Starlink at Sea as we See it

Recently Starlink has become available over major parts of Europe and it was immediately followed by questions from the maritime world as to when they would be able to benefit from this cheap and ultra-fast service on board while roaming the seven seas. While it is not yet available now, when will it be available and what will it cost …

Well it’s not that simple, and here is why.

Starlink satellites need to connect to a ground station to connect to the internet and while these can relatively easily be installed on land they are not available at sea. This limits the satellite’s capacity to relay the signal within near shore regions, for now.

To overcome this problem the Starlink satellites will need to relay their signal to another satellite until it reaches one that has a direct link with a ground station. This will be achieved by setting up laser links between satellites but these laser links are estimated to cost multiples of the actual deployed satellites.

Moreover, current satellites have not been equipped with these laser links and we will have to wait for their full deployment for about 5 years. Last year they tested laser links on two satellites.

Cost of coverage in low density regions.

As the oceans are not densely populated the cost of the laser links will most likely influence the cost of maritime and aerial connection and increase the connection cost by several factors over the terrestrial counterpart.

As governments have many advantages from being able to provide internet connectivity in the most remote locations of their countries they can subsidize (e.g. Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) Starlink and facilitate it’s deployment. This is however not the case in international waters and again could increase the cost for non-terrestrial connections.

A Sea-Proof Terminal

It is estimated that the current cost of a Starlink Terminal, while being offered in beta at USD 500, actually has a cost of around 2500 USD. This is for a terrestrial terminal which, once set, will not have to move much. A maritime terminal will need to track a moving satellite, on a moving vessel which rolls and pitches and be able to withstand all the waves and bad weather situations.

Clearly this is not a task for the current fixed terrestrial antenna and will most likely cost quite a bit more than the actual manufacturing of 2500 USD.

Currently ‘traditional’ maritime satellite antenna manufacturers are already delivering future proof stabilized parabolic antennas which can connect to LEO, MEO and GEO satellites. Whether they will be able to connect to Starlink, Oneweb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Telesat or any other service provider in the LEO race remains to be seen.

SpaceX is off to a fast start and is the first to offer service in America and Europe, OneWeb, through Bharti, has an edge in Asia and Africa and the Chinese companies have potential in Digital Silk Road nations.

Business vs Consumer markets

SpaceX Starlink clearly leads low Earth orbit (LEO) internet service to consumers. However, it is arguable that Telesat Lightspeed is in the lead, or contending for the lead with SpaceX, in non-consumer enterprise, government, mobile backhaul, mobility and rural community markets.

SpaceX will eventually offer service to non-consumers — they have already applied for mobile connectivity — but have focused on consumers from day one.

Telesat plans to offer SLA’s with speeds up to 7.5 Gbps to a single terminal. They will be able to dynamically configure their service — for example, requiring different capacity during the day or night or e.g. increasing regional capacity during the holiday seasons.

The Bottom Line

While there will most likely be many changes to the above in the -near- future it is most likely that maritime LEO connectivity will be several times more expensive than its terrestrial counterpart and traditional Geostationary Services will still be the go to solutions for the next few years.

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