In case you didn’t know, SpaceX is working extra hard to give every living/breathing and every non-living/non-breathing thing on Earth instant internet access with a constellation of ~50,000 satellites (no typo). Called StarLink, SpaceX hopes to offer this service to lucky North Americans as early as 2020. With approximately ~120 StarLink satellites already in orbit as of November, 2019, SpaceX is beaming internet across the U.S. as you read this (Elon Musk already texts and Tweets via StarLink, fyi).
Internet access for people is certainly a main priority for SpaceX in this endeavor, especially because high performance internet without geographic or physical borders will earn them massive global profit. And righteously so … 50,000 satellites in orbit is an impressive feat after all. But an equally significant priority is to boost up the support architecture for Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is a system of interrelated computing devices, machines, animals, and humans with the ability to transfer data and communicate via a network without human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. Think of regular street corner in NYC … the IoT concept is for hundreds of devices in cars, on people, on buildings, on infrastructure, communicating on networks simultaneously.
The issue with IoT is that networks rely on cellular, wifi, or Bluetooth service in order to communicate. Yet 90% of the surface of the Earth is not serviced by these communication mediums, such as over open ocean or farmland. Shippers tracking ships at sea, farmers monitoring their crops, and government monitoring civil infrastructure requires cooperation with costly traditional satellite communication providers such as Iridium ($$). Enter the solution … lots of tiny, affordable, expendable, satellites. Lots of them. Many Starlink satellites will actually range from the size of a baseball to a shoe. Pretty small!
These tiny satellites will fill the sky and provide the communication architecture for the network of IoT devices. Most of these satellites won’t have the bandwith for gaming or web browsing. They are designed instead for the tiny bursts of data that agriculture, infrastructure and asset-tracking IoT devices produce.
While internet-for-all is certainly an exciting prospect and game changer for the grand IoT landscape (just imagine no communication bounds for you or our devices), there will certainly be unforeseen drawbacks.
Apparently the astronomers are already upset with SpaceX, after a rather small string of 60 of their satellites polluted the night sky with ambient light disrupting their deep space telescopes for about an hour this month. The time-lapse video is pretty cool too (left).
If a “small” train of 60 satellites is enough to annoy our tech loving astronomers, then where will we stand with 50,000+ satellites overhead? What will be the impacts to our skies, and radio spectrum, with clutter exponentially greater than we can currently comprehend? The gains of unlimited internet and communication are surely real, but so are the risks.