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Elon Musk’s Starlink might need more than 12,000 satellites to be effective

Starlink satellites 12,000

Elon Musk’s Starlink has been hailed by many as the innovation that will bridge the internet divide between rural areas without internet infrastructure and cities. If you are hearing of it for the first time, Starlink is basically VSAT but for the whole globe which means, if it works as intended, anyone who can afford the US$500 for the equipment and the US$99 a month will be able to enjoy the internet where ever they are. The service is currently in beta in the US and Starlink, through sister company SpaceX, has launched over 1,300 satellites into orbit. At the end of the program, or it might be the first phase, Elon Musk hopes to have 12,000 satellites in low earth orbit (LEO).

The number of satellites that Starlink is looking to send into orbit might seem like more than enough, but a new report but MoffetNathanson says that the full deployment might not be enough to cover the United States let alone the entire world.

MoffetNathanson identified three key problems with Starlink. The first is that the entire complement of 12,000 satellites the company can only serve between 300,000 and 800,000 homes. It gets even worse because of the full complement, a third is going to be reserved for the US market. 4,000 satellites, according to the report, aren’t going to be enough to ensure that the continental United States is covered.

The second problem that was identified was the angle that the satellites are inclined. Starlink’s satellites are positioned at a 53-degree angle, which the team at MoffetNathanson thinks only 3% of the constellations’ capacity will be available to the Southern portion of the US at any point.

The last problem is bandwidth. The average household in the US uses around 2.2 to 2.7 Mbps at the busiest times. Now, this isn’t factoring in remote work brought on by the pandemic and the increasing demands and varying uses the internet has these days.

Lastly, Starlink satellites are built to handle a capacity of 17 – 23Gbps, which when combined with all the other factors limits the internet service provider’s ability to deliver the internet nationwide.

Some hurdles to overcome but there’s hope yet

According to a report by The Register, it isn’t all doom and gloom. One of the ways that Starlink might be able to mitigate some of these issues is through laser networking between satellites. This is similar to what Liquid Telecom (sorry Liquid Intelligent Technologies) and Google’s X are working on in Kenya, but in space.

Starlink satellites will be able to form a relay net as well as reduce latency. However, the lasers will have to be accurately pointed in order to work effectively. This may be a tall order because these satellites will be travelling at insane speeds.

The other thing that Starlink has planned is simply increasing the number of satellites. The internet service provider has apparently approached the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) seeking authorisation to send off up to 30,000 satellites.

If it all comes to pass there might be hope yet for Starlink. However, this won’t all happen overnight. The service is still in Beta and is a long way away from coming anywhere near the consistency of existing infrastructure over a wide area.

So if you are in Zimbabwe and you are patiently waiting for Starlink to solve all the internet issues, you might be waiting for a little longer than you expected.


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2 thoughts on “Elon Musk’s Starlink might need more than 12,000 satellites to be effective

  1. “It gets even worse because of the full complement, a third is going to be reserved for the US market. 4,000 satellites, according to the report, aren’t going to be enough to ensure that the continental United States is covered.”

    You know these aren’t in geostationary orbits, right? They can’t “reserve” a third of the satellites for one country. When one is over the US, it’ll serve US customers. When it’s over Zimbabwe, it’ll serve Zimbabwe customers.

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