Starlink satellites: More than just global internet access?

03 June 2019

On the night of May 26, I went outside and looked up. Despite some overcast skies, I was able to view the chain of Starlink satellites orbit overhead. They were faint, but clearly recognizable as they zipped past in a line. I imagine for the next few years, as more of these get launched, this will become a regular sight — at least until the launches become less often.

The visibility of these satellites has been in the news, but less discussed is the implication of this network. Low-latency, high-speed global internet connectivity may sound humdrum in our connected world, but I think it is going to be anything but.

Internet coverage of sparsely populated areas is a good start, and one of the network’s goals. Existing satellite internet has many shortcomings, including price and allotted data. Latency also makes two-way communication difficult at best. The technology requires a dish that must be correctly oriented, making it difficult, though not impossible, for use on a moving vehicle such as an RV.

Right off the bat, the Starlink network could solve these issues. The flat, pizza box-sized antenna does not need to be positioned, but simply pointed at the sky. This enables receivers to be placed just about anywhere — not only on houses, but cars, RVs, planes and possibly telephone poles. If the price is equal or better, this network could be competing with cable and telephone companies for internet service. The network also comes with the potential benefit of being portable — take it with you when you travel, literally anywhere.

While these satellites will not directly connect with a cell phone due to the RF frequency and antenna size, it is feasible to place small antennas and nodes around to relay 5G. The build-out of 5G is ongoing, but it is slow due to the support network and the required density, as 5G signals have a limited range.That build-out could be realized more quickly if all it requires is power, possibly solar, and an unobstructed view of the sky. Another possibility is that every transceiver could act as a repeater for 5G. Build these into every Tesla, solar roof and other consumer products, and a terrestrial 5G network spreads almost organically.

It is no secret that the military is interested in this network and has already invested money into it for future communications. I can imagine that the low latency would help with UAV control and video feeds. The network also has the potential to make ground and air communications more reliable, and send more real-time data. A military fit is obvious.

One thing that has bothered me is that there are no photos of these satellites, other than computer renderings. The only real pictures I have seen are of the connected stack leaving the rocket before it is separated. This makes me wonder what other capabilities these satellites may have.

What sort of sensors do they have, for instance? Or what sensors and systems might they have in the future, since they need to be regularly replaced? I do not want to get into tinfoil hat territory, but it is easy to imagine the possibilities. From what I gather, these satellites have some sort of camera on board for star tracking or positioning. Due to some criticism of potential astronomy obstruction from the satellites, Elon Musk at one point even posited putting telescopes on them.

The high-frequency radio at which the satellites operate requires line of sight; due to the low-Earth orbit, complete coverage requires a high satellite density. The density of satellites required to provide seamless internet would in fact be the same density required to provide orbit-based surveillance of any point on Earth.

If this were the hypothetical case, there would be all sorts of implications for military, law enforcement and intelligence. Imagine a live version of Google Earth that could play back recordings of any spot on the planet.

Sensors for monitoring environmental emissions, radio transmissions and all sorts of other possibilities also exist, of course. Even if the current Starlink satellites do not have these capabilities, their replacements could — and changes in design would attract little attention.

We may see a network like this simply as an extension of our existing internet. But I think it could eventually be more. I believe that global, always-on, high-speed internet could drive new uses such as augmented reality, personal and portable TVs à la cell phones or, perhaps, a planet-wide, on-demand surveillance network. Only time will tell.

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