Would Starlink make a municipal network unnecessary?

So we got a question on Facebook: Would Starlink make a municipal network unnecessary?

It’s a good question. Starlink is a project of SpaceX, and SpaceX is much in the news these days. This private space company recently succeeded in sending a manned crew to and from the International Space Station, the first private company to do so. Starlink has done a number of other amazing space feats, including successfully landing its rocket’s lower stage on barges and on pads on Cape Canaveral, so they can be reused. SpaceX is managed by the billionaire Elon Musk, who also owns Tesla and PayPal.

Reusing these booster rockets is allowing SpaceX to greatly reduce the cost of placing objects into outer space. These same rockets are being used by Starlink.

What is Starlink? It’s a “constellation of satellites” being placed into low earth orbit. One launch places sixty of these satellites into orbit, evenly spaced, so coverage will be uninterrupted. At some point there will be enough of these satellites to provide high speed Internet service to most remote areas of the planet. By keeping the orbits of these satellites low, when Starlink is available, the latency (access time) to send data to and from the Internet by satellite will be greatly reduced.  

Right now, satellite Internet from current providers is relatively slow and expensive. These satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, meaning they stay in one spot in the sky, about 24,000 miles above the surface of the earth, making the latency high. Compared to a wired connection, satellite connections are very slow and don’t offer great bandwidth. Because of Starlink satellites’ low earth orbit, this latency is greatly reduced and bandwidth is increased.

The Starlink project is designed to allow people to get on the Internet that right now have no or few options for getting high speed Internet. Would Starlink be an option for Northampton?

The answer is probably not, at least based on what we know today. Starlink has not published much about the speed and accessibility of the eventual network which is still being deployed.

What is known with a reasonable degree of certainty is:

  • Download speed is expected to between twenty and 600 megabits per second
  • According to the video (below) the upload speed is expected to be 40 megabits per second
  • It is ideally suited for remote areas
  • According to Musk, its satellites won’t have the bandwidth to service all of the people in densely populated areas

Because of this last point, it is unclear if Starlink will have the bandwidth capacity for an area as densely populated as Northampton. It certainly won’t at first, and maybe not ever.

Starlink’s pricing has not yet been divulged, but it’s likely it would cost approximately $80 per month. So Starlink should be great for people in very rural areas who don’t have high-speed Internet currently available to them, as well as for travelers like RVers.

Our coalition is encouraging the city to create a municipal network to bring fiber connections to every residence and business in Northampton that wants one. Our hope is that the network will offer everyone 1 gigabit per second upload and download speeds, with potentially higher speed plans available. Future upgrades to the network, to increase customer bandwidth, would be possible without replacing the fiber, since it is capable of much higher bandwidths.

A municipal network can reasonably be expected to cost less and offer more value than similar Comcast plans. If such a municipal fiber network is created, residents would get 2 to 10 times the download speeds of Starlink, with less latency for around or less than Starlink’s price.

Municipal fiber networks have been built in numerous places around the world and have proven to be reliable and stable. Starlink is charting new territory with high-speed lower-cost satellite Internet that is unproven and not fully tested yet. It is for these reasons that we think a municipal fiber network would be superior to Starlink’s as yet unavailable offerings. Ideally, the feasibility study that the city plans to complete will consider Starlink, along with all other Internet technologies, when making a recommendation of what is best for Northampton.

You can learn more about Starlink in the following video:

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