People in rural areas of the UK have revealed what it is like to use Elon Musk’s satellite broadband service after struggling with poor connectivity.
Musk’s SpaceX company has already launched more than 1,000 satellites into Earth’s orbit as part of its Starlink programme, which aims to beam high-speed internet to those left behind by traditional cable-based providers.
But this is just the beginning of the project – Musk reportedly wants to have tens of thousands of his satellites in space eventually, enabling a seamless connection for all users.
Early testing of Starlink was recently opened up to UK residents desperate for a better connection in certain parts of the country, while other areas have been told to expect coverage arriving sometime in mid to late 2021.
Aaron Wilkes, who lives in Bredgar, Kent, told the PA news agency his household’s fixed line should achieve about 20 megabits per second (Mbps) – significantly less than the 71.8Mbps national average reported by Ofcom for May 2020 – but he said the service often lagged between 0.5 and 1Mbps. Such speeds made it almost impossible to stream Netflix or download large video games.
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Using Starlink, he receives an average of 175Mbps, and up to 215Mbps, meaning games can be downloaded in little over an hour.
“The ability to be able to download content so quickly compared to our standard BT line is amazing,” said Wilkes.
However, it does not come cheap, at £439 for the hardware and a monthly cost of £89. Plus, there are planned outages due to the limited number of satellites and the fact that Starlink is still in early testing. But those who have suffered with sluggish internet say it is a price worth paying.
Martin Langmaid set up his mother’s home near the Devon village of Dunsford with Starlink because she needed it to run her businesses.
“She moved into the countryside to be nearer to my brother, who is a farmer,” he told PA. “Modern-day business requires internet, you can’t get away from it, so that’s what she needed.
“If you need connectivity to run a business and if you need connectivity for communication, particularly in COVID times, £90 a month is quite justifiable.”
However, he said they are using a mix of Starlink and 4G, as the satellite outages have an impact on real-time tasks like video conferencing.
“I think a lot of people will do something similar, where they will leave their DSL [digital subscriber line] in place at the moment or have 4G, combine it with Starlink, and, once Starlink has the capacity there, the outages should ultimately disappear once the coverage is in place, then that’s when I think people start cancelling things like DSL and 4G dongles,” Langmaid told PA.
Wilkes, on the other hand, is waiting for his landline contract to end so he can cancel it completely. “I’ve not touched it [the fixed line]; everything has been switched over – Sky TV, all the Alexas, phones, tablets, are all now over on Starlink,” he said.
“The interesting thing is, over the months I’ve had it I’ve gone from having 127 minutes of downtime, probably down to about four to five minutes a day now. And that’s usually overnight when they’re doing updates so you don’t even see it.”
Musk said on Tuesday 22 February that he expects Starlink’s speed to double to around 300Mbps and coverage for “most of Earth” by the end of the year, followed by “all” in 2022.
Existing providers seem to be considering satellite as a possible answer for rural areas too, with BT in early talks with Government-backed satellite firm OneWeb.
Ofcom believes that around 190,000 premises are unable to receive a decent broadband service.
Could a solar storm take down the internet?
Billions of tonnes of magnetised plasma are periodically ejected into space by the Sun’s churning convection currents in the upper layers of its atmosphere. These ‘coronal mass ejections’ (CMEs) travel at speeds of up to 11,000,000 kilometres per hour, and the Sun can fire off as many as 20 per week, depending on where it is in its 11-year activity cycle.
Although CMEs are common, they are launched in a narrow arc, and the chances of a large one hitting the Earth are relatively low. We had a near miss in 2012, but the last big strike was in 1859, before society became reliant on electricity.
If a CME on a similar scale was to strike the Earth today, it could damage the electronics in orbiting satellites, disrupting navigation and communications systems, as well as the GPS time synchronisation that the internet relies on to function. It would also create a surge of electromagnetic radiation in the atmosphere, causing huge currents in our power grids which could burn out electrical transformers, leading to length outages.
Without power, society itself would grind to a halt – not just the internet. But this is a worst-case scenario. Scientists monitoring the Sun would be able to give us a couple of days’ warning of a dangerous CME, and in that time, vulnerable satellites could be shut down temporarily, and power grids reconfigured, in order to limit the disruption.