The sky, ultimate space for freedom of information?
On September 23, Elon Musk obtained from the US government an exemption from sanctions against Iran, which will allow him to make Starlink, his satellite telecommunications system, available there. It nourishes the hope of the population to remain informed despite repression and censorship. Just as it did in Ukraine, where 20,000 satellite dishes have been installed since the Russian invasion last February.
But the objective is much larger: to offer an Internet connection to all Earthlings, wherever they are on the planet. For this, Elon Musk launched a constellation of thousands of small satellites of 250 kg each, circulating in a circular orbit 550 kilometers from the earth’s surface. This technology in low orbit, called “LEO”, provides a connection comparable to that of 4G or ADSL. Starlink ensures at least 100 megabits per second. Above all, the proximity to the Earth reduces latency, ie the time required for the data to make a round trip between the satellite and the user. An advantage over large satellites, or “GEO”, placed in geostationary orbit at 36,000 kilometers from the Earth.
A subsidiary of SpaceX, the world leader in space missions, the Starlink company has another key advantage: it operates in an integrated manner. While its historical competitors outsource the production and launch of satellites and distribute their bandwidth via operators, Starlink controls everything: the manufacture of satellites, their launch, provided by SpaceX, direct distribution to the general public. “This system allows Starlink to have the best launch prices on the market”, observes a competitor.
Ahead of the competition
“From a technical point of view, the realization is impeccable: the launchers are very efficient, the satellites produced in series, the service meets expectations”, welcomes Pierre Lionnet, research director at Eurospace, the association which brings together industrialists space Europeans. Taking out a subscription is done in four clicks on the site. Upon receipt of the Starlink kit, it only takes a few minutes to install. The antenna connects automatically, if the sky is clear. With 3,000 satellites launched, Elon Musk’s company has taken a big lead over its two main competitors in low orbit: OneWeb, in the process of merging with Eutelsat, with 428 satellites in orbit, and Kuiper, the project of Jeff Bezos, who hasn’t thrown anything yet.
Eventually, Elon Musk is aiming for a global market with a constellation of 42,000 satellites covering areas with little or no service from operators, excluding China, which has barred access to him, and countries under US sanctions (see map ). Growing by 15% per year, this market should weigh between 4 and 5 billion euros by 2030, calculated the French operator Eutelsat. In such a context, “there will be plenty of room for the LEO solution from Starlink and OneWeb and the most efficient GEO solutions”, estimates its deputy general manager, Michel Azibert.
Some 700,000 people are already subscribers, mostly in the United States, for 50 euros per month and the purchase of equipment at 480 euros. And the service is already a victim of its own success: in some areas, too many users are slowing down the flow, to the chagrin of historical customers. Hence the need for Starlink, which is targeting 12,000 satellites in its first phase, to increase its capacity and find growth drivers in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.
In France, where marketing begins, the service has already conquered 6,500 people. The American faces Nordnet, the subsidiary of Orange, which distributes the satellite offer of Eutelsat. “Our offer also includes TV channels, the press and technical assistance,” underlines Christophe Outier, Deputy Managing Director of Nordnet.
Starlink is also tackling mobility, with an offer for owners of boats and motorhomes. Small flat, in case of heavy traffic, priority is given to residential subscribers. The company is also positioning itself on the emergency service niche: from next year, T-Mobile subscribers will be able to benefit from a satellite connection in white areas, from a standard mobile phone.
“Limited for the moment to low-speed uses, it is interesting for emergencies, for people in uncovered areas – mountaineers, navigators…”, deciphers Stéphane Piot, analyst at the Mason firm. On this ground, Star-link will face Apple, which has reserved GlobalStar satellites so that owners of the iPhone 14 can join the rescue.
Lack of transparency
Starlink seduces, but at what price? He does not disclose the manufacturing cost of his satellites and antennas, nor the price paid for the launches, but the whole industry suspects him of selling at a loss. “No LEO constellation has proven its profitability,” recalls Pierre Lion-net. A fragility underlined by the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes), in a note sent last May to the telecoms policeman. “Arcep should ask Starlink at least to establish transparency in its economic model and make transparent the existence and the level of reduction in relation to the cost price that it grants when it sells a kit”, warns the Cnes. Starlink charges $499 for hardware that costs it $1,500, the magazine revealed Business Insider.
In a 2021 analysis, the Morgan Stanley bank estimated that the constellation would cost 240 billion dollars, with profitability reached in 2030. A scenario which is based on extremely optimistic economic assumptions, underlines Pierre Lionnet. And Musk is counting on those profits to settle on Mars.
A Starlink satellite. A thousand small satellites of 250 kg each form a constellation, circulating in an orbit 550 kilometers from the earth’s surface.
A landfill in orbit
When, on March 4, 2022, an object created a new crater on the Moon by crashing into it, suspicion fell on Starlink. Finally exonerated, the operator is at the heart of a concern shared by all the experts, who see space turning into a landfill. There are 23,000 pieces of debris from a few centimeters to one meter in diameter and 150 million pieces larger than one millimeter. Mega-constellations will make the situation worse: Starlink plans to send nearly 40,000 satellites into space. With a lifespan of five years, its machines are, of course, designed to disintegrate on falling back into the atmosphere. But the risk of collision increases. In 2021, a OneWeb satellite almost hit a Starlink vehicle, yet equipped with an anti-collision system. The return to the atmosphere of satellites also poses an environmental problem: by disintegrating, they risk altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere.