Elon Musk's SpaceX is known for sending things into space, but the company is also testing sending things down from space: satellite internet signals, to be precise. Earlier this week, people who expressed interest in the Starlink internet service received an email inviting them to participate in a new trial that's starting up. But temper your expectations — SpaceX is calling this the "Better Than Nothing Beta" for a reason.
Customers should expect to see speeds between 50 to 150Mb per second, with latency from 20ms to 40ms. There will also be short periods with no connectivity at all. That's why SpaceX is calling this test run the Better Than Nothing Beta while it works on getting the required systems up and running properly. The privilege of participating requires $499 upfront for the Starlink Kit, which contains a terminal that connects to SpaceX satellites, a mounting tripod, and a WiFi router. Then ongoing payments are $99 each month.
The Starlink app promises to help users set up and manage their connectivity.
While this isn't the kind of offer that's going to compete with services like Google Fiber anytime soon, it is an encouraging sign of progress for people who live in rural areas that haven't been reached by the bigger connectivity companies. SpaceX employees have been conducting limited private testing over the last few months, and hope to one day build an interconnected satellite internet network that could reach people across the planet. It's a lofty goal, but one that the company estimates could potentially bring in more than 10 times the revenue generated by its rockets.
Some worry that significantly adding to the number of low orbiting satellites could increase the risk of collisions and the potential peril of debris falling to the Earth's surface, but SpaceX claims the Starlink satellites are designed to disintegrate when they re-enter the atmosphere. There are other concerns as well, like increased light pollution and interference with ground-based astronomy.
This initial beta is limited to North America, but SpaceX plans to expand to "near global coverage of the populated world" by 2021. Interested users can join Starlink's mailing list for more information. There's also a new Starlink app live on the Google Play Store that you can download — although it might take a while if you're using satellite internet.