SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has confirmed one more scenario where Starlink could be used to deliver its satellite broadband other than homes: on high-speed trains across the globe.
Sweden-based data scientist Anton Kanerva asked Musk via Twitter whether Starlink satellite dishes could be fitted to high-speed trains to deliver reliable broadband in remote areas.
It’s a relevant question for Sweden, which has train connections between most major cities but vast tracts between them where mobile coverage is spotty. Indeed, it’s a relevant question for many of Europe’s intercity rail networks and rail networks across North America.
“Will Starlink dishes be deployable on high-speed moving objects like trains?” Kanerva asked Musk on Twitter. “It would be incredible if trains moving through the middle of nowhere finally could have stable high-speed internet connections.”
Starlink for rail networks would be no problem, according to Musk. “Yes. Everything is slow to a phased array antenna,” he replied.
SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which orbit at about 550km (340 miles) above Earth, have four phased-array antennas for downlink and uplink transmissions. The end-user terminals feature a motor that automatically directs the dish towards the optimal satellite’s phased-array antennas.
In SpaceX’s application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year to deploy a million end-user units, it explained that the end-user “terminals employ advanced phased-array beam-forming and digital processing technologies to make highly efficient use of Ku-band spectrum resources by supporting highly directive, steered antenna beams that track the system’s low-Earth orbit satellites”.
But while Musk says the user terminals are easy to setup – plug in socket, point at sky – and the cost of launching each batch of 60 satellites is down to about $1m per launch, the cost of end-user terminals remains the biggest unsolved challenge for Starlink, according to Musk.
“I think the biggest challenge will be with the user terminal and getting the user terminal cost to be affordable,” he said in an interview with Aviation Week in May. “That will take us a few years to really sort that, and the user terminal cost is the fully considered cost, so the hardware and everything required to get it setup and running.”
Musk wants the end-user terminals to be running for a decade or at least more than five years as they’re going to be difficult to repair or service in remote areas.
“You can’t send people to service these things because a lot of these places will be in the middle of nowhere. So the fully considered cost of the user terminal is the hardest thing for Starlink or any space-based system for the general public. We’ve got a strategy where success is one of the possible outcomes,” he said.
Part of the terminal cost problem SpaceX faces could be solved by the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which is making up to $16bn available to ISPs to deliver broadband to underserved and unserved parts of America.
Fortunately for SpaceX, the FCC this week approved it to bid for a slice of the RDOF. SpaceX was among 386 applications the FCC has qualified to bid in its RDOF broadband auction.
As noted by Ars Technica, it appears the only other Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite provider to qualify was Hughes Network Systems, a traditional satellite provider that originally invested in OneWeb and this July – after OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy – agreed to put $50m in the consortium led by the UK government and Bharti to bring OneWeb out of bankruptcy.
Earlier this month OneWeb announced it was on target to launch the initial 650 satellites under the UK government and Bharti. Hughes president Pradman Kaul said the $50m investment allowed it to offer LEO satellite broadband for the FCC’s RDOF.
A key concern raised by the FCC for SpaceX and other LEO satellite broadband systems was whether they could deliver low-latency broadband.
SpaceX recently presented the FCC Starlink internet performance tests showing it was capable of download speeds of between 102Mbps to 103Mbps, upload speeds of about 40.5Mbps, and a latency of 18 milliseconds to 19 milliseconds. While only tests, that performance is well below the 100ms the FCC wanted for a SpaceX to be considered a low-latency provider.
SpaceX is currently gearing up to launch a public beta of Starlink in northern parts of the US following last week’s launch of 60 more satellites. During the private beta, Starlink has been used in parts of Washington state to support emergency response teams following the wildfires in the state.