October 1, 2020
SpaceX tested its Starlink satellite in Washington state for emergency responders, the first early use of the service revealed thus far. Initial reports indicate improved setup times and significant decreases in latency. In early August, Washington’s state military, which includes its emergency response division, began using Starlink to bring Internet service to areas destroyed by wildfires via seven Starlink user terminals. Meanwhile, the four-year-old startup Swarm Technologies has placed 21 of its tiny satellites into orbit, to deliver Internet access to all types of devices.
CNBC reports that, at Washington State Military Department’s IT division, emergency telecommunications leader Richard Hall said, with regard to Starlink, that he had “never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable.” When fully implemented, Starlink aims to have 12,000 satellites in low Earth orbit to deliver high-speed Internet everywhere in the world.
Hall said he observed 150+ percent decreases in latency and “easily double the bandwidth” of traditional networks. Rather than the 30 minutes to an hour it would have taken him to set up a regular satellite connection, Hall said it took him “between five and 10 minutes to set up and connect a Starlink terminal.”
SpaceX has so far launched 700+ Starlink satellites, “a fraction of the total needed for global coverage but enough to begin providing services in some regions, including in the northwest U.S.” Starlink employees are also conducting a private beta test. Hall said his crew “set up terminals in areas that were burned severely to provide evacuated families with wireless calling and Internet access to file insurance claims” as well as remote schooling for children.
The U.S. Air Force also conducted “early tests of Starlink.” SpaceX is letting Washington state use the Starlink terminals for free. Starlink reported that it is building 120 satellites per month and “thousands of the small terminals that consumers will use to connect to the network.”
Bloomberg reports that Swarm Technologies has launched 21 “paperback-sized,” 14-ounce satellites, nine of which were proof-of-concept units and 12 of which are production models launched “from a spaceport in French Guiana.” Swarm stated it will charge $5 per month to send 150 kilobytes of data, which equals about 750 text messages, and “a onetime $119 fee for the satellite modem that links devices to the satellites.”
“We joke that it’s like the Internet of 1996, like dial-up modem speeds,” said Swarm co-founder and chief technology officer Ben Longmier. “For most of our customers that is totally fine.” Swarm’s goal is to “create a dirt-cheap digital heartbeat surrounding the globe,” for services such as “moisture sensors on a farm to report their readings or a shipping container to record its temperature.”
Swarm, which bought rides on Space Exploration Technologies and Rocket Lab USA, plans to launch 150 satellites in orbit “in a type of interlinked web that surrounds Earth.” The company has raised $35 million from Craft Ventures, Social Capital and other investors.
Swarm satellites are being used to monitor water pumps throughout East Africa and California; check on beehives in New Zealand; and gather data from floating weather sensors in the Pacific Ocean. Based in Mountain View, California, Swarm has approval to operate in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Europe.