It might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but Starlink, the much-hyped satellite internet service from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is well on its way to creating a global network capable of beaming internet connectivity almost anywhere on the planet, including the most isolated regions of Latin America.
Last week a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a new fleet of 60 Starlink internet satellites into low-earth orbit, bringing the company’s total number of satellites to 1,325, well on its way to the initial goal of having 1,440 satellites orbiting the Earth. But that’s just the start. SpaceX has permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch as many as 30,000 satellites, with an option to deploy even more in the future.
Starlink began beta testing the new service last October in selected remote and rural regions of the United States, where it has been met with much enthusiasm. Since then more than 10,000 users across the U.S. and five other countries have received access. Expanding services to Latin America’s 450 million+ internet users (and growing) is next on Starlink’s list.
As of this spring, the company is licensed to operate in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. Chile is projected to be the first country in Latin America to receive the new satellite internet services by mid-2021. Starlink began accepting pre-registrations for service in these first five LatAm countries in February, but more satellites must be launched and ground equipment must be installed locally before the network is fully operational later this year.
Why is Starlink coming to Latin America?
The arrival of Starlink is welcome news for many communities and isolated regions that suffer from limited to no access to traditional broadband options, creating a digital divide that’s only been amplified by the demands of remote work, learning, and e-commerce during the pandemic.
Although the region’s residential fixed broadband subscriber base is projected to expand by 5.6% to 91.1 million in 2021, a whopping 56% of households in Latin America and the Caribbean still don’t have access to fixed broadband internet, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Mobile internet access doesn’t fully close that gap either, said Diego Canabarro, senior regional policy manager for Latin America and the Caribbean who works with the Internet Society, a global nonprofit organization focused on Internet policy, technology, and development. “93% of the region is covered by mobile internet broadband, [which] means that 7% of the population does not get any sort of signal whatsoever. From a public-policy perspective, that might sound good, but 7% of the population is around 45 million people.”
Aptly named the “Better than Nothing” beta, Starlink’s goal is to provide fast, reliable internet service to areas of the world that can’t be reached by traditional technologies wherever a clear line of sight to the satellite array can be established. The company is actively seeking regulatory approval to deploy its services in cars, trucks, boats, and airplanes in the near future.
Although there are some satellite internet providers already serving Latin America, Starlink’s main advantage over its competitors is the use of flat-panel, low-earth-orbit satellites that are 60 times closer to the planet than the ones used by other providers such as EchoStar-owned HughesNet. This proximity directly impacts data latency and reduces the time it takes a signal to travel from internet-connected device(s) to the server, or vice versa. The tradeoff, however, is that these satellites are clearly visible in the night sky, which has astronomers and scientists concerned about their impact, especially after the path of comet NEOWISE was recently overshadowed by them.
Starlink is claiming a 50–150 Mbps data transfer rate with a latency of 20–40 milliseconds, and so far, the service appears to be delivering on its promise. Current beta users are reporting 80Mbps to 150Mbps in download speeds and about 30Mbps in upload speeds, with a latency of around 30 milliseconds, which is similar to traditional fixed internet. During the rollout phase, Starlink cautions that there will be brief periods of no connectivity at all, but latency and uptime will continue to improve as the company continues to launch more satellites, install ground stations and improve its software.
The Internet Society collaborates with marginalized communities across the globe to establish local, community-based internet infrastructure in places that wouldn’t otherwise have access. Many of those locations are simply too small or isolated to be worth the effort for cable, fiber, or mobile internet providers to bring services to them, but Starlink would eliminate most, if not all, of those headaches, said Christian O’Flaherty, the Internet Society’s regional vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Making the internet accessible to everyone who wants it isn’t just an issue for remote areas. There are underserved communities in many cities too, and other public policy and infrastructure issues that need to be addressed to improve internet equity. According to GSMA Intelligence data, around 38% of the region’s population covered but not yet using mobile internet face barriers other than coverage – particularly the high cost of internet devices and services relative to the earnings of consumers in the lowest income brackets.
“With the pandemic, it became evident that building the internet from the center of the infrastructure to the margins has limitations because governmental resources are scarce, and businesses don’t always have the incentive to go the final mile. Also, the way that the whole telecommunication regulatory framework was structured in the last century took geography for granted. I live in São Paulo, Brazil and in my neighborhood, you only get one of the top five internet service providers because the whole incentive structure allows them to segment their activities in areas of interest. So what we also need is a way of rethinking these regulatory models and public-policy frameworks…to enable current internet-related technologies to be used in a wiser way,” Canabarro said.
Can Starlink change the game?
Starlink won’t be the most affordable solution to this problem, but it is a potential game-changer for businesses and consumers who have few other connectivity options. The company is currently pre-registering customers on its website with a $99 refundable deposit. The service also requires the purchase of a Starlink hardware kit, which costs $499 plus shipping. After that investment, the service costs $99 a month – a price well above the average in Brazil, even for satellite services.
In 2020, a survey by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) showed that the average cost of fixed internet to the final consumer in the country is $29.17, and that of mobile internet, for a 1.5 GB franchise, is $7.43. When it comes to satellite internet services, there is no consolidated report about it because there are still a few of them operating in Brazil. Among those already available, HughesNet’s initial plan cost is BRL 159,90 ($28) per month, and Viasat‘s BRL 199 ($35) – both of them are already preparing for the arrival of Starlink. Globalstar, another player in the country, does not disclose its prices on its website.
No pricing has been announced for the post-beta phase, but Starlink has suggested that it will be considerably lower than its current price.