Starlink and the Future of the Internet

By: Hayden C. Cordova | Managing Editor

Image Courtesy of Forbes.com

OPINION

Throughout 2020 and early 2021, reliance on the internet has become almost vital for many people.  Jobs, schools, and universities have all had to revamp their often subpar internet infrastructure to keep up with the massive strain, not to mention the increased casual interest in heavy internet activities such as gaming over 2020. 

With a new reliance on good bandwidth and latency to maintain a working lifestyle, college students are one of the groups most affected by this.  From meetings to classes to campus activities, nearly every aspect of students’ lives ties to reliable internet.  But depending on the area or the internet traffic, this can be incredibly difficult to access for some people.

With several attempts to improve the overall quality of the general wifi internet, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite program is one of the most popular and controversial methods to date. 

Starlink intends to raise the standard of internet quality in rural and underdeveloped areas with little wifi coverage and also cover the average consumer.  Composed of a series of over 1,000 satellites in various layers of orbit currently, Starlink would be independent of grounded infrastructure and be able to access any compatible dish terminal. 

Insider reported that in the public beta testing period, Starlink user’s download speeds were consistently hitting 150 megabytes per second (mbps).  According to ZDNet, SpaceX plans to increase that speed to 300mbps sometime in 2021.  For comparison, according to BroadBandNow, the city of Mobile currently has an average download speed of 88.1 mbps.

However, Starlink has already brought a stir of controversy and concerns to the forefront, namely the environmental impact.  In a Phys.org article, Roland Lehoucq and François Graner stated that “whatever the potential benefits of such a system, one of the disastrous consequences would be light pollution.  As they traveled across the skies, thousands of Starlink satellites would effectively make astronomical images useless by leaving long luminous trails.” 

While Starlink has attempted to cover this concern by darkening the reflective surfaces of their satellites, Emily Zhang reported for Scientific American that this was “a great improvement, according to experts, but still far from what astronomers say is needed.”

Adding to this come the implications of collisions in orbit and space debris from a large number of satellites, along with the rapid trend towards commercialization of space seen with the number of internet satellite competitors such as Amazon’s Project Kuiper and OneWeb by Greg Wyler.  Starlink has already filed paperwork for 30,000 more satellites to be approved by the International Telecommunication Union, according to SpaceNews, and each of its competitors has its own numbers to rival Starlink’s.

Higher internet speeds across most of the population, especially during the pandemic, would bring ease for countless users.  However, the debate over what it would cost the earth’s outer environment to bring about the convenience the pandemic demands remains a top priority and cannot be lightly dismissed to pave the way for commercialized space.