Technology

Space X May Soon Give The US Broadband Sector A Much Needed Kick In The Ass

Could Space X finally give the busted US telecom sector a much needed kick in the ass? Since 2017, Musk’s Space X has been promising that it would launch 800 low orbit satellites capable of delivering cheaper, lower latency broadband to large swaths of the United States by 2020 or 2021. By and large Musk and company appear to have been successful sticking to that promise, insisting recently that this proposed timeline was “pretty much on target.” That said, Musk had to fire some folks to ensure that the project was meeting its goals, which itself suggests they may not have been.

More recent government filings indicate that the company may be able to accelerate the deployment of fast low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites across broad swaths of the Southern US. The company says that a number of improvements were discovered in the wake of launching 60 LEO satellites back in May. In a filing (pdf), the company says an adjustment in orbital spacing and other efficiences may bring the service (which will be sold under the “Starlink” brand) online sooner and more broadly than expected:

“This adjustment will accelerate coverage to southern states and US territories, potentially expediting coverage to the southern continental United States by the end of the next hurricane season and reaching other US territories by the following hurricane season.

…SpaceX has demonstrated the effectiveness of its revolutionary deployment process and confirmed its ability to populate three orbital planes with a single launch. By then reorganizing its satellites at their already authorized altitude, SpaceX can place coverage and capacity more evenly and rapidly across more of the US.”

Obviously it’s way too early to know what kind of pricing we’re talking about, but the smaller, mass produced satellites are expected to cost significantly less to deploy and maintain, meaning service pricing should be notably less than the heavily capped, throttled, and expensive satellite services we all know and love. There have been some rumblings that the service could clock in under $50 a month, but it’s too early to know if that’s going to be doable, or whether the service will be rife with annoying usage limits, throttling, or other restrictions (ensuring it’s not a truly symmetrical competitor to something like fiber to the home).

All of that said, there are still reasons to keep expectations in check. This being Musk, hype could be overshadowing reality. The service could also launch with a number of the same arbitrary, cash-grabbing restrictions we’ve seen developing in the cellular space, something that could get worse in the wake of the death of net neutrality and FCC authority. It’s also worth noting that there have been a laundry list of similar efforts that have been just as aggressively hyped that have gone absolutely nowhere, thanks to the complicated economic factors involved in, you know, space:

The history of satellite internet, however, is defined by failure, including one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in history. This was a reality Elon Musk candidly acknowledged to reporters ahead of the Starlink launch. “No one has ever succeeded in making a viable low Earth orbit communication constellation right off the bat,” Musk said. “I do believe we’ll be successful, but it is far from a sure thing.”

The other x-factor is AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, companies that have a thirty year history of doing everything in their power to stifle newly emerging alternatives to their expensive, unpopular services. The three companies all but own countless state legislatures and a significant portion of Congress, who’ll all be doing their best (as they have for decades) to ensure that nothing disrupts the existing, uncompetitive cash cow that is the US residential broadband market. Space X will also have to do battle with a number of other deep-pocketed giants (like Amazon) that have been eyeing the space as a potential disruption play.

Still, the promise being made by low-orbit satellites is hard to ignore. But given the power of entrenched players and telecom history, it probably makes sense to keep enthusiasm in check until we have actual, widespread commercial deployment at a price point that’s actually appealing to the millions of Americans desperately craving more, better broadband options.

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