In today's Finshots, we talk about the ambitious plan to stream data using satellites.


The Story

Ever wonder how you can stream a live cricket match from hundreds of thousands of miles away in near real-time? Well, it’s largely thanks to transcontinental cables laid out on the ocean floor. They’re the conduits for data to pass through — the real physical highways for information to flow. But cables are considered old school these days and there have been several attempts to find an alternative solution. And perhaps, the most ambitious attempt is Project Starlink — the brainchild of SpaceX and Elon Musk. With Starlink, Musk is trying to eliminate physical cables altogether and instead, stream data using a constellation of satellites.

For months now, SpaceX has been launching hundreds of satellites. They eventually intend to send around 42,000 satellites into space. These satellites will allow them to cover almost all of the earth’s surface area and provide an uninterrupted flow of data — At least that’s the promise. The service is in beta and for $99 a month, you could get your hands on a Starlink kit which will include a pizza-sized dish antenna, a tripod, and a Wi-Fi router. That’s all you need to get access to Space Internet.

In the meantime, Musk wants to grab a sliver of the trillion-dollar global telecommunications market and if all goes according to plan, SpaceX could make anywhere between $30-$50 billion per year from providing internet services alone. And they are not just looking at the developed markets. Last year, a SpaceX VP had responded to a TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) consultation paper and had recommended that India introduce a framework for regulating and allowing satellite broadband technologies in the country.

In fact, this was one of Starlink’s biggest promise. The ability to offer seamless internet access in the most remote parts of the world — where connectivity is always patchy at best. Will it be an affordable option? We don’t know. But there are many places cables can’t go. Satellites meanwhile have no such restrictions.

However, that doesn’t mean, Starlink has no potential downsides. The biggest bottleneck right now is the satellites themselves. Think about how these floating objects affect astronomers who peer into the night sky. As one article in the Verge notes —

It turns out, some astronomers have reason to be concerned. Certain types of astronomy may be more negatively affected than others, one peer-reviewed study shows, particularly those kinds that scour large swaths of the sky over long periods of time looking for faint, faraway objects. That means scientists looking for distant objects beyond Neptune — including the hunt for the mysterious Planet Nine — might have trouble when Starlink is complete. Additionally, Starlink may be much more visible during twilight hours, or the first few hours of the night, which could be a major problem in the hunt for massive asteroids headed toward Earth.

Meanwhile, scientists are also learning if SpaceX’s effort to mitigate the brightness of its satellites is actually going to work. The company coated one of its satellites in an attempt to make it appear less visible in the sky. Now, the first observations of that satellite are being published, and the coating is working — but it might not be enough to make everyone happy. “It doesn’t solve the issue,” Jeremy Tregloan-Reed, a researcher at the University of Antofagasta and lead author on the study, which is undergoing peer review at Astronomy and Astrophysics Letters, tells The Verge

Also, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. SpaceX is one of the first entrants in a nascent market. But soon, many others will follow. There is OneWeb, Telesat, Amazon’s Project Kuiper. Even the Chinese have plans to launch thousands of satellites en masse. So, we have an unregulated “space”, some ambitious billionaires, and a generational technological leap that could bring new problems of its own. Will we be wiser by then?

We don’t know. You tell us.

Until then…

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