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Analyst: “Starlink will have limitations”

September 30, 2020

By Chris Forrester

Financial analysts from consultancy firm Cowan have looked at the prospects for Elon Musk’s Starlink mega constellation and the claims that Starlink could serve 485,000 users simultaneously with 100 Mb/s broadband service.

It also emerged in a Tweet from Musk that an IPO for the Starlink project is under consideration “but several years in the future”.

Musk said: “Public market does *not* like erratic cash flow haha. I’m a huge fan of small retail investors. Will make sure they get top priority. You can hold me to it.”

SpaceX cancelled its planned 13th flight of Starlink satellites on September 28th because of bad weather. It will likely take place in few days and add another 60 satellites taking the total to more than 770 craft.

SpaceX is already beta-testing its system amongst ‘friends and family’ users but will reportedly open up the beta trial to a wider universe in November, and to be followed by an initial commercial service this coming winter.

Beta testers are enjoying claimed download speeds of “greater than 100 Mb/s” and latency of an impressive 18-19 milliseconds although admitting that a round trip for a message is closer to 40-50 milliseconds.

But Cowan’s analysis admits that “each satellite in the SpaceX system provides aggregate downlink capacity to users ranging from 17 to 23 Gbit/s” (1Gbps = 1000Mb/s+)”  the analysts suggest that each of the Starlink satellites could manage 200 simultaneous users at 100 Mbit/s.

Cowan explains itself, saying: “Thus, assuming 100 per cent efficiency (not realistic, but we are simply providing context as a high book-end), and assuming 20Gbit/s per satellite implies that each satellite can handle 200 simultaneous streams at 100 Mbit/s.”

Of course, not every user will be online at the same time, nor will they all demand 100 MB/s of throughput. This allows ‘oversubscription’, with a three-times oversubscribed number of users equalling around 1.5 million addressable users.

Cowan makes its key point in saying that even the Starlink system will have obvious limitations. Starlink itself will have to balance access to their orbiting network, perhaps by pricing or data limits.

It is also worth remembering that even Musk has admitted that Starlink has its technology – and perhaps administrative – limits.

“Starlink is not some huge threat to telcos. I want to be super clear: it is not,” Musk said earlier this year. “5G is great for high density situations, but it’s actually not great for the countryside, you know, for rural areas. It’s not great; you need range. And so in any kind of sparse environment 5G is really not well suited.”

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