SpaceX Starlink user terminals tested by board members as beta nears

SpaceX has already begun closed alpha testing of Starlink user terminals in anticipation of the constellation's internet service debut. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX’s nascent Starlink user terminal technology – the consumer hardware that will connect customers to a vast space-based internet constellation – is being put through its paces in a series of closed tests with employees, board members, and investors.

This news comes around the same time as SpaceX took two significant steps towards a beta debut for Starlink internet service, completing the eighth successful launch of Starlink v1.0 satellites and opening a new web portal where anyone can sign up for updates on service availability in their region. According to COO and President Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX means to begin rolling out Starlink internet service once 14 launches are completed and ~840 satellites are in orbit. Whether or not that figure includes SpaceX’s first launch of 60 ‘v0.9’ Starlink satellites back in May 2019, it’s safe to say that that 14-launch milestone is just two or three months away if the company can sustain and average of two to three launches per month.

Regardless of the spectacular, well-publicized launch component of SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellite constellation, apparent user terminal testing helps shed light on the customer-facing side of the venture. While currently just shy of invisible, the user terminal is at least as difficult and important a problem to solve as Starlink satellite production and launch – if not more important and more challenging.

SpaceX has already begun closed alpha testing of Starlink user terminals in anticipation of the constellation’s internet service debut. (Richard Angle)
Starlink satellite production and Falcon 9 launches are currently the only publicly visible aspect of SpaceX’s space-based internet program. That could soon change. (SpaceX)

As previously discussed on Teslarati, user terminals could easily make or break Starlink regardless of dozens of successful launches or the quality of satellites, ground stations, or the network in general.

“Aside from the quality, reliability, and usability of the network itself (can it stream YouTube/Netflix videos? Game? Teleconference?), the user terminals customers need in order to access said network will also be under the microscope. If SpaceX is unable to mass-produce millions of high-quality, reliable user terminals and ensure that they are easy and intuitive to use, the quality of the Starlink satellite network itself would be effectively irrelevant.

The problem is familiar for users of ISPs (i.e. a majority of humans): your WiFi router and modem can be top-of-the-line but bad internet service makes the quality of your home network irrelevant. Vice-versa, a bad router or modem will also make high-quality internet service effectively irrelevant. In other words, SpaceX fundamentally needs to ensure that neither component threatens the user experience.”


Teslarati.com – April 23rd, 2020

In other words, low-quality, buggy user terminals that are hard to set up or require frequent babysitting to ensure a stable connection would make the quality of the satellites SpaceX launches and the ground-based infrastructure it installs irrelevant. Hence the closed focus group-style testing like that described above by investor Steve Jurvetson.

Falcon 9 B1059 lifts off with 58 new Starlink satellites on June 13th. (Richard Angle)

According to Jurvetson, board members (him included) were invited to SpaceX on June 11th or 12th to try out Starlink user terminal prototypes the company is in the midst of developing. Specifically, each board member was given a terminal and asked to set it up themselves in a friendly race to the finish line (establishing an internet connection). Steve ultimately said that the prototype he set up offered the “simplest out-of-box experience imaginable.”

In fact, SpaceX has already been performing similar tests for several months according to a virtual seminar hosted by data company Tape Ark earlier this month, performing a similar setup test but with dozens of employees’ spouses rather than board members. While board members of a high-tech rocket company and families of its employees aren’t exactly a random sample of American (or worldwide) consumers, all non-employees tested thus far have been able to set up Starlink terminals and establish an internet connection without issue. That’s no mean feat when one considers that the alternative is setting up a modem and router and activating internet service through an ISP like Comcast, a task that can easily destroy the sanity of even technically-savvy users.

(Richard Angle)
A broader base of consumers could potentially put SpaceX’s Starlink user terminals to the test just a few months from now. (Richard Angle)

CEO Elon Musk himself has always made it clear that simplicity is a priority for Starlink user terminals, recently stating that the final product should be even simpler than the prototypes that board and family members alike had zero difficulty setting up, requiring customers to simply “plug [it] in & point [it] at [the] sky”. Given that SpaceX could be ready to roll out Starlink internet service in some capacity as early as August or September, it’s safe to say that the mysterious “UFO-on-a-stick” user terminal wont remain a secret for much longer.

Specs-wise, the same virtual seminar revealed that a normal level of connectivity for a user terminal will be around 100 megabits per second (mbps) down and 40 mbps up. According to Musk, Starlink internet latency (often known as ping) might actually be better than fiber internet, offering ~20 ms for Version 1 and ~8 ms when Version 2 debuts (ETA unknown).

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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