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Starlink launch success, but data-rates warnings

October 28, 2022

SpaceX launched 53 Starlink satellites into orbit on Thursday night (October 27th, 9.14pm California time/1.14 am GMT, October 28th) from Vandenberg Space Force Base.  It was SpaceX’s 49th launch this year.

The Falcon 9’s first stage successfully landed on the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ floating barge about 9 minutes after launch. It was the eighth use of the first stage.

But Elon Musk’s Starlink concept is facing some challenges in terms of its ‘unlimited data’ offering. It now seems that for some users Starlink is warning of throttling capacity and bringing in data caps.

Users in the US and France have seen changes in Starlink’s terms of use which explains that once users have soaked up a monthly limit then they will suffer a slowdown in data rates. Starlink describes the initial allocation as “Priority Access”.

Starlink says: “Under such plan, after you have used your monthly limit of Priority Access data, you will continue to have an unlimited amount of ‘Basic Data’ for the remainder of your billing cycle,” the company’s new advice says. “With ‘Basic Data’ your access will no longer be prioritized over traffic generated by other customers during periods of network congestion.”

“In times of network congestion, users with Basic Access may experience slower speeds and reduced performance compared to Priority Access, which may result in degradation or unavailability of certain third-party services or applications,” Starlink adds, but advises that customers can add more high-speed access by paying an extra fee of $10 per 100 GB.

The fact is that Starlink is probably too successful in terms of attracting subscribers. Two months ago, Starlink executives were talking of 700,000 subscribers worldwide. French newspaper Le Monde says that there are 6,500 subs in France out of a European total of some 75,000. The newspaper says that two months ago there was a waiting list of another 700,000 subscribers globally.

Gwynne Shotwell, Starlink’s president, speaking back on September 12, admitted that the US was “full” in many of the nation, and she told journalists that there were a potential 20-30 million US users.

But to solve this problem, the Starlink service needs more satellites in space. The current 3,500 Starlinks launched are just the first stage of the company’s overall ambitions. Musk’s teams are planning 12,000 satellites with a potential later expansion to 42,000 satellites.

Starlink has also moved beyond the initial Version 1 craft and since January 2021 has been launching what it describes as Version 1.5. But Version 2.0 is being readied for launch on the much larger Starship rocket. But Starship is delayed by technical and operational challenges and consequently Starlink is building two types of Version 2.0 craft. One version has its components laid out in such a way that they could be launched in a Falcon 9 rocket, and one laid out in the 7-meter long-form factor that could only be launched on Starship. The smaller one is being planned as a backup, in the event that regular operational payload-delivery Starship launches do not occur as soon as SpaceX would like.

Importantly, these Version 2.0 satellites are significantly more powerful, with larger data capacity along with hugely efficient laser links. These will help solve both data rate problems and the slowdown in serving new subscribers.

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