Starlink Reviews Show The Limitations Of Musk's Broadband Play

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

So we've already noted several times that while Elon Musk's Starlink internet broadband service will be a great thing for folks certainly out of the range of existing broadband options, it's not going to be the massive disruption many people assume. For one thing, the service is only going to serve around 800,000 subscribers in a country where up to 42 million Americans lack broadband access and another 83 million consumers live under a broadband monopoly. So even at the high-end, extremely optimistic, longer term goal of 6 million total Starlink subscribers, we're talking about a small dent in a very big problem.

Another problem is that for many of America's underserved populations, the real issue is cost. And given its $500 initial down payment for hardware, and $100 monthly price tag, the service is going to be well out of range for many folks who really need it. That said, if you can actually get it, and actually afford it, and currently have no access to fixed line service, it's going to be an upgrade. Probably, anyway.

New reviews at outlets like The Verge have taken some additional bloom off the rose, noting that line of sight and other technical issues are marring the service, at least during its current, ongoing 10,000 user beta. Says The Verge's Nilay Patel:

"Starlink, a new satellite internet service from SpaceX, is a spectacular technical achievement that might one day do all of these things. But right now it is also very much a beta product that is unreliable, inconsistent, and foiled by even the merest suggestion of trees."

Throughout the review, Patel makes it clear these problems aren't small potatoes:

"I am going to emphasize the line-of-sight requirement, since it is crucial to understanding what Starlink can and cannot do right now, and it’s an important reality check on what it might be able to do in the future. Like the similarly over-hyped mmWave 5G, Starlink is remarkably delicate. Even a single tree blocking the dish’s line of sight to the horizon will degrade and interrupt your Starlink signal. Whatever satellite internet dreams you may have will run crashing into this reality until you can literally rise above."

It's likely things will improve, but even at max capacity (see above) we're talking limited impact. It's clear Musk is mostly interested in using Starlink to fund and market Space X, even though he's acknowledged that profitability will be difficult and the low orbit satellite broadband market is paved with failure. There's also that whole polluting the night sky and derailing scientific research both Musk and US regulators seem largely apathetic to. So this system, while promising and assuming it survives, will impact business interests (shipping, nautical) far more than residential broadband.

That said, Patel's review of Starlink does something tech coverage of broadband often doesn't do: he clearly acknowledges that US broadband is a busted and uncompetitive market thanks to decades of failed US telecom policy. He then uses that historical context to properly frame the potential promise Starlink offers:

"Starlink also represents something else: the American telecom policy establishment’s long-standing, almost religious belief that consumers are best served by something called “facility-based competition.” Starlink is a new facility for accessing the internet, one that does not rely on existing infrastructure. “Facility-based competition,” telecom lobbyists feverishly whisper while handing out their dirty, sweat-stained checks in Congress. “That is the American way.”

AMERICAN BROADBAND POLICY STINKS, AND WE ALL PAY TOO MUCH MONEY FOR SLOW SPEEDS AND TERRIBLE CUSTOMER SERVICE Of course, the only thing a decades-long commitment to “facility-based competition” has brought to most Americans is… a total lack of competition. Reality, as I have said, is quite irritating.

(By contrast, in Europe, where the prevailing philosophy is called “service-based competition,” large incumbent providers are required to lease fiber access to competitors and there is a thriving market for internet access with much lower prices for much faster speeds. If the United States were in Europe, it would have the most expensive broadband in the region.)"

FCC data has long shown that open access networks (where multiple ISPs compete over a single, centralized fiber network) results in better, faster, cheaper service. But because that would bring competition to regional monopolies, we've never really embraced that approach. We did try to hack together some flavor of line sharing as part of the 1996 Telecom Act, but it was dismantled by telecom lobbyists before the ink was even try, resulting in an absolute bloodbath for smaller broadband providers.

Which brings us to the most important thing: the reality is you're just not going to fix US broadband dysfunction with spit, innovation, and elbow grease. That's because what's driving US broadband dysfunction is two major things: extremely politically powerful regional telecom monopolies (most of which are tied directly into our intelligence gathering apparatus, shielding them from accountability), and the state and federal corruption that protects this broken mess. Innovative tech can help, but it's not going to truly get to the root of the problem because the problem is human ethical failure, not technical.

For decades, telecom monopoly lobbyists have argued that you don't need functional FCC or FTC regulatory oversight of telecom -- or pro-competition policies that disrupt monopolization -- because a miracle technology is waiting in the wings to fix everything. Back during the big deregulation push in the early aughts, broadband over powerline (BPL) was hyped as a holy grail. Former FCC boss Mike Powell (now a top cable lobbyist) told anyone who'd listen that his decision to deregulate lumbering telecom monopolies was wonderful, because BPL would act as a competitive layer that would fix everything.

But BPL wound up being aninterference prone mess. And instead of telecom Utopia as promised, we just saw regional monopolies double down on the same bad behavior, now free of both functional regulatory oversight and competition.

These days it's 5G that's being treated as a miracle market panacea, despite the fact that 5G isn't a competitive silver bullet either for a number of reasons we've well explored. The real solution to improving U.S. broadband involves driving as much residential fiber to homes as possible, regardless of whether that's the private sector or community broadband

That's not to say 5G and Starlink can't help! But again, the problem at this point is incompetent and corrupt policymakers on the state and federal level. Policymakers in mindless sway to monopolists. We could have delivered fiber to every home in America several times over by now for less than AT&T spent on its bungled AT&T Time Warner merger. We don't do that not because it's all that expensive and hard, but because this would upset dominant regional monopolies that effectively own US broadband policy and despise anything even resembling real world competition.

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Filed Under: competition, satellite broadband, starlink
Companies: spacex, starlink

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  • icon
    ECA (profile), 28 May 2021 @ 12:06pm


    They would offer a $20 package for Phone and email. Millions would sign up.
    If you added another $10, give basic wondering and such.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 28 May 2021 @ 1:29pm

    If only the FCC asked citizens about their service & issues instead of listening only to CEOs who don't give a shit.

    For a nation of free markets & free market will fix it, why do we allow these monopolies to still exist, offering shitty service & high prices. Giving them handouts, believing lie after lie, & writing laws to make sure we have shittier offerings than many 3rd world nations.

    Someone should make a republican run away in terror and ask how can America be great again when we keep giving handouts to corporations who lie & overbill at every turn.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2021 @ 12:25am

    This is such bullshit. The only good thing about Elon Musk is he's ripping off the bourgeoisie and not the proles.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Annonymouse, 29 May 2021 @ 8:30am

    Really now?

    The story is so buried in assumptions and false equivalacies it's verging on annoying.

    The system was never meant for urban or suburban subscribers. Do those numbers are meaningless

    As for the upfront costs, hah.
    In the country side neighbous do share and the up front costs of the competition is comparable or higher.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2021 @ 9:44am

    I dont see why starlink has to connect to every user directly, it can work as the backbone of global net, eventually we can have datacenters on LEO, wires have to follow some not-ideal paths, signals can go straight, we could have much more consistent latency across users that are much farther apart

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 May 2021 @ 3:15am


      Unlike fibre or wire, radio signals are a limited resource at least in signal sources footprint. A basic explanation of frequency re-use is covered in this Wikipedia article. For satellites, the cell size is state sized, and their bandwidth similar to a cellular tower, or a single fibre. Frequency re-use in Fibre is not a problem, as each fibre in a bundle is isolated from every other, so they can all sue the same light frequencies without interference.

      By using expensive steerable antennas, it would be possible to get four or five times the bandwidth of a single satellite. With fibre, want thousands of times the band width, then run a a bundle of thousands of fibres. Similarly, due to dispersion, only a single laser channel can be used between satellites.

      Those considerations limit low satellite system to serving low density populations, along with ships and aircraft in or over open ocean areas, as it is not possible to get the frequency re-use at the level of individual satellites, as is possible between building using fibre bundles. Note, with fibre, those building can be on different continents, which is why Google for one installs and runs its own fibre network between data centres, including trans oceanic cables..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 May 2021 @ 1:22pm

        Re: Re:

        ultimately wires are just signal enhancing mediums, they will always be superior if ignoring terrain constraints, but we can make bare signals work in similar ways to how wires did it a while before, at some point wireless becomes "enough" and-or better, our signaling devices just have to aim/send/receive with godlike precision relative to wired emitters-receivers

        correct me if I'm wrong, but cant we simply exchange more channels for fewer channels with higher bandwidth? thats what I propose, we use starlink as backhaul network, connecting to very few land towers that then redistribute over fiber/more wireless, we obviously cant scale up in quantity as we'd like, but we can turn bandwidth up to eleven given limited cells/channels, if starlink can serve 8 million clients at 500mbps each, thats 4pbps bandwidth, global internet bandwidth is 466tbps according to this ternet%20bandwidth%20rose%20last%20year%20by%20only,still%20represents%20a%20near-tripling%20of%20ba ndwidth%20since%202015.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 31 May 2021 @ 5:49pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          correct me if I'm wrong, but cant we simply exchange more channels for fewer channels with higher bandwidth?

          Available bandwidth is simply the bandwidth per channel multiplied by the number of channels, and for systems total bandwidth, rather than bandwidth per channel is what matters.. Under the assumption that orders of magnitude are required for significant difference, mobile and satellite have the same capacity per cell, but satellites have state sized cells, while mobile can go down to cells of a few metres. That is why mobile phones can support hundreds of thousands times more users that the likes of Starlink, while fibres can be bundled by the thousands to serve a data centre. The critical factor is not the bandwidth per channel, but rather the spatial separation required to allow reuse of the same frequencies, and that is fractions of an inch for fibre, yards to tens of miles for mobile, and several hundred miles upwards for satellite.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jilocasin (profile), 1 Jun 2021 @ 6:03am

    Natural Monopoly

    The biggest problem (as I see it) with the facilities based approach, is that broadband, like water or power, is a natural monopoly. It is financially unfeasible to have multiple physical broadband providers wiring fiber to everyone's home. Historically, we had cable and phone as separate networks simply because neither could provide what the other could. Now that we can have phone over cable and video over phone, it no longer makes much sense to continue to rollout both types of infrastructure.

    Rolling out fiber makes that even clearer. Unless regulated, the first one to roll out fiber to the home wins (assuming they don't price it out of range of most people). Phone companies chose to let their POTS assets rot on the vine as they pivoted to more lucrative wireless (and pipe dreams of digital ad revenue). This left cable companies in a monopoly position with no real incentive to upgrade their now good enough (in their eyes) coaxial infrastructure.

    Service based competition, or strict government regulation (think PUC) is the only logical way forward. Of course as long as our government is more interested in cashing company campaign checks than serving their constituents, municipal broadband is the next best thing we can hope for.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Jun 2021 @ 6:22am

      Re: Natural Monopoly

      municipal broadband is the next best thing we can hope for.

      There is another option, and that is for people in an area to form a co-operative company, and install their own broadband. Access to backhoes helps, along with a few people with a willingness to learn skills like fibre splicing..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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