The Starlink satellite internet network that SpaceX is developing has been used in the field by Washington state emergency responders in recent weeks, the first early application of the company's service to be disclosed.
Washington's state military, which includes its emergency response division, began employing Starlink user terminals in early August to bring internet service to areas devastated by wildfires. User terminals are the small devices on the ground that connect to the satellites. The emergency division has seven Starlink user terminals, which it is deploying with early success.
"I have never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable" as Starlink, Richard Hall, the emergency telecommunications leader of the Washington State Military Department's IT division, told CNBC in an interview Monday.
Starlink is the name for SpaceX's ambitious plan to build an interconnected internet satellite network, also known as a "constellation," to deliver high-speed internet to anywhere on the planet.
The full Starlink network is planned to have about 12,000 satellites flying in what is known as low Earth orbit, much closer to the surface than traditional broadband satellites. Hall, whose division has used other satellite broadband services, said "there's really no comparison" between Starlink and traditional networks, where the satellites are farther away from the Earth in Geosynchronous or medium earth orbits.
"Starlink easily doubles the bandwidth" in comparison, Hall said, noting that he's seen more than 150% decreases in latency. "I've seen lower than 30 millisecond latency consistently," he said.
Hall said that, with other traditional services, it typically takes between 30 minutes to an hour to set up a satellite connection, "with a lot less speed and bandwidth and a lot higher latency in a much larger package."
By comparison, Hall emphasized that it took him between five and 10 minutes to set up and connect a Starlink terminal. And a single person can set up one of the devices: "It doesn't require a truck and a trailer and a whole lot of other additional equipment," Hall said.
"I have spent the better part of four or five hours with some satellite equipment trying to get a good [connection]. So, to me, it's amazing," Hall added.
SpaceX's Starlink development facility and factory is in Redmond, Washington, just outside of Seattle. Hall's division had some early discussions with SpaceX, he said, as the state was working "to provide some rural coverage to some of our tribal areas that were not going to get broadband at all for awhile."
To date SpaceX has launched more than 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.
The company has confirmed that it's been conducting a private beta test of Starlink with employees, but Hall said Washington's emergency division use case "grew organically out of previously unrelated talks." When Washington's wildfires became increasingly severe in August, with catastrophic damage, Hall saw Starlink as a new solution for areas where the damage meant "there is no other available data connection."
Washington has used Starlink to get regions "zero day communications," Hall said. He has set up terminals in areas that were burned severely to provide evacuated families with wireless calling and internet access to file insurance claims.
"I even did setup to allow kids to do some of their initial schooling too, because they were pressing forward with some limited presence slowly. We covered a whole lot of bases," Hall said. "Starlink changes the game as far as what's available."
The U.S. Air Force has also notably conducted early tests of Starlink, but Washington's use represents the first application of the service over several weeks. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Monday responded to Washington state's thanks for the support from Starlink.
"Glad SpaceX could help! We are prioritizing emergency responders & locations with no Internet connectivity at all," Musk tweeted.
SpaceX has sent Hall both beta and the first commercial Starlink user terminals. He said the user terminals are all "great quality," with the commercial ones being "just a bit more of a slicker, more finished product."
The base of the terminal was originally a solid round weight but changed to a tripod, which Hall said allowed for a more flexible set up experience. While SpaceX told Hall that the terminal "required a clear North-facing shot," some places he set them up were "slightly obscured but it still worked like a charm, with great speeds."
Musk's company is allowing Washington state to use the Starlink terminals for free, with Hall saying there has been "no fee structure quoted yet."
"The idea is that if we want them long term then we will have come back to table and talk about that," Hall said. "Myself and other folks at my agency want to begin to hash that out because these, at least as far as we're concerned, are here to stay for us. We want to get as many spun out to as many places as we can, so knowing what the cost is going to be is better sooner rather than later."
Hall added that he's aware of interest in Starlink from other organizations, such as from Washington's Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"There's a lot of interest. The only problem is that there we're still kind of limited on where we can deploy it outside of Pacific Northwest," Hall said.
SpaceX plans to continue to expand Starlink's coverage area as it launches more satellites, with the company in July saying that it is building 120 satellites per month, as well as thousands of the small terminals that consumers will use to connect to the network.
SpaceX plans to begin a public beta test of Starlink once the private beta test concludes, with the goal of offering commercial Starlink service in the northern U.S. and southern Canada by the end of this year.
"SpaceX is being very cautious right now in what they promise us, but it's been nothing but good things," Hall said.
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