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How Elon Musk’s Starlink may change the way Malaysians access the internet

This question is on the minds of anyone using the internet today. We will get into that and more such questions in a while, but let us begin with the latest in the Starlink saga.

On 25 August 2021, The Edge published a report indicating that Starlink might soon become a reality in the country. The report was based on a tweet by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.


Musk is the second richest man in the world at the moment. According to Forbes, his net worth on 6 September 2021, stood at US$190.5 billion (RM790 billion). He is the founder, CEO and Chief Engineer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., popularly known as SpaceX — an American aerospace company, which has earned global renown for its path-breaking achievements in space technology over a short time.

Elon Musk is also the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, the founder of The Boring Company and co-founder of OpenAI and Neuralink.

Besides his “rich man” image, Musk is considered a modern-day genius who has come up with ‘space-defining’ ideas.

At the same time, Musk is loved by millions on social media for his ‘I-don’t-care-attitude’, which he openly flaunts on Twitter. Though the man tweets just about anything, he is so influential that he doesn’t even need all of the 280 characters to make bitcoin markets play to his tunes.

Starlink is a project of SpaceX, that aims to bring high-speed satellite internet service to every corner of the Earth, except the North and South Poles, through a mega-constellation of satellites in orbit around the planet.

The Starlink project began in January 2015 and has expanded its footprint both across the world, in terms of projected availability, and all over the planet, in terms of the number of satellites.

In December 2020, Starlink got a boost when SpaceX won US$885 million (RM3.67 billion) in federal subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a US government agency, to help bring broadband connectivity to parts of the US with little to no internet connectivity.

The first 60 Starlink satellites were launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 23 May 2019. As of June 2021, the number of Starlink satellites deployed stands at around 1,800.

“We’ve successfully deployed 1,800 or so satellites and once all those satellites reach their operational orbit, we will have continuous global coverage, so that should be like September timeframe,” said SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell at the virtual Macquarie Technology Summit in June 2021, according to Reuters.

In April 2021, the FCC granted SpaceX permission to deploy more than 2,800 Starlink satellites at an orbit lower than 580 kilometres. At the time, SpaceX aimed at placing 12,000 satellites in orbit.

However, according to SpaceNews, Starlink has already filed for 30,000 more satellites with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2019. This brings the total number of satellites aimed for deployment to a staggering 42,000.

To put this in perspective, data from the satellite recorder Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reveals that only 4,084 operational satellites are orbiting the Earth as of 1 May 2021. So, the number of Starlink satellites will be more than 10 times that of currently operating satellites in orbit.

To make a pop-culture comparison, a complete network of Starlink satellites in space will be something like the heroic Nova Corps blockade in the skies of Xandar in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014). Well, on a much bigger scale and maybe not ‘heroic’ in any sense.

Anyway, back to Earth.

What is the current status?

SpaceX is seeking regulatory approval from countries where the Starlink network will be available. At the virtual Macquarie Technology Summit, Shotwell also said that Starlink has 100,000 users, and it may become operational by around September.

In a series of tweets posted on 24 August 2021, Musk said that Starlink had shipped 100,000 terminals around the world. Through emojis of nationals flags, the billionaire pointed out that Starlink was serving 14 countries and added that license applications were pending in others.

Of course, Starlink has powerful competitors, including Amazon, which has a similar mission called Project Kuiper. HughesNet, Boeing, Viasat, Telesat, Kepler, Eutelsat and OneWeb are the others. The Chinese government, too, formed a new company in late April to take on Starlink and the rest of them in the race to conquer the satellite Internet market. In fact, on 28 May 2021, OneWeb added 36 satellites to its constellation to take the total number of satellites in orbit to 218.

In the next few years, there will be a major tussle between these companies for space in Space, for the thousands of satellites they would launch in low Earth orbit — between 160 kms and 1,000 kms above Earth — according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The International Space Station (ISS) circles around the Earth in this orbit.

The concerns

Astronomers are concerned about the dystopian future of the night sky. If Starlink alone has 42,000 of them in low Earth orbit, then it is impossible to estimate the total number of satellites zooming across the night sky, including those by its competitors, particularly China. This is because, as geopolitical realities show, China equals in ruthlessness, if not exceeds, the US when it comes to the pursuit of ambitions.

How do Starlink satellites look when they stream across screens of astronomers? Astronomers Clara Martínez-Vázquez and Cliff Johnson experienced it firsthand at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) on the intervening night of 12-13 November 2019. They took a picture for proof, which shows at least 19 streaks across the sky that were of Starlink satellites.

NOIR Lab Starlink satellites image
Image credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/DECam DELVE Survey

On 28 April 2020, Starlink issued a statement, saying that it was “making satellites generally invisible to the naked eye within a week of launch” by ensuring that they “fly with the satellite knife-edge to the Sun.” It added that a “deployable visor” was being added to the satellite to block the brightest parts of the craft from sunlight so that they do not interfere with astronomical observations.

However, in July 2021, Nature reported that astronomers raised their concerns at a subcommittee meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). While delegates from the US, Canada and Japan were in favour of continued discussions on the topic, China and Russia demurred, citing more time to study the matter.

Commenting on the ‘mega-constellations’ these satellites are bound to form, former General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Piero Benvenuti told Nature, “These constellations are changing dramatically the way space has been used.”

How our night sky would look a few years from now and whether we would have regulatory laws governing the use of space is a topic for future discussion.

So, let’s get back to the basic question…

Starlink satellite
This NASA TV video frame grab shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 fourth Starlink constellation after entry burn, before it separates, after it launched at Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 29, 2020. (Image credit: Handout / NASA TV / AFP)

First, a one-line recap: Starlink is Elon Musk’s satellite internet service.

By now you know that Starlink is a massive satellite network around the planet designed to bring the internet almost anywhere on Earth. And, satellites are being deployed in low Earth orbit to improve latency, which is the time taken for transmission of data from one point to another and back. The closer the satellites are to the Earth, the faster and stronger is the signal transmission.

On the other hand, stationary orbit satellites are around 36,000 kilometres away from the Earth, which delays signal transmission as compared to those in low Earth orbit.

Whether you are reading this article on your 4G smartphone or a laptop connected to Wi-Fi, know that the Internet signals transmitting through your device are passing through a vast network of underwater fibre-optic cables, spanning more than a million kilometres. The operational ability of the world’s Internet depends on the workability of the cables.

Signals travel faster through space than through cables. However, speed has a price.

Moving at an approximate speed of 7.8 km per second, satellites in low Earth orbit take around 90 minutes to complete one revolution around our planet, according to the ESA.

This means satellites in low Earth orbit cannot maintain as steady a signal over a geographic range as satellites in higher orbits. Thus, to maintain connectivity, there is a need for thousands of satellites going around at the same time. This would mean more investment.

According to Starlink, its satellites “are over 60 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites, resulting in lower latency and the ability to support services typically not possible with traditional satellite internet.”

The 14 countries Elon Musk highlighted in his 24 August tweet where Starlink is operational include the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Portugal, Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand.

SpaceX’s Starlink, whose beta version is currently available on a first-come-first-served basis, can be pre-ordered in specific regions in other countries, provided they are listed on the official site. However, unless regulatory clearances are obtained, there is practically no connection.

Similarly, it is not clear if SpaceX has got the necessary approval in Malaysia. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the regulating authority of the communication and multimedia industry in Malaysia, has no information on either SpaceX or Starlink in its Individual Licenses Register.

Pre-orders can be done for a deposit of US$99 (RM410) as of now in places like those shown in the image below.

Starlink Malaysia
Image credit: Starlink

According to Starlink, the service is “ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge.”

In its FAQ, Starlink says that its kits are shipped within two weeks from the date of the order. However, subscribers will receive an estimated shipping timeline in their confirmation email and account page.

“If you are placing an order or deposit in an area where we don’t have coverage yet, you’ll receive an email when service becomes available in your area, and you’ll have the opportunity to update your shipping, service or billing details, or cancel your order,” reads the note by Starlink.

So, you may have to wait for Elon Musk’s satellite internet service for some more time, depending on where you live.

Starlink dish
Image credit: Starlink

According to the official site, a Starlink Kit comes with Starlink (satellite dish), a Wi-Fi router, power supply, cables and a mounting tripod.

The Starlink FAQ says that the “tripod is designed for ground-level installation, or to support a quick start setup to test your internet connection.”

Roof mounts are also available for those who want to install the system on the roof.

Before installing the kit, Starlink suggests using its app, which is available on iOS and Android, to determine the best location for installation at home.

Starlink Scanner
Image credit: Starlink/Google Play Store

Starlink requires a “clear view” of the sky. The app helps the user scan the sky from the location where they want the device to be set up and check for obstructions.

Once the app approves the site as clear, the Starlink internet dish can be set up at the location.

To order Starlink, all you have to do is go to the official site, enter your service address and, if the location is listed, place the order by paying the amount and filling in necessary details.

The website states: “Starlink is currently at capacity in your area through 2021, your order might not be fulfilled until late 2022. Availability is subject to regulatory approval. Orders will be fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis.”

One word: Yes.

“During beta, users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all,” says Starlink.

A factor to note here is that Starlink will primarily serve areas with little to no connectivity. In that light, even 50Mb/s is an outstanding speed.

According to research published by Speedtest on 4 August 2021, Starlink internet speed was the fastest in France. At 139.39 Mb/s, it was almost double the average speed of the country’s fixed broadband.

However, speed and overall internet service will improve as more satellites are launched to add to the grid.

“As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically,” Starlink adds.

In response to a tweet on 22 February 2021, Musk said, “Speed will double to ~300Mb/s & latency will drop to ~20ms later this year.”

The US$99 you have to pay at the time of pre-order is mostly for countries other than the 14 Musk mentioned in his tweet. There is no other information on the official site at the time of writing this article.

For the 14 countries, the total cost of the Starlink high-speed satellite internet service varies according to the place. It is, however, not clear which are the places where the satellite internet service is currently operational.

For example, for a user in the Melbourne suburb of Campbellfield in Australia, where coverage is being targeted from mid to late 2021, the deposit is A$139 (RM424). The order page mentions that hardware cost will be A$709 (RM2,163), service cost will be A$139 per month, and shipping & handling will cost A$100 (RM305).

Starlink Australia
Image credit: Starlink

In Covent Garden, London, the deposit charges are £89 (RM508), hardware is £439 (RM2,506), service is £89 (RM508) per month, and shipping & handling is £54 (RM308).

What is Starlink
Image credit: Starlink

Furthermore, the current prices of SpaceX’s Starlink are costlier than fixed broadband connections in both London and Melbourne.

In the same tweet thread from 22 February, Musk was asked by a Twitter user about an active coverage map.

“Most of Earth by end of year, all by next year, then it’s about densifying coverage. Important to note that cellular will always have the advantage in dense urban areas. Satellites are best for low to medium population density areas,” Musk responded.

The last two sentences of the tweet are very important. They convey that Starlink (and other satellite internet services) will work best where the density of population is “low to medium”, which means that places in low-population English counties, such as Cumbria, will have smoother connectivity than those in the London area.

The other problem is obstructions. As has been stated, the dish needs an absolutely clear field of view to the Starlink satellites to be able to send and receive signals seamlessly.

Starlink suggests that the installation of the Starlink dish should be done at the “highest elevation possible where it is safe to do so”.

Users who live in areas with lots of tall trees, buildings, etc. may not be good candidates for early use of Starlink. However as more satellites are launched, the field of view constraints will decrease, enabling a wider variety of users,” says Starlink.

Starlink also says that since satellites are in the low areas of the sky, obstructions in those areas will lead to a rise in outages.

What about the weather?

Starlink_UT_Rooftop-cropped
Image credit: Starlink

In places where it snows, such as in Canada, the northern US and parts of Europe, accumulated snow around the receiver could be an obstruction to the field of view. Starlink says that the device can detect and melt snow falling directly on it. However, it recommends that the setup should be done in an area where there is no scope for snow build-up.

Service disruption can also be caused by heavy rain and strong winds. According to Starlink, the device has “necessary lightning protection” and meets the US National Electrical Code’s (NEC) grounding requirements.

One must also note that Starlink is programmed to serve a designated area on the ground, known as a cell. If the Starlink satellite dish is moved outside of the cell, it won’t receive a signal from the satellite. This means that you cannot move around with your installed Starlink satellite dish.

However, the service address can be changed if available at the new location desired by the user. If not, Starlink says that a fresh pre-order will have to be placed for the new location with a new email ID.

Moreover, as for the concerns of astronomers stated earlier: it may result in a better law of space but won’t impact the future of satellite internet connectivity given that several powerful private companies and some governments are keen on it.

After all, some of the Paris Climate Agreement signatory countries and groups sounding the alarm about climate change the loudest are also the ones farthest from the ambitious goals set in the agreement.

Meanwhile, the most recent update about Starlink came on 1 September 2021, when Musk tweeted in response to a tweet by YouTuber Scott Manley.

The interaction started with Manley responding to a remark by former US Naval intelligence officer Lyla Kohistany during a CNN broadcast that she would “love it if SpaceX would just flood Afghanistan with Starlink so that there is a way for us to maintain communication with our Afghan partners.”

To that, Manley posted a map of Afghanistan showing its neighbourhood and tweeted: “Sure, they just need to find a friendly neighboring country who wants to help the US against Taliban so they can deploy a downlink station.”

Then, Musk stepped in and said, “Our satellites launching in next few months have inter-satellite laser links, so no local downlink needed. Probably active in 4 to 6 months.”

When asked about processing, Musk said, “Processing is not an issue. Lasers links alleviate ground station constraints, so data can go from say Sydney to London through space, which is ~40% faster speed of light than fiber & shorter path. Also, no need for ground stations everywhere. Arctic will have great bandwidth!”

We leave you with the link to the entire thread.

(Main and Featured images: Handout / SPACEX / AFP)

Manas Sen Gupta
Manas enjoys reading detective fiction and writing about anything that interests him. When not doing either of the two, he checks Instagram for the latest posts by travellers. Winter is his favourite season and he can happily eat a bowl of noodles any time of the day.