SpaceX Starlink users could see “much higher download speeds” amid upgrades

"Dishy McFlatface" facing the sky. (Credit: SpaceX)

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX’s thousands of Starlink users could see “much higher download speeds” as the company begins implementing “system upgrades.”

Just the latest of the many ways that SpaceX’s first consumer-facing product continues to leapfrog stalwart, monopolistic internet service providers (ISPs) around the world, the move is a sign that Starlink customers may see the dividends of infrastructure improvements. For a huge portion of fixed internet service customers around the world, it’s more likely than not that local ISPs have more or less secured a monopoly of sorts, have enough control over regulatory apparatuses to kill competition in the cradle, and have next to no interest in investing profits back into their infrastructure or improving the experience for their customers.

Without strong, independent competition (or the imminent threat of it), consumers have no choice but to settle and ISPs use that fulcrum to their full advantage, instituting arbitrary data caps, raising prices, adding hidden service fees, investing only the bare minimum into infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, and offering – at best – mediocre customer support. With Starlink, the promise is virtually the opposite: it might cost a bit more, the price of access may be substantially higher, and beta internet service might be intermittent and finicky, but SpaceX’s singular directive is to improve the experience, expand service, and cut customer-facing costs as much as possible.

Of course, for the time being, SpaceX’s Starlink network is still firmly in the ‘beta’ phase of development, meaning that users will likely experience frequent outages, downtime, slow speeds, and high latency. That’s especially true as SpaceX works to substantially expand its customer base – likely happening already after the company opened (pre)orders to a large portion of the global populace.

It should go without saying that SpaceX’s expertise lies in aerospace engineering and development, not in high-volume network design and management. As such, it’s safe to assume that there will be many instances of teething problems as Starlink’s user base gradually expands, significantly increasing the strain on the network at peak hours.

At the moment, with proper setup, Starlink regularly offers beta users minimum speeds of 30-50 megabits per second (Mbps) and latency around 30-50 ms – not great mass-market fiber or even copper but far superior or comparable to most existing satellite, cellular, or DSL solutions. For some, that improves to download speeds of 100-150 Mbps or more and latency mostly indistinguishable from a wired connection. A few minutes of cumulative downtime is also fairly normal, though other users have recently seen download and upload speeds trending downwards while uptime and outages substantially improved. Notably, Starlink also remains free of data caps and intentional throttling, though that could be subject to change.

Musk also noted that Starlink service availability could spread to California’s Bay Area region by mid-2021, though he cautioned – as usual – that the service isn’t really meant for those with decent consumer connections already available – monopolistic provider or not. SpaceX was forced to pause Starlink launches after a rocket landing failure on February 15th but the company should be back in action as early as February 28th, hoping to pick up the pace and expand the constellation’s reach to near-global coverage before the end of the year.

Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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