CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service will “probably [be] out of beta this summer” as the company continues to rapidly improve “service uptime, bandwidth, and latency.”
On top of Musk’s belief that Starlink will be ready for primetime as few as 3-5 months from now, the SpaceX executive also believes that the company will have enough satellites operational to enable customers to take their Starlink dishes just about anywhere the service is allowed and even install and operate them on mobile vehicles.
Currently, Starlink beta users are restricted – for a variety of reasons – to hexagonal “cells” with diameters of ~15 km (9.3 mi) and areas of 150 square kilometers (~60 mi). It’s unclear what exactly those cells represent, but the most likely answer is that SpaceX has to parcel up the areas the Starlink constellation is able to cover so it can use that system to avoid saturating the young, incomplete network and best ensure that it doesn’t sell internet service to customers outside of that coverage map. Part of the rationale is also technical, according to SpaceX’s official Starlink FAQ.
“Starlink satellites are scheduled to send internet down to all users within a designated area on the ground. This designated area is referred to as a cell.
Your Starlink is assigned to a single cell. If you move your Starlink outside of its assigned cell, a satellite will not be scheduled to serve your Starlink and you will not receive internet. This is constrained by geometry and is not arbitrary geofencing.”
According to Musk, those “cell” restrictions will be greatly relaxed “later this year,” meaning that users that purchase Starlink dishes and pay for service should be able to take their dishes anywhere Starlink is allowed and even use them on moving vehicles like “an RV or truck.” To get to that point, though, SpaceX will have to ensure that Starlink coverage is virtually uninterrupted and implement several “key software upgrades” – no surprise for a satellite communication service attempting to do something no other has.
More importantly, though, SpaceX is primarily focused on improving Starlink service for existing users and getting the constellation and network to the point that they’re ready for far more aggressive expansion. That means cutting down on network outages and software bugs to reduce downtime, ensuring better download speeds and latency, optimizing for a more consistent experience, and continuously upgrading satellite, user terminal, and ground station hardware and software.
As is tradition, less than two weeks ago, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell was confident – but not quite as confident or specific as Musk – about Starlink graduating out of its beta phase. On April 6th, she made it clear that SpaceX’s primary goal is to make sure that Starlink internet is “a really great product” before exiting the beta phase and that the company “doesn’t have a [public] timeframe” for when it might be ready.
Musk’s “summer 2021” target is thus more likely a stretch goal, meaning that it’s probably more accurate to assume that Starlink might be ready to exit beta sometime before the end of 2021.