But the goal is bigger: to offer Internet connectivity to all Earthlings, wherever they are on the planet. For this, Elon Musk launched a constellation of thousands of small satellites of 250 kg each, which rotate in a circular orbit 550 kilometers from the earth’s surface. This low-orbit technology, called “LEO”, provides connectivity comparable to 4G or ADSL. Starlink guarantees at least 100 megabits per second. More importantly, proximity to Earth reduces latency, i.e. the time it takes for data to make a round trip between the satellite and the user. An advantage over large satellites, or “GEOs”, placed in geostationary orbit at 36,000 kilometers from Earth.
A subsidiary of SpaceX, the world leader in space missions, the Starlink company has another major advantage: it operates in an integrated manner. While its historical competitors outsourced the production and launch of satellites and distributed their bandwidth through operators, Starlink controls everything: the production of satellites, their launch, provided by SpaceX, directly distribution to the general public. “This system allows Starlink to have the best launch prices in the market”, observes a competitor.
Ahead of the competition
“From a technical point of view, the execution is impeccable: the launchers are very good, the satellites produced in series, the service meets expectations”, welcomes Pierre Lionnet, director of research at Eurospace , the association that brings together European industrialists. Getting a subscription is done in four clicks on the site. Upon receipt of the Starlink kit, it only takes a few minutes to install. The antenna connects automatically, if the sky is clear. With 3,000 satellites launched, Elon Musk’s company leads its two main competitors in low orbit: OneWeb, in the process of merging with Eutelsat, which has 428 satellites in orbit, and Kuiper, Jeff Bezos’ project, which does not t throw away anything.
Eventually, Elon Musk aims for a global market with a constellation of 42,000 satellites covering areas with little or no service from operators, excluding China, which has prevented access to him, and countries under US sanctions (see map). Growing by 15% per year, this market should weigh between 4 and 5 billion euros in 2030, calculated by the French operator Eutelsat. In this context, “there will be a lot of room for the LEO solution from Starlink and OneWeb and the best GEO solutions”, estimates its deputy general manager, Michel Azibert.
About 700,000 people are already subscribers, mostly in the United States, for 50 euros per month and the purchase of equipment for 480 euros. And the service is already a victim of its own success: in some places, too many users are slowing the flow, angering historic customers. Hence the need for Starlink, which is targeting 12,000 satellites in its first phase, to increase its capacity and find growth drivers in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.
In France, where marketing begins, the service has already covered 6,500 people. American faces Nordnet, Orange’s subsidiary, which distributes Eutelsat’s satellite offer. “Our offer also includes TV channels, press and technical assistance,” underlined Christophe Outier, Deputy Managing Director of Nordnet.
Starlink also tackles mobility, with an offer for owners of boats and motorhomes. Small flat, in case of heavy traffic, priority is given to residential subscribers. The company is also positioning itself in the appropriate emergency service: from next year, T-Mobile subscribers will benefit from a satellite connection in white areas, from a standard mobile phone.
“Limited for the moment to low-speed use, it is interesting for emergencies, for people in places without cover – mountaineers, navigators…”, deciphers Stéphane Piot, analyst at the Mason firm. At this point, Star-link will face Apple, which has reserved GlobalStar satellites so that iPhone 14 owners can join the rescue.
Lack of transparency
Starlink is enticing, but at what price? He did not disclose the cost of manufacturing his satellites and antennas, or the price paid for the launches, but the entire industry suspected him of selling at a loss. “No LEO constellation has proven its profitability,” recalls Pierre Lion-net. A weakness underlined by the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes), in a note sent in May to the telecom police. “Arcep should ask Starlink to at least establish transparency in its economic model and make transparent the availability and the level of reduction in relation to the cost price it provides when it sells the kit”, warned Cnes. Starlink charges $499 for hardware that costs $1,500, the magazine revealed Business Insider.
In a 2021 analysis, the Morgan Stanley bank estimated that the constellation would be worth 240 billion dollars, and reach profitability in 2030. A scenario based on highly optimistic economic assumptions, emphasizes Pierre Lionnet. And Musk is counting on those profits to settle on Mars.
A Starlink satellite. A thousand small satellites of 250 kg each form a constellation, revolving in an orbit 550 kilometers from the earth’s surface.
A landfill in orbit
On March 4, 2022, an object created a new crater on the Moon by crashing into it, suspicion fell on Starlink. Finally acquitted, the operator is at the heart of a concern shared by all the experts, who see the space turning into a dump. There are 23,000 pieces of debris ranging from a few centimeters to a meter in diameter and 150 million pieces larger than one millimeter. Mega-constellations will make matters worse: Starlink plans to send nearly 40,000 satellites into space. With a lifespan of five years, its engines are, of course, designed to break up on re-entry into the atmosphere. But the risk of collision is increasing. In 2021, a OneWeb satellite nearly hit a Starlink vehicle, but was still equipped with an anti-collision system. The reentry of satellites into the atmosphere also poses an environmental problem: by disintegrating, they risk changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere.