Starlink's speed tests may look impressive, but experts say SpaceX's satellite-internet project is unlikely to win any federal subsidies

SpaceXSpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, has described Starlink user-terminal stations as a ‘UFO on a stick.’
  • Starlink, SpaceX’s growing network of internet-beaming satellites, is undergoing a private beta test.
  • In mid-August, Starlink performance results from an internet-connection-testing website began appearing on Reddit.
  • The results impressed some users who lack access to affordable high-speed broadband internet.
  • But telecommunications-industry experts see potential issues for Starlink in the testing data if SpaceX is competing for $US16 billion in federal subsidies this fall.
  • Subscribers can read our full report here.

The first publicly available performance data for Starlink, SpaceX’s new fleet of internet-beaming satellites, isn’t impressing everyone.

In mid-August, people on the r/Starlink subreddit began postinglinks to the first such results, hosted by an internet-connection-testing site called Speedtest. Speedtest anonymizes test results and displays them on a hidden page, but users can share links to them for others to see – likely in violation of nondisclosure agreements with SpaceX.

The results showed download speeds ranging from 35 to 60 megabits per second and upload speeds ranging from 5 to 18 Mbps. Readings for pings – a latency-like measure of how long it takes data to go to and from a user’s computer to a server on the internet – all sat below 100 milliseconds. (Ookla, which runs Speedtest, told Business Insider the results we shared “all appear to be legitimate.”)

“That’s nutty,” one Reddit user wrote. “I’m honestly very impressed.”

“I would give my left nut for any of those speeds,” another said.

While the numbers wowed some who lack access to broadband service, experts recently told Business Insider that it didn’t appear to be fantastic news for SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002.

Spacex starlink satellite internet ookla speedtest speed test results bandwidth upload download ping july august 2020Speedtest.com/Ookla via RedditA sample of anonymous Speedtest results for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-internet beta from late July through early August.

Given its extensive lobbying efforts, SpaceX is likely using Starlink to compete for a large pool of Federal Communications Commission subsidies this fall, called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. (The FCC declined to share a list of entrants, and SpaceX did not acknowledge Business Insider’s queries.)

The goal of the new $US20.4 billion, two-phase program is to deliver high-speed, low-latency web access to parts of rural America without broadband service, which the FCC defines as a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. The agency considers this fast enough to telecommute, do schoolwork, or stream 4K video, for example.

The FCC plans to pay up to $US16 billion this fall to those providers that can bring the best broadband access to the most areas for the lowest cost.

Starlink might seem like a shoo-in for the subsidies, since its coverage would, according to Musk, eventually reach almost anywhere on Earth and far outperform the speed and latency of older satellite fleets. It also seems to clear important FCC thresholds of bandwidth and latency no greater than 100 milliseconds, leading one website to say that “this looks very much like ‘mission accomplished’ for SpaceX.”

However, the rules of the program stack the deck against satellite-based systems.

“My guess, looking at the numbers, is the satellites don’t win anything,” Blair Levin, a telecommunications policy analyst, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and former FCC chief of staff, told Business Insider.

What’s more, telecommunications experts said they anticipated seeing higher performance out of the network, even in its beta phase.

“It’s kind of concerning that you’re getting these data rates so early in the game,” Shrihari Pandit, a photonics engineer and CEO of Stealth Communications, which provides internet access to New York City businesses and researches new internet infrastructure technologies, told Business Insider. “I would suspect it should be a little higher than where it is, let’s say a couple hundred megabits per second.”

Ernesto Falcon, a senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who focuses on broadband access and competition policies, told Business Insider that in the context of FCC politics and the prospects of bidding for these subsidies, “it’s not good” to see such performance results.

Subscribers can access our full story on why SpaceX might not win any FCC subsidies, who might earn them, and how things could work out for SpaceX in the long run.

This story has been updated.

Do you have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at [email protected] or send him a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. You may also consider more secure communication options listed here.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.