Starlink's reach won’t be enough to solve rural broadband dilemma — Farrar

Tim Farrar Industry Voices

Starlink began initial commercial operations in late October 2021 but still faces many challenges in order to provide a robust commercial service, and ultimately to become financially sustainable so that potential customers can rely on it in the longer term. Even Elon Musk acknowledged in a November 26 email to SpaceX staff that “Satellite V1 by itself is financially weak” and it will be necessary to complete development of the new Starship rocket in order to launch the V2 second generation constellation (of a proposed 30,000 satellites) and “handle the bandwidth demand” that would be generated by selling “several million” terminals per year.

Importantly, some of the technical limitations of the Starlink service mean that it will never be possible to rely solely on Starlink to provide universal service outside the range of terrestrial broadband solutions. One particular challenge for LEO satellites is that they move across the sky, unlike a GEO satellite which is in a fixed position relative to the user on the ground. This means that dropouts can be expected if the satellite that is providing service to a given user moves behind a tree or a building.

Starlink has chosen to use a very low 25-degree minimum elevation angle (reduced from its originally planned 40-degree minimum as a result of the system modification granted by the FCC in April 2021) for both the first (V1) and second generation (V2) constellations. Starlink’s own presentation (PDF) to the FCC in August 2021 indicated that as a result, in many parts of the U.S., the serving satellite will now be below 40 degrees elevation angle approximately half the time, increasing the likelihood of blockage from obstructions anywhere on the northeast, north or northwest side of the customer’s house.

When the satellite providing service to a given customer is positioned lower in the sky, it is more likely to be obstructed by a tree or building. This is particularly problematic for LEO satellites because this satellite is not simply in one fixed direction, where trimming of a tree or relocation of the antenna to a different spot on the roof may be able to solve the problem. Instead the serving satellite will sometimes be to the north, and at other times it may be on the west or east side of a customer’s home. In these circumstances there may be no unobstructed site for the antenna on the customer’s property.

These dropouts due to blockage were a major source of frustration to reviewers, such as The Verge in May 2021, which noted that the service would likely be obstructed for about two hours per day and concluded that “Starlink, judged on its capabilities right now, is simply not a real competitor to the long, long coax wire running from my house to the local cable company fiber plant. It’s not even a great competitor to my data-capped-and-throttled “unlimited” AT&T 5G service because I can reasonably work from home on that connection and I really can’t with Starlink.” As a result, users have been forced to take drastic measures, including trimming trees and mounting the antenna on a long pole at up to 100 feet above ground level.

Secondly, Starlink is capacity limited in many more densely populated parts of the country and this problem cannot be solved simply by adding more satellites to the constellation, because of regulatory limits on the amount of spectrum re-use that Starlink is permitted to make, so as to restrict the amount of interference that the system produces. The FCC’s recent order in respect of Starlink’s new terminal noted in the conditions of approval that “Operations are subject to the condition that SpaceX not use more than one satellite beam from any of its satellites in the same frequency in the same or overlapping areas at a time.”

Because there is only a finite amount of spectrum available to LEO broadband systems such as Starlink (which must be shared with other LEO systems within the U.S., according to FCC rules), only a limited amount of capacity can be delivered to users in a given area, regardless of the number of Starlink satellites in the sky.

It is therefore far from clear that Starlink will be capable of serving a comparable number of customers to Viasat and Hughes (i.e. in excess of 500K subscribers), let alone a significant proportion of the millions of homes in the U.S. that currently lack terrestrial broadband, in the medium term.

Overall, while Starlink represents an admirable first attempt to develop a LEO broadband system and bring more choices to rural U.S. consumers, it cannot and will not become the only option for satellite broadband in the U.S. or around the world, because in many areas at least some potential customers will be unable to access Starlink, due to capacity limitations and/or the difficulty of securing a reliable line-of-sight to the constellation.

Tim Farrar has over 25 years of experience across the telecom and satellite industries, having worked for leading consulting firms in both the U.K. and U.S. In 2002, Tim founded his own consulting company, TMF Associates, based in Menlo Park, California, which has supported numerous operators, suppliers and investors, on market and technical analysis, business planning and due diligence assignments. He was president of the Mobile Satellite Users Association from 2006 to 2015 and since 2016 has been an independent director of Marlink, the largest independent distributor of satellite services.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.