By Joshua Anderson
Many of us – especially in Orange County, CA – experience relatively strong internet service without issue. In a majority of urban areas in the country, internet service providers (ISPs) offer affordable high-speed internet usually ranging from 50-500 Mbps of download speed. To put that in perspective, a single 4k resolution movie stream takes on average 15 Mbps of bandwidth and a Zoom meeting with cameras and audio takes on average 2 Mbps of bandwidth. Although ISPs cannot guarantee maximum speeds at all times, we are often able to enjoy high-speed internet with only minor thought to how much bandwidth is available. Modern internet accessibility has come very far, and advancements are still being made.
Then the question many might ask is, why might we need to improve internet technology?
The major benefit would be an increase in accessibility to less reached areas of the world. In contrast to big urbanized cities, rural areas typically have unbearably slow speeds of around 5-10 Mbps. In the global pandemic, many people in these rural areas have no option to work remotely because of the lack of access to quality internet. This can affect workers from being able to find a job, businesses from finding workers, and students from being able to attend universities while living at home. Regardless of a pandemic, remote work has great value to the economy and education. Improving the internet in these rural areas could greatly improve the global economy, productivity, and education.
To address this issue, a new up-and-coming technology called Starlink is being developed by the aerospace company, SpaceX. This technology is an attempt to improve the concept of satellite internet to provide broadband speeds to rural areas. Since its initial development in 2018, SpaceX has launched over 1,000 satellites in orbit for Starlink. The company conducts ongoing tests of the service showing results averaging within the range of 40 Mbps to 400 Mbps in various testing sites around the U.S. and Canada. Those numbers are expected to improve as SpaceX recently announced its goal for maximum speeds to reach 10 Gbps — over 20 times the speed of the max 400 Mbps recorded in their tests. That is the equivalent of fiber internet speeds in the middle of a large city. They are hoping to reach 600 Mbps by the end of the year.
Not only is Starlink striving towards nearly instantaneous download speeds in any location of the world, but they are also developing their infrastructure to include mobile client receivers. This means that you could take your high-speed internet with you in your RV on a road trip, to a rural worksite, or to anywhere in the world that may not be feasible for any current ISP to offer quality service. This feature is still in development, but the popular Canadian-based YouTube channel, Linus Tech Tips, has several videos performing tests of their own. These tests involve various quality assurance measures such as speeds, latency, and reliability.
Currently, SpaceX is focusing on bringing this technology to areas that need it the most, meaning mostly rural and remote areas. With their current pricing of $99 a month, it would be difficult to compete with ISPs in cities and suburbs where high-speed internet is already very affordable. Long-term goals for highly-populated areas are still unclear because the current technology would be unable to sustain quality service. SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, said in an interview with podcast host, Joe Rogan, “Starlink is great for low to medium population density. But satellites are not great for high-density urban,” implying there should be no expectation for Starlink to have major support in major cities.
A technology such as Starlink is necessary to fill the gaps of the world’s current internet structure that currently only provide quality internet to highly urbanized areas. If SpaceX follows through on this project, it could change the lives of many around the world through improvements in productivity, communication, and accessibility. The Internet opens many opportunities for a higher quality of life in the modern age, and a service that can provide those opportunities to many new parts of the world will leave a major impact on their economies and livelihoods.
Joshua Anderson is a first-year graduate student at Chapman University studying Computational and Data Sciences. He is a technology columnist for The Hesperian.