SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service will exit its beta test sometime in October, though it’s still unclear how this will differ from the current product.
SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk tweeted this prediction early Friday, answering “Next month” in a reply to a question from a Canadian gamer who a day earlier had tweeted that he was still waiting for his Starlink terminal to arrive.
Musk’s two-word tweet left open how the new Starlink would differ from the beta in performance and price.
Today, a Starlink FAQ advises beta testers paying $99 a month (plus $499 for the terminal) that they “can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms” but may also experience “brief periods of no connectivity at all.”
That page also notes that Starlink’s beta service does not include a data cap—beta testers have noted that its software does not even display total bandwidth consumption—but the company and Elon Musk have left questions about post-beta usage policies unanswered.
(I emailed Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX for comment Monday morning and will update this post with any response they offer.)
In mid-April, Musk had tweeted a beta-exit schedule only a little earlier than Friday’s prediction: “Probably out of beta this summer.”
In general, he has taken care to undersell Starlink’s potential for bridging digital divides—a distinct contrast to his habit of touting upcoming advances to the self-driving features of his Tesla electric cars that then arrive late and underperform.
In June, for example, Musk said in a video appearance at the MWC Barcelona wireless-industry convention that Starlink is “really meant for sparsely populated regions”—as in, beyond the reach of existing wireless coverage.
“Starting in August, we should have global connectivity for everywhere except the poles,” he said. Musk advised his audience to expect “quite significant partnerships” with telecom carriers in other countries that would use Starlink to reach customers beyond their wireless networks, but those deals have not been announced yet.
Back in March of 2020, Musk told attendees of the Satellite 2020 show in Washington, D.C., “It’s not like Starlink is some huge threat to telcos.”
In an April note, the market-research firm MoffettNathanson concurred, saying that while it could see Starlink being “a potential game changer for helping to bridge the digital divide in the U.S.,” its capacity constraints would prevent it from developing into “a meaningful competitor to terrestrial alternatives.”
In a May review, The Verge‘s Nilay Patel was even less optimistic, describing Starlink as “unreliable, inconsistent, and foiled by even the merest suggestion of trees” in his testing in rural New York State.
Since a February 2018 test launch of two demonstration Starlink satellites, Starlink has rapidly built out this constellation of small satellites, delivering 60 at a time to orbits about 340 miles up on SpaceX’s partly-reusable Falcon 9 rockets.
A total of 1,658 Starlink satellites operate today, per the count maintained by astronomer Jonathan McDowell; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has authorized a total of 4,408 for its first phase, with tens of thousands more possible in future phases.
Starlink faces competition from two other low-Earth-orbit constellations, one fairly well along and one that has yet to launch.
The London-based firm OneWeb plans to provide worldwide connectivity from 650 satellites; after recovering from a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing with a substantial investment from the U.K. government, it just completed its 10th launch on expendable Russian Soyuz rockets to put 322 satellites in orbit.
It has yet to announce pricing but has suggested at past media events that it can deliver download speeds of up to 400 Mbps and uploads of up to 50 Mbps.
Back in the U.S., Amazon’s Project Kuiper secured FCC approval in July of 2020 for a constellation of 3,236 satellites. That authorization requires Kuiper to have half of them in operation by July 30, 2026.
Although Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also owns a rocket company, Blue Origin, its in-development and semi-reusable New Glenn rocket will not get Kuiper off the ground. Instead, the company announced in April a deal with United Launch Alliance that will see its first nine launches take place on expendable Atlas V rockets.
That has not stopped Kuiper from filing objections at the FCC to Starlink’s plans, alleging that it has been granted unjustified flexibility by the commission and saying it acts as if “rules are for other people.”
Starlink has rejected those allegations, and Musk has, of course, taken to Twitter about this. A typical tweet in January: “It does not serve the public to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation.”