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  • In the most remote parts of the U.S., reliable internet is still hard to come by.

  • Forty two million Americans still don't have access to broadband.

  • This is a 9.5-acre homestead in Idaho.

  • And when we first got here, we had zero cell service.

  • We tried to put boosters at the top.

  • We tried to put boosters at the bottom.

  • We tried to put boosters anywhere we could.

  • We had no cell service.

  • So we really needed some good, reliable internet.

  • And then Starlink came along.

  • Mike Lorden and his fiancee, Liz Racer, are one of more than 10,000 customers using Starlink, SpaceX's ambitious project to build an

  • interconnected network of thousands of satellites to provide high-speed broadband internet across the globe.

  • They've been using Starlink's service for about six months now and are documenting their experience of living in a homestead on YouTube.

  • There are some times when the Starlink does drop out.

  • The dropouts aren't really significant.

  • It seems to be just like short little blips, you know, a couple seconds here and there.

  • The only time that you really, really notice it is if you're like live streaming or if you're using the Wi-Fi calling option.

  • Other than that, you know, if you're just surfing the web or something, it seems to be very fast.

  • So far for what it is, it's a real good connection, you know, considering our circumstances.

  • Starlink is still in beta and currently serves select customers in the northern U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany and New Zealand.

  • Experts estimate that there are around 70 million households worldwide that are good candidates for satellite-based consumer broadband and

  • have the capacity to pay.

  • Amid a global pandemic that's kept employees from going to offices and children from schools, the need for universal broadband

  • has become undeniable.

  • If the service expands to its intended global customer base, Starlink could be key to SpaceX's success and Elon

  • Musk's vision for a colony on Mars.

  • I think it's fair to say that the majority of SpaceX's valuation today is tied to the Starlink business model.

  • Generally speaking, the global launch industry is about a $5 billion/year industry.

  • SpaceX, in previous discussions has talked about a $30 billion/year opportunity in the Starlink business, looking

  • about three to five years out.

  • The basis of Starlink's internet service involves three components: a satellite dish, ground stations and the satellites

  • themselves. The service is meant for customers like Lorden and Racer, who live in a sparsely populated area that's not being served by

  • traditional internet companies.

  • Given the high cost of laying cable or fiber, which can be as much as $20,000/kilometer, terrestrial service providers tend

  • to focus on urban and suburban areas where there's high density.

  • It simply does not make economic sense to reach out to consumers in low-density areas.

  • The only option we really considered was we had a local internet company that wanted to come in.

  • They would have had to erect a tower on the top of our mountain.

  • They maybe could have given us five megs a second and it would have been about the same monthly price as the Starlink service.

  • We have other friends that are in similar situations as us, and they have, you know, those other satellite internet

  • providers and a lot of them are data capped.

  • Most of the rates are real high.

  • Starlink customers pay $499 for the hardware needed to connect to the network and an additional $99/month for the service.

  • Currently, there are no data usage caps or contracts.

  • So far, SpaceX has launched over 1,000 satellites into orbit, but the company plans to deploy 4,425 satellites by 202

  • 4. By the time that SpaceX is done building out its global Starlink satellite system, known as a constellation, the company will have launched

  • about 12,000 satellites.

  • And although not yet approved by the FCC, SpaceX has requested permission to launch an additional 30,000 satellites, which would bring their total

  • to 42,000.

  • Unlike traditional internet satellites, which are as big as a school bus and orbit at around 36,000 kilometers above Earth's surface,

  • Starlink's satellites are much smaller, and closer, at about 550 kilometers above Earth's surface.

  • But the satellites' closer placement means they can see less of the Earth at any given point in time, which is why SpaceX needs so many.

  • On the flip side, SpaceX claims that this closer orbit allows the system to have a lower signal delay, known as latency.

  • Latency is important for things like video streaming and gaming.

  • Lorden says speeds vary according to factors like weather.

  • But on average, he's been getting speeds of about 75 megabits per second for downloads and around 12 megabits per second for uploads.

  • In a filing to the FCC, SpaceX said that Starlink's service is, quote, meeting and exceeding speeds of 100 megabits per second for downloads and

  • 20 megabits per second for uploads.

  • Musk has said that he expects the service will double in speed by the end of the year.

  • To do this, the company is developing a technology known as intersatellite links.

  • The basic premise is that you have an optical sensor, which is effectively a laser, that points from

  • one satellite and connects to the optical sensor on another satellite and creates this, you know, unseen

  • path from one to the other.

  • That's this stable connection, almost like a wire.

  • And if you you have a stable connection, you can drastically increase the speed because you're now moving

  • signal from one satellite to the other at the speed of light rather than the speed of whatever is on the ground.

  • Another benefit is reducing the amount of infrastructure needed.

  • Given Starlink's current architecture, we estimate that they will need more than 100 ground stations in the U.S..

  • If, however, they move to the laser communications on the satellites, they can greatly reduce the number of ground stations

  • needed, as well as the complexity of the overall system on a global basis.

  • On the consumer side, Lorden says that working with the technology was simple.

  • SpaceX does not currently provide an installation service, so users are on their own for the most part.

  • They ship and deliver a big ol' box to your door and inside that box, it's really not that many items.

  • It would be the Starlink dish itself, the router, the power supply and the little tripod mount to set the dish on.

  • And it's super straightforward.

  • Starlink actually has an app that you can download on the phone and it walks you through everything.

  • Literally, just plug this thing into the wall and put the dish where the app tells you to put the dish.

  • Starlink's dish comes equipped with a built-in heating element, which keeps it free of snow and ice.

  • It's also motorized, allowing the dish to automatically orient itself to stay aligned with the satellites overhead.

  • But making its equipment user friendly has not come cheap for SpaceX.

  • The biggest challenge that SpaceX is facing with Starlink is also one of the big unknowns about the actual equipment

  • cost itself. People aren't sure exactly how much either SpaceX is paying for, or paying to build its antennas.

  • There's been a lot of speculation that it's a thousand dollars a unit, two thousand dollars a unit.

  • If they're, you know, selling these kits for $499/kit and it costs them $2,000 to make, they're running huge losses to

  • begin with. And they have to get a lot of people on board to make up for that in the long term by charging for service.

  • Spacex has been tremendously successful in their launch business, dominating the industry in just 10 years.

  • However, the launch industry, global launch industry is not a large enough market to subsidize Elon

  • Musk's dream of building a colony on Mars.

  • The key to Musk's vision for colonizing Mars is Starship.

  • The massive rocket is meant to be fully reusable and capable of launching up to 110 tons of cargo at once.

  • Though SpaceX has not revealed how much it spent on the Starship program, in the past, Musk has estimated that it would cost the company about $5

  • billion to complete.

  • That's where Starlink comes in.

  • The decision to move into Starlink gives the company a market adjacency that's significantly larger in size and

  • has the potential to generate the types of revenues and profits that would be needed for that Mars colony.

  • Earlier this year, a SpaceX job posting revealed that the company is planning to build a factory in Austin, Texas, to manufacture its Starlink

  • kits. But although Starlink is initially targeting the consumer market, experts say there's a lot of room for the service to expand.

  • The intended markets for Starlink measure in the tens of billions of dollars, ranging from consumers, to enterprises and

  • mobility applications, including vessels at sea and aircraft in flight.

  • Starlink's initial focus on consumers is a byproduct of the way that the satellites are launched and the coverage that they

  • provide. Currently, Starlink is not able to provide an enterprise-grade service, so the company is leading with consumers that are a little bit

  • more tolerant.

  • In the past, Starlink's been used by emergency responders in Washington, where the satellites are manufactured, to set up an internet connection in

  • areas devastated by wildfires.

  • The U.S. Air Force and the Army are also both testing Starlink.

  • There is a huge hunger for investment in satellite internet.

  • The sector could be worth $412 billion by 2040.

  • And it's not just VCs that are investing.

  • Satellite internet is ripe for government subsidies.

  • In Canada, the government of Quebec has invested millions in Telsat.

  • In China, satellite maker, Commsat, received a massive government investment as part of the country's new infrastructure drive.

  • The U.S. too is betting big.

  • Last year, the FCC awarded Starlink nearly $1 billion in subsidies to bring internet to rural areas.

  • And in late March, President Biden said that his administration would spend $100 billion to expand broadband access to Americans as part of its

  • $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

  • SpaceX is also in talks with the U.K., where Starlink could earn funding as part of the country's $6.9 billion internet infrastructure

  • program. But one place where Starlink may not be welcome is in Russia, where the government is reportedly considering enacting fines for

  • individuals who sign up for the service.

  • Russia is working on its own satellite internet constellation, which it hopes to begin launching in 2024.

  • Starlink's potential is huge, provided that the project can overcome some majorhurdles.

  • Satellite broadband as a whole is an industry and a sector that is just littered with

  • warning signs and the corpses of former companies that have tried to go out and do what Starlink is doing

  • already.

  • It's a little discussed secret that all of the successful satellite operators today were subsidized either through government

  • subsidies or through the bankruptcy court.

  • In the case of companies like Iridium and Orbcomm that went bankrupt in the 1990s, only to recover and come back for a second act.

  • One of the challenges of building out a new satellite network is all of the capital expenditure needs to go up front before the very first customer

  • can be signed up. And that creates a really tough financial model in terms of generating the revenue to both pay for the existing

  • constellation as well as the follow on satellites that will be needed to continue the service.

  • SpaceX's leadership, about two or three years ago, estimated that they thought it would cost upwards of $10 billion to get Starlink running in an

  • operational capacity.

  • That's a probably a pretty fair estimate still today.

  • Starlink is still fairly early on in development, so it's not perfect.

  • SpaceX makes this clear on its website, saying that there may be periods when customers experience no connectivity, but service will improve as the

  • company launches more satellites.

  • However, having thousands of new satellites orbiting the Earth comes with its own set of problems.

  • Initial launch of SpaceX's Starlink satellites in May of 2019 took astronomers by surprise.

  • They didn't realize how bright the satellites would be, especially as they're raising up to final orbit and how many there would be.

  • So if you looked up, you would see this long line of like what looked like slow moving shooting stars all in a perfect

  • line going across the sky.

  • So people called them Starlink trains.

  • Now, that brought up a pretty significant issue, which is that because they were so bright, they are so clustered together and there was

  • increasingly more and more and more of them covering different parts of the sky, astronomers started seeing them pop up and really ruining

  • different imagery and causing all sorts of distortion and effects and things like that.

  • This image taken from a telescope in Chile in November 2019 illustrates the problem.

  • The telescope, meant to see images of distant stars and galaxies, instead captured the light trails of 19 Starlink's satellites.

  • While some image processing tools can be used to remove the trails, Walker says it's not 100 percent effective.

  • But SpaceX has not ignored the problem.

  • The American Astronomical Society, the AAS, and NOIRLab and others contacted SpaceX, and

  • ever since then they've been so generous with their time.

  • And what was just a passing interest in our concerns became about half a dozen people that they

  • have on staff that are dedicated to finding out mitigation solutions.

  • SpaceX originally tried to paint them like this dark material.

  • The problem was they were still too bright, generally, and they also got pretty hot.

  • They instead of came up with what are known as sun visors, and it helps keep the reflectivity of the solar

  • panels from creating a lot of light and a lot of brightness.

  • The other thing they did is they changed the orientation of the satellites themselves so that they were more on like this knife's edge.

  • So instead of the whole panel catching the sunlight and reflecting down to earth, it was just only a piece of it.

  • The huge concentration of satellites also worries radio astronomers who say that the interference from radio frequencies of internet satellites could

  • hinder the ability of their instruments to look for organic and water molecules in space.

  • Then there's the problem of congestion.

  • Since Russia first launched Sputnik in 1957, over 10,600 objects have been sent into outer space.

  • If SpaceX were to launch all the satellites that it's requested, the company would by itself be responsible for almost a fourfold

  • increase in the number of spacecraft launched by all of humanity.

  • And with the lifetime of Starlink's satellites only being around five years, experts are also worried about space debris.

  • An idea known as the 'Kessler Syndrome' summarizes just how detrimental having free floating junk in space can be.

  • The Kessler Syndrome can be described as two satellites that collide, and they create more debris that will collide with other satellites.

  • And this creates orbits that are just unusable.

  • For its part, SpaceX has said that it plans to deorbit satellites that are nearing the end of their life by pushing them back into Earth's atmosphere

  • where they burn up during reentry.

  • All of SpaceX's satellites have propulsion systems on board, which theoretically are more than sufficient to deorbit a satellite

  • in a very reasonable period of time.

  • However, if the satellite communication is lost, which has happened in certain cases, you lose the

  • ability to tell the satellite to deorbit itself.

  • In other cases, the propulsion system itself may have failed.

  • And when you're launching over 4,000 satellites, all it takes is a very small failure rate to create a lot of space debris.

  • Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has been tracking Starlink's failure rates and says they've

  • improved. For now, dealing with space debris is still largely left up to individual companies.

  • There is no enforceable law that can cause a company to deorbit a satellite that has failed.

  • Generally speaking, the FCC, along with other governmental agencies, have rules out, guidelines,

  • to deorbit satellites within 25 years.

  • But there's no enforcement mechanism that could cause a company to spend money to actively deorbit a satellite.

  • At least today.

  • But experts like Walker are pushing for more national and international oversight of satellite makers.

  • The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is already looking at ways to mitigate the effects of light and radio pollution coming from

  • satellites. In the U.S., the Biden administration recently announced that it would continue the National Space Council, which will assist the

  • president in setting national space policies.

  • Plans to spin off Starlink into a separate company have been swirling since last year.

  • And earlier this year, Musk confirmed the idea.

  • Elon Musk again making headlines this morning.

  • This time with SpaceX, saying its broadband satellite business will go public, eventually.

  • Musk tweeting, quote, "once we can predict cash flow reasonably well, Starlink will IPO," but warning that the business will need to pass through

  • a, quote, "deep chasm of negative cash flow" over the next year or so to actually make that financially viable.

  • Spinning off the part of SpaceX that has the most earning potential may seem counterintuitive, but experts say there could be some benefits.

  • Right now, Starlink is a huge cash use for the SpaceX business.

  • And if it were spun out independently and charging back, paying SpaceX for those launches, it would obviously

  • boost the revenues of the remaining SpaceX business.

  • If SpaceX is still the majority owner of Starlink after it spins off, then the company can still see the revenue

  • stream, still see the benefits of that service.

  • But it's then de-risking the overall SpaceX company, if you will, by having it operate as a separate business so that

  • if Starlink does fail, or does go bankrupt or something bad happens to Starlink, then it's not damaging the core space

  • business as much as it would as if it was still in the entire private fold of the company.

  • SpaceX is currently the leader in low earth orbit satellite internet, but competition is heating up.

  • Amazon has said that it will invest over $10 billion in its satellite internet network known as Project Kuiper.

  • UK satellite maker, OneWeb, recently launched another 36 satellites into orbit, bringing its total number to 146.

  • The company says it expects to begin limited service by the end of the year, though unlike SpaceX, its service is geared towards enterprise

  • customers. Finally, Canadian satellite company, Telesat, has said that it will begin commercial services for its satellite internet in the second

  • half of 2023.

  • If Starlink is successful, it may ultimately do more than just fund Musk's vision for a colony on Mars.

  • SpaceX put in the Starlink terms and agreements that there's bylaws in regards to how their service

  • will be treated for people on Mars.

  • And so SpaceX is already looking down that path and seeing, OK, well, we can have Starlink satellites around Earth in orbit, but

  • then we can also put them in orbit around Mars and then just connect the two and have this expansive, not just a

  • global satellite system, but a multi-planetary satellite system.

  • But for now, earthlings are glad that Starlink exists, even if it's not yet perfect.

  • When they first reached out to us, they did label their beta test as the 'better than nothing beta test.' And for people like me, it's one hundred

  • percent better than nothing.