Warning – Long form piece, will probably be edited upon feedback
Space IT Bridge has sent several requests for information and clarification of key features to SpaceX about its Starlink satellite broadband project, with the first request made in May 2019 after the company’s press conference prior to the launch of 60 satellites. The most recent media request was sent in September, with the same “We’ll get back to you” followed by no answers. More reliable sources of information include Elon Musk’s occasional Tweets, an occasional public speaking appearance by a SpaceX executive documented by the media, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filings unearthed by reporters such as Mark Harris, and job postings.
The issue with using SpaceX job postings to infer key details on Starlink progress is hiring could for backfilling a position where someone is departing the company. It doesn’t provide a reliable gauge of forward progress or a total number of personnel working on a project. However, hires do indicate areas where SpaceX is working and provide details and confirmations as to the company’s direction and approach on a technical and go to market level.
As previously noted in media reports, Starlink satellite design and construction appears to be taking place around Redmond (Seattle), WA with SpaceX looking for mechanical designers; senior software designers for its laser communications team; supplier development engineer for procurement; manufacturing engineer for satellites interfacing between engineering, design teams and production to “iterate on the design and ramp into the manufacturing phase”; purchasing coordinator; supply chain manager; and software engineer for Starlink Network.
The key reveal among the Redmond hires is the nascent status of optical communications crosslinks for the Starlink systems. “As a software engineer on the Starlink lasers communications team, you will be creating software that is used to design, develop, launch and operate SpaceX’s laser communication software. This initiative is a first of its kind for SpaceX and will involve building completely new technologies from scratch. No aerospace experience is required for this role, rather a proficiency in embedded C++ development and a passion for engineering – this is a perfect match for someone who enjoys R&D work, solving hard problems, and isn’t afraid of ambiguous problems,” states the job posting.
Optical-crosslinks onboard satellites were an early technology emphasis for Starlink, providing “faster than fiber” speeds by relaying data between satellites overhead rather than having in part to use ground stations and fiber for moving information around. In SpaceX May 2019 press conference, Musk said optical cross-links had been removed from the initial generation of satellites and would be rolled back in on a future iteration.
Discussions with other LEO satellite broadband firms have indicated optical cross-link hardware has not reached the production and price points necessary to make it a near-term viable option, but the technology is expected to be integral to Telesat and LeoSat satellites when they expect to start launching in 2021.
Is SpaceX bound by the same supply and maturity limitations as the rest of the industry? It is unlikely Starlink will introduce optical cross-links until mid-2020 at the bleeding-edge earliest with late 2020 or early 2021 a more reasonable arrival date.
While a lot of Starlink work is taking place in Redmond, WA, a surge of activities appears to be taking place in and around the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne (Los Angeles) CA. The company is looking for a Senior FPGA engineer and a separate FPGA engineer to work at facilities in Irvine, CA. Few other details are listed in the job postings, but work would presumably be around parts for an electronically steerable flat-panel antenna.
The majority of job listing based in Hawthorne are around the construction and production of the Starlink user terminal and customer facing service organizations, plus a few executive sales personnel.
Building a satellite user terminal in house is a path service companies rarely do on their own, instead working with an established ecosystem of vendors and suppliers to provide equipment. SpaceX has a number of positions they need to fill to build end-user equipment, including an RF test engineer; manufacturing engineer; SMT process engineer; manufacturing specialist and a couple of software engineers to “Write high quality structured bare metal and Linux-based software for embedded processors (e.g. ARM, PowerPC, x86, etc.)” and “Develop solutions to bridge the gap between OS platform software, flight software, antenna software, and modem software.” In addition, there’s an opening for a senior software engineer for “Starlink Mobile” to write and certify mobile apps and the company’s mobile portal to manage accounts and Internet access.
Job listings for the satellite user terminal talk about deploying “millions of devices,” “that will sit in our customers’ homes” and “high volume consumer electronics for communicating with our satellites,” indicating mass production of end-user hardware is planned. However, the hardware hasn’t been built, much less piloted and the software seems to be in a similar to-be-written state.
Both the SMT process engineer and manufacturing specialist are tasked with building a pilot line for the User Terminal that will “eventually ramp to full scale production” for those millions of devices. SpaceX FCC filings call for, depending on what the final FCC configuration is permitted and how fast it can put satellite into orbit, offering service to at least the Northern United States by the end of 2020 and perhaps all of the U.S. by 2020, with the entire world available for service in 2021.
User Terminals would have to be piloted quickly, within the first half of 2020, to ramp to full scale production by the end of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021, assuming no major issues with hiring, the pilot User Terminal build line, and scaling according, along with no problems with the orbital network.
Elon Musk has previously stated providing a $250ish user terminal to customers that could be easily shipped and self-installed in a best-case scenario, but this figure is likely an aspirational goal after one or more full years of production; alternatively, Starlink could subsidize/underwrite terminal hardware costs through recurring service fees or lease the equipment as a part of the month service cost.
Perhaps the two most important hires Starlink is looking to fill from an operational standpoint are the Director of Starlink Network Operations and the Head of Starlink Customer Support and Field Service Operations. The Director of Network Operations (DNO) is in charge of keeping Starlink broadband service up and running on a global scale, with responsibility for networks, user-facing software (all the guys to be hired above), and service.
“The director will need to be both technical and strategic, with the ability to scale systems and operations with a focus on automation and innovation,” says the job description, with DNO responsible overall 24×7 operations from customer equipment (the aforementioned User Terminal) connecting to the constellation, terrestrial connections, and peering and handoff to the rest of the internet. The position will be in charge of measuring and maintaining the uptime and performance of the network along with measuring and maintaining service level agreements (SLA), plus support the implementation and growth/scale to the network – keep in mind, the initial deployment of 1,400 or so satellites could sale up to 12,000 or more – the latest SpaceX ITU filings requested permits for up to an additional 30,000 (!) satellites.
DNO has his/her/they work cut out for them, but the Head of Global Customer Support and Field Service Operations won’t be a walk in the park, either. The position reports directly to the Vice President of Starlink and Commercial Sales and will have to build a customer service team from scratch, including processes and procedures for initial deployment and setup through training and troubleshooting. This team “may relocate as needs demand.”
Responsibilities include establishing call center operations and online customer platforms, hiring and developing a “foundational” team of customer support managers, establishing training programs for customer support representatives and managers to ensure consistent brand voice, positioning and revolution, and establishing a field support strategy.
The phrase “Field Service Operations” implies technicians driving out to a customer site to install equipment while Musk has suggested the gear is easy enough to install that it can simply be shipped to a customer site and setup in a short time. Enterprise and other high-value customers will most likely require technicians to install and service equipment, but it isn’t clear how or if Starlink plans to do installations down to the home/consumer level. If Starlink does do installations at the home/consumer level, it isn’t clear if the company plans to train and own its own installation group a la the solar panel group at Tesla or to contract this out – maybe to someone like Tesla’s solar panel group. Regardless, “truck rolls” are expensive and the farther out you go into rural areas, the more expensive the truck roll gets.
Finally, no large-scale service organization build is complete without some sales executive. The Director of Enterprise Sales would “lead the charge on one or more enterprise verticals,” partnering with technical teams to respond to specific customer needs. Verticals on the radar include the usual suspects, plus a curve ball – maritime, aviation, telecom, energy, oil and gas (which is also energy, SpaceX), mobile and foreign governments. Selling satellite gear to foreign governments could be challenging given issues with ITAR and general technology.
Enterprise Sales would be expected to spend a “minimum of 50% travel” in support of a designed sales vertical and would also “represent SpaceX in various forums and impart detailed information about SpaceX.”
Director of Government Sales, the other executive position, requires a top secret clearance, so work with the U.S. military is the minimum expectation along with responding to the usual government RFPs and other solicitations. There’s also the requirement to “shape customer opportunities to fit Starlink product offerings” as well as representing SpaceX at various forums.