StarLink and Southern Macon County

In the past several months there have been quite a few news articles and discussions about a new internet service under development by SpaceX called StarLink. We have received a number questions and comments from residents in our area about the availability of this service, and whether or not it might be preferable to the network that is being developed by LittleT and its partners.

StarLink will be a new satellite-based internet service. The big difference between this new service and existing satellite services like Hughesnet and Viasat, is that the StartLink satellites are being placed in low earth orbit (LEO) instead of high earth or geosynchronous orbit (342 miles altitude vs 22,236 miles altitude). This will allow StarLink to deliver their internet signal at a much lower latency than conventional satellite systems making it more usable and competitive with ground-based systems. However this low earth orbit is also the source for a number of the controversies that SpaceX is facing regarding their plans, as it requires thousands of satellites to cover their service area.

A system like StarLink has never been built before, and the development is still very new, so there are still many unknowns about the service.


The actual cost for service once available is unknown. The speculation from comments by Elon Musk is that the base service will run in the $80-$100 range, with a one time cost of $200-$300 for the receiver terminal and router. However, SpaceX is spending billions of dollars to build and launch all of the satellites, and to build all of the receiver terminals required to make the service possible. At some point they will need to recoup their massive investment costs through service contracts, and so actual service cost will be dependent on adoption rate and any subsidies or grants they are able to win.

Legal Battles

The placement of low earth orbit satellites in large numbers has already started to have an impact on the night sky and astronomy. This has brought the SpaceX and its StarLink program under fire and the target of injunctions and lawsuits all over the world. It remains to be seen how effective SpaceX will be in defending their program and addressing the unintended impacts of their satellite constellation. Low earth orbit satellites are also not fixed in position, meaning they constantly move through the sky as they fly around the globe. There are currently a number countries voicing objections about the StarLink satellites flying over their space.

Permission and Licensing

Though SpaceX has secured permission from the US and Canada, they are still in negotiations with the EU, Russia, and elsewhere to obtain rights to operate and fly satellites beyond the North American continent. Foreign agency and legal challenges of this nature can be very time consuming and expensive.

Availability of Service

This is by far the most asked question. The StarLink service offering is dependent on the number of satellites in place, which makes availability dependent on satellite production and launch schedules. The launch schedules are directly impacted by weather, and also affected and can be delayed by permission and licensing.

As of the latest launch this past spring, SpaceX plans to begin private beta testing by fall 2020, with a public beta to start a few months later. At present, SpaceX only has enough satellites aloft (420) to provide service between 44 and 52 degrees latitude. This means you will need to live in a narrow strip of North America between Chicago and Vancouver to initially receive the StarLinik signal. Beta testing of service in the Southern US will not start until sometime in 2021, depending on how long it takes for SpaceX to get hundreds or thousands of additional satellites into space, in position, and active. Availability of actual paid service will not start until all the testing has been completed, so maybe end of 2022 or a bit later for this area if all goes well, and SpaceX does not encounter any significant snags or delays.

What is Latency, and Why does it Matter

Latency is the measure of time it takes between your actions on a device or computer and when servers on the internet respond back to you. Latency can have a very big impact on the usability of your internet service. If all you do is stream Netflix or Hulu and send a few emails, latency does not matter a great deal. However if you tele work from home, wish to use Zoom or WebEx, etc., latency can have a huge impact.

Any latency measurement under 100ms (mili seconds) is considered acceptable, and this number is the maximum threshold the FCC allows for an internet service provider to qualify for specific federal grants and loans. Traditional high earth orbit Satellite systems can only deliver an internet signal with very large latencies, typically more than 500ms. This is mostly due to the very high altitude (22,236miles) of the satellites, and as such traditional satellite internet services are ineligible for many federal grant programs.

SpaceX claims that StarLink will be able to deliver latencies lower than 50ms, which is on par with ground-based networks. This is feasible because of the low earth altitude of the StarLink satellites (342miles), but also has yet to be demonstrated as there are many other factors that contribute to latency besides satellite altitude. The FCC has stated that they are not convinced it will be possible to acheive less than 100ms, even for a LEO satellite-based delivery system. If StarLink is unable to deliver less than 100ms of latency, SpaceX will not be eligible for many federal grants and subsidies that might offset costs to rural areas such as ours, and possibly keeping the cost of the StarLink service relatively high to all.

Performance and Reliability

SpaceX claims that StarLink will be able to deliver 1 Gbps service, which is competitive with cable or fiber internet. That remains to be demonstrated, but it is likely that they will eventually get there. Like all internet delivery systems, StarLink will suffer from congestion during times of high usage. However, because it uses thousands of satellites vs one or two fixed satellites, it should be able to perform better than conventional satellite-based systems. How well the StarLink system will perform under load remains to be seen.

StarLink is still a satellite wireless internet system, and all wireless delivery systems are impacted by weather and other atmospheric conditions. This means that StarLink will experience weather related performance drops and outages similar to Hughesnet and Viasat.

What About Other LEO Internet Services Competing with StarLink

Amazon Kuiper Project Though Kuiper just received FCC approval, and Jeff Bezos says he is investing $10B, they do not have published plans to launch their first satellite until 2026. Much can happen between now and then, including SpaceX completely dominating the market.

OneWeb (formerly WorldVu) OneWeb filed for chapter 11 backruptcy back in March of 2020 and laid off most of its employees. Though they have a handful of satellites aloft that they are continuing to maintain, they will have to struggle through bankruptcy and hope for future investments if they are allowed by the courts to continue. Most consider them dead at this point.

Telesat LEO Telesat launched a single demo satellite back in 2018, but have yet to move forward with their LEO program. They are proposing a different approach, as their platform will use 5G wireless vs a proprietary internet link. How this plays out remains to be seen.

Our view is that LEO internet is so closely tied to launch capability, only SpaceX has a shot of making this work right now. They can absorb/amortize much of the StarLink launch costs in with their other launch business. None of the other players yet have this ability, which is a huge hurdle for them to be competitive. Also, as low earth space begins to be filled with these satellites, it is believed that there will be more push back due to the night sky clutter and other impacts of the technology.


In contrast to StarLink, the network under development by LittleT and its partners will be a ground-based fiber to the home (FTTH) system. When the fiber choice is available, it provides the greatest reliability, highest available speeds, and best future growth potential. Fiber is a proven technology that is well understood, and eligible for all federal and state grants and subsidies.

StarLink is definitely a promising new technology. Given the track record of SpaceX, and the potential revenue to be gained by providing this service globally, it will happen. However history shows that it will likely take longer to reach the masses than the claims. There are just too many hurdles and obstacles for SpaceX to overcome for there to be no delays. StarLink may ultimately become a viable alternative internet source for many Southern Macon County residents by the end of 2022 or later. The good thing about having viable alternatives is competition, and its effect on lowering service cost.