SpaceX, Starship, and the Future of Starlink

Despite ending in a cataclysmic inferno, SpaceX’s initial test flight of a full Starship prototype bodes well for the future of Starship — and Starlink.

The flight of Starship SN8 (“Serial Number 8”) demonstrated a controlled ascent, engine cutoff, complex flip move, aerodynamic stability on reentry, engine startup, and another complex flip move. Unfortunately the craft didn’t slow sufficiently before landing due to fuel tank pressure issues, and ended up as a smoldering pile of scrap metal.

The next prototype, SN9, is already constructed and ready to go. SpaceX also has started construction of the next six prototypes.

Assuming that SpaceX succeeds in launching and landing future prototypes, including into LEO and back, next would come demonstration missions.

And this is good news for Starlink. SpaceX would be unlikely to host paying customers in early Starship satellite deployments. The company won’t fly astronauts until completing “hundreds of missions“. So that leaves Starlink. Analysts estimate that one Starship flight, which reportedly will only cost $2 million, could launch up to 400 Starlink satellites per launch.

SpaceX has launched under 1,000 Starlink satellites to date. Given Starship’s encouraging initial performance and capacity, it is likely that the cadence of Starlink deployments will accelerate quickly once Starship is operational, which with respect to Starlink, may not be too many months away.

SpaceX Links Remote Communities

Having launched over 900 Starlink satellites to date, SpaceX has started its “better than nothing beta” test of the Starlink service. Initial customers in the northern US and Canada are sent invitations for the new service, costing $499 for equipement and $99 per month.

As part of the Starlink rollout, SpaceX is offering free service to a number of underserved communities:

  • The Hoh Tribe, an indigenous Community in Washington State;
  • The Pikangikum First Nation, an indigenous Community in Canada;
  • The Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas.

These communities test the service in remote areas for free, and Spacex gets favorable press coverage.

As beta testing expands geographically, SpaceX will have excellent opportunities to test systems and make a big difference in communities across the planet. In order to maximize benefits, SpaceX should prioritize schools, probably in concert with GIGA.

Since the network is global, Starlink will see very rapid growth as the initial phase of 1440 satellites are deployed in 2021.

Should Linking the Next Million Schools Be That Difficult?

Something like two million schools globally don’t have internet access. The greatest obstacle to connectivity is often infrastructure: fiber, cell towers, microwave towers, receiving equipment all are expensive.

LEO internet satellites offer an unprecedented opportunity to link schools. What would be required for this to happen?

  • Starlink, the new LEO service most likely to scale, needs to prioritize schools. Ideally it would waive some or all of data costs for the first 100 thousand schools connected.
  • GIGA needs to expand its database of all schools globally. It has a great head start.
  • The multilaterals, bilaterals, and philanthropic sector need to buy or subsidize user terminals (ideally at a discount from SpaceX). If user terminals are in fact in the low hundreds of dollars each, this should be a manageable expenditure. (The Broadband Commission has called for $109 billion for connectivity, just for Africa). Data usage will also require subsidies.
  • On-the-ground partners need to be identified for installation of antennas and servicing — although ideally this isn’t too complicated.
  • Countries need to prioritize bringing schools online, which has implications for licensing and spectrum for satellite providers.

This doesn’t sound like too daunting a list. I’ve also worked for years in developing countries and understand that simple plans are frequently derailed. The end goal here, however, is so important, that maybe with the promise of LEO internet satellites we’ll make rapid and significant process bringing online the next million schools.

Tech Hubs and Schools

Soon schools in many regions of the world will be gaining internet access for the first time. They will have immediate access to global curricular materials, student resources, online education initiatives, and much more.

What they often will not have, however, are resources that are culturally appropriate and in local languages. Half of the world speaks one of five languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic). This is the half that is essentially online now. The other half of the world speaks over 6,000 languages. This is the half that is essentially soon to come online.

So how to bridge from global online resources to local needs for education?

One key strategy is to use tech incubators. Cities around the globe are now home to thriving co-working spaces bringing tech-oriented professionals together to build local online services and apps. Tech hubs, such as Nairobi Garage in Kenya, BongoHive in Zambia or Phandeeyar in Myanmar provide the space and tools that entrepreneurs require. They also provide an immediate and invaluable source of community to help with collaboration, training, and promoting innovation. lists co-working spaces in 170 countries – and growing! Co-working spaces represent a mostly hidden, but very consequential, form of tech infrastructure in developing countries that will benefit education and other sectors.

Why Starlink Needs a Schools Strategy

Growing companies benefit from public goodwill. When Google was expanding quickly, the combination of excellent services and a “don’t be evil” management motto built up a reservoir of public goodwill. Tesla, with a combination of excellent products and goal of reducing global fossil fuels, has a large reservoir of public goodwill.

SpaceX has goodwill — its engineering is amazing and its goal of making humans “multiplanetary” inspires some people. SpaceX’s Starlink program, however, which will provide satellite broadband globally, doesn’t yet share that same goodwill. Any news search on “Starlink” will generate a long list of articles about how Starlink is going to destroy astronomy, make asteroid catastrophes more likely, and lead to a runaway problem of space debris. None of these are likely true, but you wouldn’t know it from the press.

The irony is that Starlink might in fact represent Elon Musk’s greatest contribution to the planet. Linking four billion people currently without internet to the rest of the world is one of the epic stories of our generation. It can create opportunity, knowledge and wealth at a level heretofore impossible.

One straightforward way for Starlink to get ahead of the press and start building public goodwill would be to make a commitment to provide broadband to schools in developing countries. If Starlink launched a “100,000 schools” program, probably in coordination with the UN and ITU, that story would eclipse all the others.

Of course there is another reason for Starlink to commit to helping link 100,000 schools: it is the right thing to do.

Increased broadband in developing countries is going to create many problems — just ask Facebook about Myanmar. It will also create unbelievable opportunities. It is time Starlink started building up its reservoir of public goodwill. It will certainly need it down the road.

Sustainable Development Goals and Education

In 2000, the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set eight development targets to be achieved by 2015. Each goal had associated metrics and timelines.

In addition to mixed success, the goals prompted debate about whether the best, most legitimate eight goals were chosen. There was a parallel debate around the chosen success metrics.

Despite the shortcomings or disputes, however, the MDGs are widely credited with increasing attention, funding, and coordination around fundamentally important global milestones.

As the end of the 15 year window approached, the United Nations launched a follow-on effort entitled the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Careful to avoid criticism of a hasty selection of targets, the UN considered literally hundreds of possible goals, eventually (and painfully) winnowing down to 17 goals — including 169 “targets” and 304 “indicators”. (The large number of goals, targets and indicators unleashed a new wave of criticism.)

Making the “final cut” of 17 goals is #4 / Education, which reads:

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.

Countries are making mixed progress towards this goal. Some have already achieved it (Canada, Iran, China, Sri Lanka), while others remain far from the goal. The greatest challenge is across sub-Saharan Africa, where over thirty countries have major challenges ahead.

Confronting these challenges will require many strategies. Certainly linking the next million schools to the internet should be the highest of priorities.

Schools in Developing Countries

Some schools in developing countries are impressive. Innova Schools in Peru are groundbreaking. The Hamels Foundation School in Malawi is awesome. There are many educational points of light throughout developing countries.

Many other schools in developing countries — millions, actually — are unbelievably constrained. In rural Nicaragua classes may be held in shipping containers. In Africa, many schools are held by necessity outdoors. Often a “school” may have a teacher (with limited training), a blackboard — and that is about it. Limited classrooms, no desks, no books, few teachers, no standard curriculum — that is the best you can find in many places.

I was visiting schools once in rural Malawi, and since I was a foreigner, I was handed a note from a school I hadn’t visited requesting help. It outlined that it had few teachers, desks, and toilets:

If schools are lacking even the most basic elements of education, what good will broadband do? A lot actually. One thing is clear from even the most resource-constrained environments: education is a generally a very high priority. If that means holding class in a shipping container or outside under a tree, so be it. People make the best with what they have.

If there is connectivity and at least one device, that opens up a world of opportunities. Teachers have resources. Students can get curricular materials. Ministries of Education can start to reach more students.

Broadband doesn’t solve the education problem. People still need teachers and desks and toilets. But it can help a lot — and in environments where education is prioritized, people are resourceful and benefit from connectivity.

Loon Signs Disaster Relief Agreement with AT&T

Loon, the internet connectivity subsidiary of Alphabet, is partnering with AT&T, to assist with communications during natural disasters. Loon balloons, flying in the stratosphere and integrated with AT&T networks, can be quickly deployed to serve as “floating cell towers” to restore phone and data service.

Loon has played this emergency role in the past, including in partnership with AT&T. In 2017, Loon deployed balloons to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. That year Loon also deployed balloons to Peru to restore connectivity lost to extensive flooding.

Based on 2017 experience, Loon has continued to work in Peru, now launching commercial operations to connect schools, clinics, businesses and consumers in remote parts of the country.

Loon reports it has received regulatory approval from 50 countries to fly its balloons. The new agreement with AT&T will involve all countries in which AT&T operates or in which AT&T has international partner roaming agreements.

Update from GIGA

GIGA is the UNICEF / ITU project to connect every school on the planet to the internet. It is a big task: there are likely about two million schools still unconnected.GIGA has provided a recent update on current efforts. Highlights include:

  • 9 of 11 states in the Eastern Caribbean (OECS) are now fully connected.
  • Active programs mapping school connectivity are underway in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.
  • Kazakhstan is taking the lead in Central Asia programs, including integrating over 10,000 schools into GIGA global mapping platform.
  • GIGA is moving forward with mapping, connectivity, content and finance programs in many countries, with current priority on Kenya, Niger, Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, El Salvador, Honduras, Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent.

Simultaneously, the large tech firms are making progress in connectivity issues. Loon is now operating commercially in Kenya and Peru and seeks to scale. SpaceX has announced initial commercial services in the US at the end of 2020, with global service offerings in 2021. There are many open questions around services and costs from Loon, SpaceX and others, but major infrastructure is being built.

Under ideal circumstances increased connectivity through new services and GIGA’s comprehensive schools database can lead to rapid extension of school connectivity over the next few years.

Global Education During a Pandemic

My new teacher

A major secondary effect of the pandemic is the creation of a global education crisis. UNESCO estimates that over 1.5 billion children worldwide are currently out of school in over 180 countries.

In response, UNESCO has launched the Global Education Consortium, a network of public and private sector organizations coordinating to address global education challenges. The Consortium includes multilaterals (WHO, UNHCR, ILO), private sector (Microsoft, Facebook, Zoom, Coursera), philanthropies (Khan Academy, Sesame Street), and many others.

As part of the initiative, UNESCO has published resource lists of online tools as well as a best practices guide on distance education.

One major challenge is that many children do not have access to online resources. In a number of countries (and some states in the US), instruction is now happening by television and in some cases by radio.

If there were a silver lining to this rapid shift to online learning, it is that as broadband reaches more communities in coming years, online resources will be better developed due to the challenges the world now faces with education during a pandemic.