Last night, SpaceX invited some early users to join public beta testing of its Starlink program, which aims to provide global internet coverage from space. To join the beta test, called Better Than Nothing Beta, users must purchase all of the Starlink ground equipment for $499 and then pay a $99 monthly fee for active service.
The company sent out emails to people who had signed up on SpaceX’s Starlink website to hear updates about the program. One user posted an email to Reddit last night, and CNBC later confirmed the email after seeing screenshots. The Verge also confirmed the veracity of the email with sources familiar with the matter. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the program. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
The email is brief, first detailing what beta users can expect from the initial Starlink system. “Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system,” the email reads. “There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.” SpaceX claims in the email that latency and data speeds will improve as the company launches more satellites and installs more ground stations to receive signals from the satellites. The company also notes it will continue to update its networking software and expects latency to decrease to between 16ms and 19ms by 2021.
For Starlink, SpaceX envisions launching a massive constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites into low orbits over Earth in order to beam continuous broadband internet services to the ground below. The company claims such a giant number of satellites are needed so that at least one satellite will be above any area of the globe at all times. So far, SpaceX has launched nearly 900 Starlink satellites, though a handful of the vehicles have failed in orbit, while the company has actively taken others out of orbit. Musk has said that SpaceX would need 800 satellites in space to provide “significant operational capabilities.”
To connect to the system, users will need to purchase one of SpaceX’s user terminals, which CEO Elon Musk has described as resembling a “UFO on a stick.” In the new email, SpaceX says that the user terminal, the tripod used to mount the terminal to the ground, and the Wi-Fi router together will cost $499. The email provides a link for users to order the equipment.
Additionally, SpaceX has rolled out a Starlink app that will help beta users set up their systems. Using augmented reality, the app allows users to search for areas of the sky with unobstructed views so that they can ensure their user terminals will have line of sight with satellites. The app also walks people through the setup process. The app’s description also notes that public beta testing will start with users in the United States and Canada in 2020.
Over the summer, SpaceX rolled out private beta testing of Starlink, though participants of the program had to keep quiet about it. “You may NOT discuss your participation in the Beta Program online or with those outside of your household, unless they are SpaceX employees,” the Starlink website stated, according to code found on the website. Despite the secrecy, the public got some glimpses of the system’s test speeds. Early Starlink tests done through Ookla showed average data speeds between 11 Mbps and 60 Mbps. During a launch of a batch of Starlink satellites, SpaceX claimed it had seen data speeds up to 100 Mbps. The company also claimed it had tested out “space lasers” on its satellites that would allow the vehicles to communicate with one another in space and potentially increase data sharing.
With the public beta program, things seem to be far less secretive, so it’s possible these early users may reveal more information about how SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are performing in the future.