Whether it is about disrupting digital payments, making reusable rockets and reimaging space exploration, or transforming transportation with electric vehicles and high-speed underground mass transportation, there is one man who has conquered it all. Elon Musk is often described as the Steve Jobs of modern times and probably rightly so.
While the list of Musk's audacious ideas is not exhausted to the ones listed above, one thing is evident: every initiative Musk takes is bolder than the preceding ones. The case is no different for Musk's Starlink - a division of SpaceX that aims to ensure low-latency and high-speed internet connectivity all across the globe.
With the help of Falcon 9 rockets of SpaceX, Starlink aims to deploy a constellation of satellites into the lower orbit of the earth. Starlink antennas in the earth's surface area would then connect with these satellites to ensure seamless internet almost anywhere and everywhere.
The need for satellite-based internet is a timely move given the scenario of global internet accessibility. Globally, 40% of the world's population does not have access to the internet.
According to The Economist's Intelligence Unit, more than 68% households of the lower middle-income countries and 90% households of the low-income countries do not have access to the internet.
Furthermore, even where the internet is available, the average download speed is not always satisfactory. Internet speed varies greatly across the globe. As of 2020, average download speed in the high-income countries is 6.4 times higher than that in the low-income countries.
Currently, the widely used underground cable internet arrangement cannot reach many remote and rural areas of the world. As a result, the internet is still not accessible for a large part of the world's population. However, by deploying 42,000 satellites into the lower orbit, Starlink aims to reach even the remotest corners of the world.
The placement of the satellites in the lower orbit offers Starlink the ability to transmit high-speed internet with minimal latency. Small satellites that are around 550 kilometres away from the earth will ensure internet speeds up to 150 MBPS, which is three times the average global internet download speed (more than 10 times the speed in low-income countries).
As of January 20, 2021, more than 1,000 Starlink satellites have already been deployed. Even though the number is still far from the planned 42,000 targets, Starlink has started a beta program to allow early users in selected parts of the world to test the service.
According to a Business Insider interview, people in remote parts of South West England, who are now part of the beta program, have reported significantly higher internet speeds. It also notes that before Starlink's beta, even government initiatives to ensure internet in those villages had failed.
Undoubtedly, Starlink will increase internet inclusivity around the globe. In most parts of the world, internet setup requires an ISP technician to set up the connection. However, Starlink's user-friendly kit allows users to set up and connect to the internet on their own.
Usually, a Starlink kit includes: (1) a Starlink antenna; (2) a Wi-Fi router; (3) power supply; and (4) cables and mounting tripod.
However, the reality between a third world country's affordability of Starlink versus that of a first world country may only deepen the digital divide. While Starlink promises to ensure high-speed internet accessibility in the remotest corners of the globe, its pricing point is not close enough to being affordable in middle-income and low-income countries.
A Starlink Kit costs a user $499 of one-time cost. On top of that, a user would have to pay a monthly subscription fee of $99.
Both the aforementioned prices are exorbitantly high for countries like Bangladesh. Bangladesh has only 8.6 million broadband users. It is ranked 70th (out of 100 countries) in a survey conducted by The Economist on internet inclusivity. Here, the average bandwidth price is Tk400 per MBPS (2020).
Compared to this, at current exchange rates, Starlink's monthly subscription rate would cost a user Tk8,400. The amount is roughly 21 times of what Bangladesh's broadband users are paying now.
For individual users, while this device may not be affordable in lower income regions, the cost of Starlink's internet is only Tk56 per MBPS (compared to Tk400 per MBPS broadband in Bangladesh).
Therefore, regardless of the pricing challenges for the individual users, local authorities or ISPs could essentially create a new business model by offering community-based shared internet facilities.
This would eliminate individuals' burden in remote areas. Otherwise, they would have to bear the huge cost of the Starlink's device and subscription. At the same time, this would ensure high-speed connectivity in remote regions.
Evidently, the digital divide is deepening globally. Less than 10% of low-income households have access to the internet. While initiatives such as the Starlink have the potential to connect these households to the world bottlenecks, the price range is an obstacle. As the Starlink expands its coverage, only the years ahead will tell if Musk can truly overcome these challenges in these low-income communities and fulfil his promise of connecting the world.