For those who don’t know, Starlink is a project being developed by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company. The goal of the endeavour is to grid the planet with thousands of orbiting satellites, which together, can provide very fast internet to any location on the globe (except Antarctica). All you would need on the ground is a 500$ antenna and router to capture the information from the satellites. The obvious benefit of such an internet is the ability to connect the most remote locations on the globe with a relatively minuscule investment. Currently, this can only be achieved thanks to underground, and even underwater cables.
Starlink just ran a public Beta to test their system. SpaceX has been launching their satellites since 2016, and has approximately 800 in orbit. It is still years away from having a complete grid around the earth. Nevertheless, having invited volunteers to use the Starlink internet in many parts of the USA, Starlink achieved download speeds of up to 174 Mbps. Why is SpaceX doing this? Revenue. Musk has repeatedly stated that the purpose of SpaceX is to get humanity to Mars, and has vowed to not take the company public until the goal is achieved. Starlink could be of enormous benefit for the world, and it would consequently bring enormous revenue to SpaceX. The future is uncertain, but optimistic sources estimate the revenue that such a communication system could bring at twice NASA’s current budget. Starlink might just finance Earth’s first Mars Mission.
If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised to find out that the internet does not exist in the air. The internet exists in server rooms around the globe that are connected to one another through extremely long wires placed at the bottom of the oceans and beneath our feet. When we get wifi, it is that we are at a point on this grid of wires, that emits the signal wirelessly over a very small area. Even when we use data on our phones, the phone service is provided by giant towers which are themselves connected to the grid. I’ve often marvelled at the fact that we managed to cover then entire globe with roads so that we could drive our cars really fast, but a far more impressive achievement is the fact that we have, since the invention of the telegraph, been wiring one part of the world to the next.
However impressive this grid of wires that allows us all to communicate with one another instantaneously, it is old technology. Sure, some of the new fiber optic wires are very interesting in their own right, but we’ve been laying wires between continents since 1850. Perhaps it is time that we create another layer of communication, up among the stars.
I leave you with one of my favorite quotes, from the 1850s. ”The laying of the telegraph cable is regarded, and most justly, as the greatest event in the present century; now the great work is complete, the whole earth will be belted with electric current, palpitating with human thoughts and emotions. It shows that nothing is impossible to man.” (Briggs and Maverick, The Story of the Telegraph, 1858). I have never seen such poetry or pride in writings about the internet, but it is a far greater achievement than the telegraph. And there is more to come.