To follow up on my previous blogpost, although this time through an international perspective, we continue the topic of broadband. Similarly, to Sweden, we, as a global nation as well as individual countries, are looking to expand internet access above the current 50% in the world. In addition, we are also aiming to bridge the obvious digital divide today whereas 72% have internet access in urban areas, and a mere 37% in rural areas. One of the global initiatives, and one that we will also highlight today, is the famous Elon Musk’s Space X satellite internet project called Starlink.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX that aims to provide internet access to most of the earth. However, unlike traditional satellite internet it promises speed and reliability comparable to that of fiber internet. Today it consists of over 1600 satellites in orbit and will eventually consist of many, many more mass-produced small satellites hovering in low earth orbit, ca 482 km above earth’s surface. This is unique to Starlink consider most traditional internet satellites hover around 35,405 km above earth’s surface. This factor provides alone promises to provide results comparable to fiber internet, which include high reliability, speed, and bandwidth. Furthermore, these communicate with designated transceivers based in countries that have licensed SpaceX to provide the service.
What is fiber internet?
Until the announcement of Starlink, fiber internet was the best option in the broadband internet market. Fiber-optic internet is delivered through cables made of small flexible glass strands. Traditional cable internet used copper coaxial cables to send data via electricity. Instead, fiber internet uses light pulses to transmit information. This set up results in the fast internet we know today. Recent studies also revealed that we have reached a new world speed record of 44,2 terabyte per second for fiber.
Fiber vs Satellite
Satellite internet is no new concept by any means. It has been explored several times before, but we ultimately settled with fiber in the past when comparing the pros and cons. These can be boiled down to 3 main factors to consider.
- Cost – The initial cost of course depends of size of network and deployment, but recurring costs is lower with fiber internet. The cost of fiber internet ranges from 30-70€ per month which is similar to the traditional internet cables. The price for Starlink is not set yet but indicates starting around 70€ per month. This might not seem significant but considering that we want to bridge the internet access gap, where rural areas are often also low-income areas, pricing is an important factor to consider.
- Availability and reliability – Fiber is traditionally more reliable than satellite internet. Starlinks unique low earth orbit is said to compete in reliability, but this is still tested until further notice. However, Starlink has a much better range, making it much more suitable in remote and rural areas.
- Speed – Fiber was and still is the fastest option while Starlink promises average speed of up to 10 Gbps due to the unique low earth orbit. The latency will however be similar between the two. Fiber internet has a latency of roughly 17 ms, whereas Starlink is expected to launch with a latency below 20 ms. They aim to also reach below 10 ms which is crucial in activities such as online gaming. One can only assume that with development, Starlin will reach similar speed, but only time will tell.
Considering the factors above, fiber is still the best option until further testing and deployment. It is still too early to tell if Starlink lives up to the promised claims as it is still in it’s infancy. However, if it does, it will inevitably trump in availability by providing internet access in areas that don’t have fiber internet yet such as remote areas. However, as mentioned above, pricing is a major factor to consider in remote areas, which is an advantage fiber has over Starlink. Speed is also still an advantage fiber has over satellite internet. Therefore, satellite internet is worth reassessing as a strong contender or even complement to fiber internet but only time will tell is Starlink will reach similar results.