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Musk’s Starlink Tied to Traffic Chaos in Orbit and on Earth

If nothing else, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has brought public attention to the future of space, who it belongs to, and how it is paid for

This week has seen quite a struggle for Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its satellite-based internet service Starlink. SpaceX had recently pocketed some interesting wins for Starlink. Its offer to keep Ukrainians online in the midst of the recent crisis earned Starlink favor in the eyes of both the military and Eastern European nations.

It has also started launching operations in Latin America. Just days ago SpaceX performed its 35th launch of the year, adding 52 more Starlink satellites.

However, Starlink has also faced a number recent headwinds which could spell trouble for the service. While its public beta test performed well for many users, as the service has expanded, the capabilities of the network appear to be stretched. Despite promises of 50 megabit download speeds, many users have reported that network congestion can make the service unusable at times. This is despite the fact that Elon Musk had promised via Twitter to expand download speeds to 300 megabits by the end of last year.

Starlink wants more frequencies but so does everyone, it seems

In order to increase bandwidth, SpaceX recently requested that the Federal Communications Commission assign it more frequencies to use. This request came hard on the heels of SpaceX asking the FCC to block U.S.-based satellite broadcaster Dish Network from expanding to certain frequencies, saying that Dish’s expansion would make Starlink “unusable for most Americans.”

These requests may have backfired, however.

The FCC is in charge of a $9.2 billion-dollar pool of subsidies for funding private ventures to provide high-speed Internet connectivity in rural areas. In 2020, SpaceX was granted $885 million in subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to provide Starlink in rural areas. FCC was SpaceX’s first large customer. However, this last week the FCC announced that it was now denying SpaceX’s bid because SpaceX “failed to demonstrate” that the providers could deliver the promised service. The timing of this announcement, coming on the heels of SpaceX’s request for more bandwidth and for Dish Network to be prevented from expanding, makes one wonder: Did these requests made the FCC more closely examine whether the Starlink service could fulfill the original promises made for the bid?

SpaceX has also been facing other headwinds of late as well. The sheer number of low orbital satellites has caused a number of government agencies (including NASA) to submit letters of concern to the FCC about the risk that Starlink poses for orbital collisions. Last year, a leading European expert claimed that Starlink satellites were involved in over half of all close encounters of spacecraft in orbit.

Whether SpaceX will be able to grow its Starlink network enough to satisfy demand is an open question. Is this just a bump on the road to success or a deeper structural problem? And will the prevalence of Low-Earth Orbit satellites cause problems for everyone else’s access to space?

If nothing else, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has brought public attention to the future of space, who it belongs to, and how it is paid for.

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Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Musk’s Starlink Tied to Traffic Chaos in Orbit and on Earth