So, where is SpaceX with satellite to satellite communication? They have developed a laser interlink system and have deployed the first batch of satellites that include this system. That batch is in a polar orbit, and when they reach their final orbit (a month’s long process of satellite maneuvering) they will be covering a geogrpahy that doesn’t have any significant ground infractructure so it’s a great test case. Starting next year, all of the Starlink satellites launched will have laser interlinks and in about 4 years, the whole constellation will have the capability.

Oh, and one more interesting thing about laser interlinks. Light travels faster in space than it does in glass so it could actually be quicker to move some kinds of internet traffic across the space laser network rather than the glass fiber terrestrial network. In a race, a packet of information tavelling from New York to Singapore over Starlink could beat a packet traveling over the terrestrial backbone. For organizations who care about latency, whether it’s a CDN company or a high frequency trading firm, Starlink could be a faster network for some traffic and that could be rather smaller but very lucrative business for SpaceX.

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