The introduction of Starlink services is anticipated to be a major boom for internet connectivity for those who live in rural and remote locations, especially in Canada. We have a LOT of rural and remote areas where people live happily. This is true in the USA and many other countries too. Starlink will be less attractive for those who live in major urban and suburban communities.
It is an exciting technology that will provide unheralded direct-to-home connectivity to the under-served and un-served consumers. But, what else can we do with it once this amazing service becomes available? I keep pondering what I can do to enhance its basic offering?
In simplistic terms, it is just a big pipe to provide connections to the internet. But, if you live in someplace like millions do where xDSL, cable modems, fixed wireless access, or G-PON is not available, then satellite feeds are the next best viable alternative compared to zero connectivity. The world now runs on the interest and social and economic well-being demand connectivity to not only survive, but to thrive in the future. COVID is amplifying the demand for connectivity issue to even far greater lengths.
The Starlink Terrestrial Competitors
In my Toronto home, we have G-PON at 1.5 Gbps (symmetrical) from Bell Canada. The price negotiated was excellent and cost less then the 15/3 Mbps asymmetrical VDSL service that worked for us for over ten years and was just retired this past week. Moving away from copper towards and optical fibre connections has its pros and cons.
While the extra speed is impressive, it is the symmetrical aspect (equal upload and download speeds) that we value the most. Why? Because my spouse and I both work. Due to COVID isolation requirements, we both use Zoom, MS Teams, WebEX, Skype, and other video conferencing tools every day to meet with customers, participate in meetings with colleagues, and collaborate on projects remotely.
Our ten year old DSL was causing serious problems for us, so it had to go. The lack of upload speeds was freezing the video calls, especially MS Teams. For us, right now, optical fibre was the answer. I wish that we could have waited for Starlink to go live. But, it is still an unknown timeframe since Starlink does not yet have Canadian regulatory approval. And, how will Starlink work with these video conferencing and Unified Collaboration as a Service (UCaaS) tools? In theory, it should work similar to my optical fibre links. But it is still an unknown status.
We have had a Vonage long distance service for 21 years already, so voice over IP (VoIP) is not new for us. However, our Bell landline also had to be converted from twisted pair to glass, so now, if the power fails, the telephone goes down too. During the last major ice storm that shut down my Canadian city for 3 to 7 days, the plain old telephone service continued admirably unaffected. Now, it will fail along with the optical fibre link, if power is lost. Can Starlink bundle in a VoIP service to compete? The latency seems to be low enough to make this voice service viable.
With SpaceX launching Starlink into the LEO orbits, the idea of a 1 Gbps, ultra low latency connection from the ether is attractive as an alternative to other terrestrial options like our G-PON connectivity. It should go nose to nose in some markets that are aligned to their ideal customer model. Those ideal customers appear to be in under-served and un-served markets, therefore Starlink should be the service provider of choice for them.
But, how else can it be used to compete with the incumbent internet service providers? What else might we users do with it? While these are still early days and much critical information is still well guarded company secrets, it is useful and fun to ponder the art of the possible with Starlink.
We already know that Starlink has successfully tested its Space Laser concept that relays data from one satellite in orbit to another at gigabit speeds. What we do not know is how extensive this laser relay concept will be deployed? Will it connect just one satellite to another? Will multiple satellites be able to connect to form into a mesh network model? Will satellites operating within the different orbital shells be able to talk inter-shell? Will satellites be place into orbit that hold different roles and responsibilities compared to the spacecraft deployed so far? Satellites can be nodes in complex Space Laser networks that perform other functions than simply beaming internet to consumers? What could these types of satellite nodes do? This is a fun idea to consider. The primary interest of this article is using Starlink for terrestrial relays. That is to say, use it as a middle mile connection to end users. So, we can leave this smart node satellite topic for another day.
The best strategy is to leverage Starlink as a middle mile solution to relay internet connectivity to last mile solutions.
Last mile solutions can take several forms. The obviously answer is Wi-Fi. If an IEEE 802.11AC / AX Wi-Fi access point was bolted on to the Starlink terminal, then it could radiate internet to many users within reach of the terminal. This idea is so obvious that I expect Starlink to offer Wi-Fi as a feature set of their terminals. It should be integrated and seamless to each terminal just like it has been with cable modems, xDSL terminals, and FWA connections. Even cellular providers offer hotspots devices to relay 4G data connections.
Microwave Point to Point Relays
At many commercial and industrial sites where Starlink will be a welcome solution too, it is not always possible to locate satellite stations exactly where they need to be situated. So, we would make use of a Point to Point (P2P) microwave link to relay the satellite traffic into the precise location, or to multiple locations, at a factory, at a mine, or around a company campus setting. Wi-Fi can be hung off the end of these P2P links and burstout the connection all over the work areas.
Fixed Wireless Access Relay
The Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) service providers have been using P2P and point to multipoint (P2MP) connections for decades, but they are all terrestrial links. It is indeed rare to see a satellite relay link due to the costs, latency, and limited data rates from the past inventory of geostationary satellites offering data services. But, Starlink is about to totally disrupt this traditional VSAT model up and offers reasonably affordable connections, with ultra low latency and substantial data rates.
5G Cellular Relay
Another strategy that might be clever is the extension of cellular services into communities that have lower-end services (2G or 3G) or no services today. Starlink can be the middle mile to interconnect the cellular core to the remote location. If a Macro cell tower is used, then low band 5G can be extended. It can also work for small cell extensions for the mid band and high bands of the upcoming 5G model. Yes, this will add more latency, but it will permit voice and data to connect places that would otherwise be impractical to connect terrestrially.
Static IP Addresses
We still do not know if these relay ideas will work. Can Starlink, or better yet ‘will’ they, be agreeable to support static IP addresses? It is imperative for Starlink to provide these static IP addresses for many of these relay ideas to work? Yes, Wi-Fi can use DHCP and automatically replicate dynamic IP addresses very easily. But, for many commercial solutions, like fixed microwave P2P radios, 5G cellular, and Fixed Wireless Access P2MP links, a static IP address is critical. Obviously, IPv4 addresses will have limitations so IPv6 is smarter if they do allow static IP connections.
Contiguous Clocked Service
Will Starlink be able to offer a stable and contiguous service whereby data stream are robust and unbroken. Many systems like cellular and some P2P and P2MP links are clocked networks. They use line-lock from the inbound data stream, and/or GPS 10 MHz locks to clock the network. Others send precise rubidium clock reference clock signals embedded in the backhaul to keep all of the sites synchronous and avoid collisions of datagrams. Some sites I have visited do all three methods of clocking. So, how will clocking be addressed over a Starlink network?
It is indeed interesting and fun to ponder what is possible once Starlink is operational. The possibilities are endless. However, there are so many questions that cannot be answered right now. We will all just have to wait until Elon Musk launches his service and we get to play with it and uncover what might be innovative beyond just a fat pipe connection. Not that a fat pipe is a bad thing, it is desperately needed in rural and remote Canada. But, in urban and suburban areas there is a lot of serious competition to Starlink and it may not perform well in high density situations anyway. However, in rural and remote areas, where the customer density is sparse, and where they are starved for connectivity, it will be a feast like they have never known before. The future is indeed very bright beyond simple direct to home fat pipe connections. It begs the question, what else can Starlink do? I, for one, will continue to explore this question and hopefully play with it soon to daydream some new solutions.
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.