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The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the vast gulf that is the digital divide across the U.S; especially in outlying areas. The FCC estimates that about 19 million Americans are without “access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds” and approximately one-quarter of the people in rural communities are without access, according to the commission’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report.

To help shore up gaps in this patchwork of connectivity in the U.S. and beyond, companies are deploying a wide range of innovative strategies. A number of organizations are planning to use droves of satellite whirling overhead to beam down internet connectivity to Earth from orbit. This approach is being championed most notably by SpaceX Starlink with CEO Elon Musk at the helm and a beta version of the capabilities is available with caveats.

So what is Starlink, how’s the beta version program and when can people potentially sign up?

What is Starlink?

Starlink’s orbiting internet-blasting satellites has made plenty of headlines in the last year as a result of peculiar streaks in the nighttime sky, dismay among astronomers and more. Compared to “traditional satellite,” the Starlink website says its fleet orbits the Earth at a distance 60 times closer and this results “in lower latency and the ability to support services typically not possible with traditional satellite internet.”

Moreover, Starlink says its satellite delivery system has comparative advantages to ground-based infrastructure and this “unbounded” approach allows the company to “deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable.”

But why pack dozens of satellites onto a launch vehicle and blast these units into space rather than say burying miles of fiber and constructing towers on Earth? The answer is a complex grab bag of basic supply-and-demand economics and business solvency considered alongside emergent technologies in a burgeoning market.

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From remote Canadian villages to sub-Saharan Africa and polar regions, Bill Menezes, director analyst with Gartner Research, said the cost of extending traditional terrestrial broadband networks to these remote areas is “huge.”

In terms of profitably delivering broadband, satellite-delivered connectivity is the “only feasible option” in some areas, Menezes explained.

“Even though launching a satellite to cover, say, polar regions is not cheap, compared to the cost of pushing and operating a fiber-based network out there, there’s no comparison,” Menezes said.

“Better than nothing” beta

As CNET previously reported, Starlink recruited beta testers for its broadband service back in October and referenced Starlink materials shared online, which suggested that beta testers “lower” their “initial expectations” when signing up for the $99 monthly subscriptions and $499 mounting tripod, terminal and router. The Starlink FAQ page similarly says beta testers could expect data speeds and latency to vary over the next few months as well as periods with “no connectivity at all.”

SEE: 5 Internet of Things (IoT) innovations (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

As Starlink continues to increase the number of satellites in orbit, install stations on terra firma and improve its networking software, the company website says that “latency and uptime will improve dramatically.”

When can you sign up for Starlink beta?

The Starlink website has a search bar where people interested in ordering the service can sign up by listing their address, however, the page notes that the service is “available to a limited number of users per coverage area at this time” noting that “orders will be fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis.”

The FAQ page says order fulfillment could take upward of one month or longer “depending on where you are in the ordering queue” and the company will “provide periodic updates on availability” related to “orders in areas that will be serviceable later this year.”

Once a person receives their Starlink Kit (Starlink, Wi-Fi router, power supply, mounting tripod and cables) they can download the Starlink app (iOS or Android) to pinpoint the best location for installation around the home.

A burgeoning market

E-commerce and tech titan, Amazon, has its own internet-blasting satellite program called Project Kuiper which has received FCC approval and plans to deliver broadband from the final frontier. Menezes described this specific market as an area “at the onset of commercialization,” while making note of the growing list of players involved.

“Starlink’s the closest to full commercialization. OneWeb’s right behind it and [in] another year or so, you’re going to have Telesat, based in Canada, doing the same thing, a global, low Earth orbit broadband system,” Menezes said.

“Amazon is planning one, but they’re furthest behind, so it will be interesting to see how they follow in the path of whatever Starlink and OneWeb encounter in their initial years,” Menezes added.

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