By now, most will associate the firm Starlink with its business of providing internet services to people in places where there previously has been no connection of any sort. To date, it has launched some 3,000 desk-sized satellites for this purpose (the white dots in the image below), and the popular conception is that anyone with one of the firm’s antennae will have access to the internet on the same footing as people living in built-up areas. The reality, as the firm’s recent arrival in Antarctica shows, is somewhat more down-to-earth.
Firstly, this is because, even if you are on a satellite network, you still need ground infrastructure to be able to connect to the internet. Often overlooked in discussions about Starlink’s promise for some of the remotest communities is that the technology requires a user to be within 800km of one of its ground stations. Currently, most of Starlink’s ground stations are located in North America and Europe, and other parts of the world where there is a market for its $110 (€110) a month service. In the image below (an interactive version of which can be found at satellitemap.space) the green hexagons indicate where Starlink is available. Ironically, they correlate closely with built-up areas.
Because of this, bringing Starlink’s services to more users has required building more ground stations. Now, though, new technology being added to the firm’s latest class of satellites should allow it to expand its service without greatly increasing the number of ground stations it needs by allowing the satellites to send information back and forth to each other. For users, this means that if the satellite that your antenna is communicating with can’t find a ground station near where you are (or if there is no station near where you are) the satellite will use a laser to beam your signal another satellite that can.
It is precisely this technology that the company says it began using this month to be able to provide service to McMurdo Station, an American research facility in Antarctica. Until the service was turned on, the 1,000 or so people the station houses during the summer had a single, shared 17Mbs connection. (By way of comparison, the FCC, America’s electronic communications regulator, currently defines “good” internet as 25Mbs for a home with up to four devices that are on-line at the same time — though it is considering revising this to 100Mbs.)
The speed of the Antarctic Starlink connection has not been disclosed, but the firm’s antennae (indicated by the arrow in the picture above) are capable of processing between 50Mbs and 200Mbs. That is not a huge improvement — and, indeed, proposed subsea cables to Antarctica, including one to McMurdo Station, would provide speeds of at least 100Gbs (or 100,000Mbs) — but it is, to use a Starlink turn of phrase, better than nothing and it is a lot easier to install antennae than it is to lay subsea cables. Though Starlink connection will still probably be inadequate for the scientists working at McMurdo Station to FaceTime with the family back home, the extra bandwidth will make their work a little easier.
During the winter, fewer people will mean less competition for bandwidth, but, the 200 or so people who remain at McMurdo Station should be careful not to get their hopes up: Starlink’s standard kit is rated only to -30˚C, a temperature that is not uncommon there (the winter daily average is below -20˚C). A more rugged version unveiled earlier in the year is designed to be able to stand up to an Antarctic winter. If that can connect them then and there, then maybe Starlink really can connect anyone anywhere.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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