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SpaceX keeps the Starlink launches coming, reveals NZ pricing

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 16 February 2021, 10:56 am

Space X will undertake back-to-back Starlink satellite launches this week as it races to build out its global network and to launch services in New Zealand.

In the course of the next day, SpaceX has two Falcon 9 rocket launches scheduled, with around 60 satellites on each. A previous launch was scrapped on February 15. The pace of satellite launches is set to stay at a consistent level through the rest of the year as SpaceX races to meet a deadline agreed with the US Government.

The permit SpaceX has from the US Federal Communications Commission requires Starlink to have 2,212 satellites operational by March, 2022, based on the original terms agreed in 2018. The Elon Musk-led company currently has around 1,000 satellites in orbit, though it is unclear how many of them are "operational".

Last month, the FCC granted permission for SpaceX to launch ten satellites into polar orbit, which would allow it to begin offering satellite broadband services in Alaska. The Starlink service is already being trialled by beta users in the US and the UK, with Starlink suggesting data speeds of 50Mbps (megabits per second) to 150Mbps will be possible with the service - as long as it has enough satellites in orbit and operational to provide continuous coverage.

That could appeal to rural New Zealanders beyond the reach of the Ultrafast Broadband Network, copper lines, mobile and fixed wireless services. But it will come at a relatively high price. 

The Starlink website, where people can register to pre-order the service, outlines a set-up cost of $799 for the Starlink dish and receiver, plus $114 for shipping and hardware. The broadband service will cost $159 per month. There's no information on the website indicating what installation and service support will be offered. 

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Starlink's pre-order page

The pre-order is "fully refundable", with Starlink adding the disclaimer: "Depending on location, some orders may take 6 months or more to fulfill. Placing a deposit does not guarantee service."

Starlink indicates that the service will be accessible in "mid to late 2021". 

"Availability is limited. Orders will be fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis."

The lengthy pre-order time and refundable deposit model mirrors that of Elon Musk's other company Tesla, where prospective buyers of the company's electric cars have in the past been able to make pre-orders for vehicles and put down a deposit over a year before some models were even released.

New Zealand, where Starlink has secured antennae access to communicate with its satellite constellation from the Awarua satellite ground station in Southland, may not be a particularly lucrative market for the company.

After all, there are satellite providers already serving rural communities here. Gravity offers a $119 a month plan for 50GB (gigabytes) of data, with data transfer speeds of up to 30Mbps. Installation costs $495 on a 24-month contract and a phone connection with unlimited calling in New Zealand and Australia can be added for $29 a month with a $59 set-up fee. 

Force of Gravity

Throttling the speed down to 5Mbps, reduces the cost of a 50GB monthly plan to $79. Gravity claims to cover all of New Zealand, except the Chatham Islands and operates its services via the Kacific1 satellite which was built by Boeing and launched by SpaceX. The Optus D2 satellite services the Chatham Islands, with a 50GB plan from Wireless Nation costing $120 a month. Wireless Nation is also relying on the Kacific satellite for service delivery to the rest of New Zealand, with an unlimited data plan on offer for $249 a month.

Other operations who were pushing satellite services seem to have settled on fixed wireless solutions and mobile services delivered as part of the Rural Broadband Initiative, rather than more expensive and less reliable satellite services. 

So Starlink, with its global reach and scale, may have an edge over smaller local players over time. While many will welcome a new player that may contribute to efforts to bridge the remaining digital divide in rural New Zealand, Starlink's arrival won't be welcomed by all.

Clearly, it will put pressure on small wireless providers who have dedicated resources to serving rural communities. The Starlink constellation has also upset astronomers, who consider the sun's reflection from the small satellites as light pollution that will hamper astronomy efforts as the constellation grows to become tens of thousands of satellites strong.


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