The technological leaps forward represented by Starlink sound fantastically impressive… propulsion landings… the krypton ion-thrusters and control momentum gyroscopes… attitudinal positioning systems and autonomous debris avoidance… silicon carbide lasers… light-pulse data transmission… I can’t pretend to understand much of it on a technical level. In any case I’m more interested in the impacts — technological, societal, environmental, even philosophical — which will without question be profound.
And the motivations. With investment in the billions of dollars and the extraordinary levels of problem-solving ingenuity being applied, the objectives of the Starlink project must indeed be far-reaching.
The company’s website talks only about meeting the needs of consumers. At the end of 2019, more than half the world’s population remained offline. Starlink terminals will be vastly cheaper than the competition, around $200 as compared with Kimeta’s $30,000 receiver-dish. (Still out of the reach of a subsistence farmer in the Third World, of course.)
Starlink will create ‘a global network unbounded by ground infrastructure limitations’, to ‘deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable.’ The powerful phased-array transmitters and lasers mounted on each satellite will bring fast, reliable broadband internet to populations with little or no connectivity virtually anywhere on the planet, even the most isolated areas, as well as low latency connectivity to already well-connected cities, though Musk has said that population centres are not his primary market.
Billions of dollars of investment. The unprecedented scale of the project. 42,000 satellites, in three orbital shells. And all to bring internet to deprived rural populations? It seems a very modest aim for such a spectacular project. Where’s the pay-off?
“There is significant unmet demand,” says Elon Musk.
OK. My question would be — demand from where? Third World peasants, whose significant unmet demands might also include water, sanitation, food, electricity, medicines, peace, life-expectancy?
Or from somewhere else?
As well as abundant bandwidth and global coverage, the system also offers another crucial advantage over terrestrial systems — low latency. The unique features of Starlink are designed to shave vital milliseconds from the latency of existing systems, and these fractional economies will be decisive for high frequency traders, offering total domination of the markets.
That’s where Elon Musk and SpaceX will make their billions back, many times over — from premium subscriptions paid by algorithmic traders.
So that’s the motherlode.
And is that it? Do our questions stop there, as soon as we hit the profit-motive?
Is money a sufficient motive for the drive to connect every human being on the planet?
The fact that it’s always about money that doesn’t mean that it’s only about money.