Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has begun offering its Starlink satellite connectivity service to the maritime sector, moving quickly to make a package available after receiving authorisation from the US FCC to provide mobility services to vessels on June 30th.
The new ‘Starlink Maritime’ service page on the company’s website promises to deliver “high-speed, low-latency internet with up to 350 Mbps download while at sea”, however initial pricing and current coverage areas are unlikely to entice users in the commercial shipping segment for the time being.
Based on delivery within the US, the two 7.2kg High Performance Starlink antennas required for the service, which are IP56 rated for protection against water, will be supplied at a cost of $10,000 for the pair (including pipe adapter mounts). SpaceX says that ordering customers will have the option to upgrade to a flat panel antenna in Q4 2022.
These are fixed dish units (pictured above) rather than the more common stabilised antennas shipping users will be familiar with for typical maritime geostationary VSAT or Inmarsat FleetBroadband services.
The monthly subscription for connectivity on the maritime package comes in at a hefty $5,000, considerably more than most vessel operators would currently pay for satcom services on a typical VSAT link. Consumer services for Starlink home connectivity is priced at just $110 per month.
In a move likely aimed at the leisure market, the company will allow users to pause and un-pause the maritime service at any time, with billing charged in one-month increments. Multiple fleet installations of Starlink units can also be remotely monitored and managed through a single web portal.
Current maritime service coverage is limited to areas near shore, which is thought to be related to SpaceX continuing to work on its laser crosslink set-up for communication between satellites in orbit. Crosslinks were only added to the design of the network from last year, with CEO Musk tweeting in January 2021 that: “All sats launched next year will have laser links. Only our polar sats have lasers this year & are v0.9.”
Early Starlink satellites required signals to be directly handed off to a ground station within view of the satellite, limiting their potential for maritime use. Crosslinks solve that problem by passing the signal off to another satellite in the network, which can pass it off again until it reaches a satellite within sight of a ground station.
Starlink’s current maritime coverage map shows a significant expansion planned over the next twelve months, as launches continue and the crosslinked network grows, with service in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, for example, scheduled to start in Q4 2022 before global service follows in Q1 2023.
SpaceX has been testing the Starlink service at sea in a limited capacity under an experimental licence on its own fleet of 10 ocean going vessels used for launch recovery operations, including on its remotely operated ‘droneships’ that feature unmanned systems monitored by a remote operator in the Launch and Landing Control Center.
The Starlink system was installed on all of these ships to provide communications in place of existing VSAT equipment, with the company noting that it saw no issues operating in at-sea conditions or dealing with vibrations from the rocket engines as launch vehicles came in to land on the droneships.