Simultaneous users from the same location could seriously limit the service’s speed, as well as discouraging traditional operators from expanding their coverage

A blog post from a researcher at the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC), the regional Internet address registry for the Asia-Pacific region, has noted that Space X’s Starlink constellation and other low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites could come with a catch. 

Over the past year, Elon Musk’s Starlink constellation has been incrementally launching numerous devices into orbit, with the ultimate goal of using around 30,000 satellites to provide broadband connectivity to hard-to-reach areas around the world. 

The concept is simple enough. LEO satellites overcome the traditional limitations of satellite connectivity by being nearer to the earth, orbiting at heights of around 550km overhead, versus a traditional geosynchronous Earth orbit at around 35,000km. This enormous difference in distance has a major impact on latency, helping to deliver connectivity similar to fibre in some cases. In February, Starlink was advertising data speeds of 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms, with Musk promising that the project will double its available speeds by 2022.

In his blog post, APNIC’s George Michaelson agrees that the speeds are impressive, but raises concerns about their ability to deliver quality service once uptake increases, especially beyond rural areas.

“The bandwidth provided by these LEO satellites is really very good… for now. Starlink, unfortunately, runs the risk of being a victim of its own success,” he said.

Michaelson pointed out that while the bandwidth of Starlink’s service is impressive, it will have to be shared between other customers in your location also using the service simultaneously.

“The more people who take up service in your location, and take a beam from the LEO system at the same time as you, in the same place as you, the more it has to be chopped up into smaller units to share out. This is called ‘multiplexing’ and the only fair outcome in the end is for roughly equal shares,” he explained. “So, if you get 100mbit throughput now, by the time five of your neighbours come on stream, it probably won’t be 100mbit any more. It might still peak at 100, but it may also only be 25.”

This means that service in truly remote areas will be very good, but quality will suffer in areas with more simultaneous users, such as in suburban outskirts where Starlink is being adopted due to poor coverage by traditional operators. This uptake of Starlink services on the fringes of existing broadband deployments are already taking place in Australia and New Zealand, notes Michaelson.

Ultimately, this not only means that the service customers in these areas receive will be worse, but it will also discourage existing operators from deploying infrastructure in these fringe areas. In turn, this will force more people towards Starlink, thus further lowering its quality.

“It’s a catch-22,” said Michaelson. “The capital investment needed to bring terrestrial broadband to your door may not arrive because it may be assumed you have good enough bandwidth from the LEO satellite. In which case, lacking broadband, more people in this fringe area would sign up to get Starlink, thus making it slower.”

As the technology related to satellite connectivity continues to advance, it is quickly changing from a novelty reserved for exceedingly rural customers to a much more practical solution for wider use. Nonetheless, serious challenges remain, and the industry must be careful to avoid slipping into vicious cycles that could see customers suffer for years to come.


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