SpaceX Stardish antenna on FCC roof (Source: Twitter)

More Than A Few Unanswered SpaceX Starlink Questions

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” – Captain, Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Trying to get details on SpaceX Starlink LEO broadband service plans is an exercise in Kremlinology since the company rarely responds to email inquiries or follow the usual practice of issuing regular press releases and conducting media briefings. Reporters are left to scour through FCC filings, SpaceX career postings, and the occasional relevant tweet by CEO Elon Musk.  The most useful source of Starlink information outside of FCC filings is the Reddit r/Starlink discussion group, with the crowdsource discussion providing clues on deployments and technical data on user equipment.

With SpaceX raising a new round of private funding and scrutiny around the company’s $885.5 million FCC RDOF broadband win, there are plenty of open issues investors and John Q Public should learn more about before buying stock or signing up for Starlink service.

Let’s start with the consumer-positioned Starlink beta program, When is it expected to transition into commercial service?  How many Starlink terminals have been shipped out to date? How many Starlink terminals are being shipped per month? How many will be shipped per month over the next year? How much does the Starlink phased array antenna cost? What is the expected cost of the antenna a year from now? Two years from now?  What is the customer acquisition cost and what is the average revenue per user (ARPU) once the bills are paid? Will Starlink roll out value-added services on top of basic broadband, such as phone, to increase ARPU?

How dependent is Starlink on FCC RDOF broadband monies? If there were changes to the RDOF distribution to reduce or limit those funds, would this affect service deployment in a significant way?

What is Starlink’s enterprise business model? The U.S. government and business customers will pay much more for services, but they are also much more demanding, requiring customization, more bandwidth, and formal guarantees of service (Service Level Agreements/SLAs). What third-party relationships does SpaceX have to find and support enterprise customers in vertical markets such as defense, aviation and maritime? Will SpaceX have to build larger and/or different phased array antennas beyond the Starlink consumer “dishy” version to support higher broadband speeds and symmetrical bandwidth needed by enterprise customers? How much revenue is expected from enterprise customers as compared to the consumer side of the business?

Current and prospective Starlink customers would like to know how much faster Starlink service can get beyond today’s 50-150 Mbps beta speeds.  Since faster speeds appear to depend in part on the number of satellites in orbit, what sort of speeds will a customer get when the initial constellation of around 1400 satellites is in orbit by the end of this year? How many satellites need to be in orbit to deliver gigabit downlink speeds? Will the current dish and router kit support gigabit download speeds or will a hardware upgrade be necessary? Will uplink speeds increase in the future beyond 10-20 Mbps or is there a cap due to FCC RF emission safety standards or other reasons?  Getting assurances that beta service interruptions between 5 seconds to several minutes in length will disappear or become incidental would also be helpful.

Investors and Starlink customers may also like to know how the company plans to get to “10 Gbps (future) downlink,” as cited in a January 22, 2201 FCC update filing.  How many satellites will be necessary to deliver 10 Gbps service in a meaningful fashion? Will 10 Gbps service be solely for enterprise and government customers or available for consumers as well?  What size and type of dish will be needed to support 10 Gbps service? Will SpaceX build this hardware as well?  

Technical investors may appreciate an explanation of Starlink satellite evolution.  How will Starlink v1.5 and v2.0 satellites be different than current v1.0 models in orbit? Will new satellite versions be backward compatible with existing Starlink user terminal hardware? What sort of cost savings, if any, will Starlink gain through the deployment of satellites with intersatellite laser links and its newer versions? 

Will SpaceX need an operational Starship program to deploy v1.5 and 2.0 satellites in the quantities necessarily to deliver 10 Gbps service? How many flights per year will Starship have to conduct for placing enough satellite into orbit to deliver 10 Gbps service? If Starship is not available, what number of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy flights would be required?

Since SpaceX is a private company, it has no need to answer any of these questions at this time but could build up some goodwill by proactively sharing more information beyond an occasional managed Reddit AMA. If Starlink is spun out as a publicly traded entity, many if not most of these questions will need to have adequate answers far above the sparse information trickled out through the Starlink website and Elon’s tweets today.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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