After its race with OneWeb to cover the North Pole and other Arctic areas with satellite internet, SpaceX has made it to the other extreme: the National Science Foundation (or NSF) is testing out one of its Starlink terminals at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The NSF says the increased bandwidth will help scientists working on the remote continent near the South Pole.
McMurdo, the most heavily populated Antarctic station, according to the NSF, with over 1,000 people living and working there during the summer, already had satellite internet, but it was rough, to say the least. Everyone at the base shares a 17 Mbps link, according to the United States Antarctic Program, which severely limits what people can do. The station actually blocks people from using high-bandwidth apps like Netflix, cloud backups, and video calls, with the exception of once-weekly Skype or FaceTime sessions at a public kiosk or mission-critical communications.
The addition of Starlink probably doesn’t mean that McMurdo residents will be able to hold a Netflix movie night or anything — the terminals can handle around 50-200 Mbps, which still isn’t a ton to go around, even during the winter when far fewer people are at the base — but it could help make transferring important scientific data off of the icy continent easier. NSF spokesperson Mike England said he couldn’t comment further on what exactly the system would be used for, as it’s currently in beta testing.
SpaceX retweeted the NSF, saying that Starlink was “now on all seven continents” and that its ability to operate in remote places like Antarctica is thanks to “Starlink’s space laser network.” I promise we’ll touch on the lasers in a second, but I do have to quibble with the part about the continents. While Starlink has definitely made it to one more continent, looking at Starlink’s availability map, you may notice that the service is... well, not actually available in either Africa or Asia. The company is planning on launching service in at least two countries on each continent by the end of the year — Nigeria, Mozambique, Japan, and the Philippines — and its satellites may be capable of providing service there now, but at this moment, it looks like you can’t actually buy it in all seven continents.
The same is true for Starlink’s maritime service, which currently only works in coastal waters off of certain countries, limiting its use for customers like Royal Caribbean. However, the company is planning on expanding that coverage to most of the world’s oceans early next year.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the lasers because they’re part of what makes this expanding coverage possible. It used to be that if you wanted to use Starlink, you’d have to have a SpaceX ground station within a few hundred miles because a satellite had to be able to talk to your dish and the station at the same time. While the satellites’ job is still to connect Starlink terminals to the ground stations, SpaceX has been making the system more flexible by letting the satellites talk to each other — basically, if the satellite talking to your dish can’t also talk to a ground station, it’ll connect to a satellite that can, using lasers to pass data back and forth.
It’s important tech, as SpaceX hopes to massively expand its coverage in 2023 as it makes it so that the company doesn’t have to also build out dozens upon dozens of extra ground stations. Of course, there are regulatory hurdles as well; SpaceX has to license spectrum in each country that it works in, which means dealing with hundreds of regulatory agencies. It’s not just a one-time issue, either, as the fight over whether Dish can use the 12Ghz spectrum for 5G has shown.
Still, if the test in Antarctica goes well, it could help prove that SpaceX at least has the tech to cover even the most remote areas nailed down. (Plus, as I mentioned when covering a startup using Google’s tech from its balloon-based internet project, lasers are just plain cool. Throw satellites and a remote Antarctic research station in the mix, and you can’t help but root for it.)