The Future of Satellite Communications

Starlink is a network developed by the private space company SpaceX providing low-cost WiFi-based internet to remote locations. SpaceX’s satellite proposal in January 2015 plans to launch as many as 42,000 satellites in this so-called mega constellation. SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, said that the company had filed documents with international regulators to initially place about 4,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as part of this announcement.

SpaceX launched its first two Starlink test craft, named TinTinA and TinTinB, in February 2018. The mission went smoothly. Based on initial data, the company asked regulators for allowance on its fleets to operate at lower altitudes than initially planned, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agreed. The first 60 Starlink satellites launched on May 23, 2019, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The satellites successfully reached their operational altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometres) — low enough to get pulled down to Earth by atmospheric drag in a few years so that they do not become space junk once they die. At this point, SpaceX had launched more than 1,900 Starlink satellites. According to Starlink, the constellation provides broadband service in select areas worldwide, with download speeds of between 100 Mb/s and 200 Mb/s and latency as low as 20 milliseconds.

Several other players are prepping to launch new constellation projects. Three of the most promising LEO satellite projects include OneWeb, Amazon’s Kuiper, and Telesat’s Lightspeed. As more satellite constellations become part of the orbit, the role of satellite operators will expand beyond being high-speed internet service providers. Starlink, for one, is endeavouring to do precisely that. In one of its filings with the FCC, Starlink requested designation as an “Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC)” that will offer, among other things, a voice-based telephony service. This move can be considered a significant threat for telecommunication companies. Leading smartphone vendors such as Apple; are rumoured to bring an “LEO satellite connectivity” support feature to its upcoming iPhone model. That would allow users to make calls via satellites. Such a feature would be significant for satellite operators as other leading handset makers would be compelled to bring this feature into their flagship smartphones.

On the other hand, SpaceX launched 49 Starlink satellites in February 2022 and within a day, a geomagnetic storm above Earth, increasing the atmosphere's density and the drag on the satellites. Preliminary analysis shows that the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from beginning orbit-raising manoeuvres. Up to 40 of the satellites of the fleet were expected to fall out of orbit like space debris just days after their launch. This type of failure can impact the Starlink plans by rising operational costs.