SpaceX has provided Washington’s Emergency Management department access to Starlink satellite internet service in a bid to support the state’s emergency response to dangerous wildfires.
Though the customer is technically a military department, this is the first public announcement of the internet constellation’s use in a civil service-oriented role. In the case of Malden, WA, a tiny eastern town with roughly 200 residents, a wildfire broke out in the first week of September and all but destroyed every building in a matter of hours. No fatalities have been recorded but the town and all its critical services effectively ceased to exist by the time the first passed through.
Given the sheer scale of fire damage Washington state has suffered this summer, Malden – without power or many other utilities after the fire passed through – is likely being held together with the support of emergency services departments like WA Emergency Management. Now, with SpaceX’s help, that likely includes the ability to provide some limited internet service – perhaps in a communal center or shelter – without spending an unreasonable portion of the precious little resources most emergency response agencies have to work with.
While still firmly in the development and prototype phase, SpaceX has begun to gradually expand the scope of its beta testing as the Starlink constellation expands, building off of an already strong relationship with the US military. That helps explain why, of so many possible civil recipients, WA Emergency Management – a military department – has received access to Starlink internet services first.
As SpaceX has made sure to reiterate during its many Starlink launch webcasts, the constellation’s main target demographics are those in regions that either completely or practically lack access to reliable internet. With a low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation like Starlink, SpaceX could feasibly deliver reliable, uninterrupted internet almost anywhere on Earth, so long as a prospective user has access to enough power to run their user terminal (antenna/router). According to SpaceX’s FCC application for said terminal, A/C power input requirements should never climb above 2.5 amps from a normal 100-240v outlet.
Ultimately, the second planned phase of Starlink will see the constellation grow to a point that SpaceX can seriously begin competing with ground-based ISPs – even in densely-populated areas. For now, though, the company has made it clear that the first phase – at least several thousand satellites -will primarily focus on connecting the unconnected and substantially upgrading the capabilities of emergency responders around the world.
Confirming President/COO Gwynne Shotwell’s February 2020 comments on a possible Starlink IPO, CEO Elon Musk reiterated that SpaceX may eventually spin off Starlink and make the company public, “but only several years in the future.” This is far from surprising, as Musk has consistently expressed disdain for the challenge of running Tesla as a public company, going so far as getting himself in hot legal water in an ill-fated attempt to take the company private in 2018.
Going public is possibly the single worst thing SpaceX or any SpaceX spin-off could do, given that shareholders generally have a single goal in mind: reliable profit and reliable growth. That attitude is generally the death knell for high-uncertainty R&D programs pursuing the first low Earth orbit Internet satellite constellation, reusable orbital-class rockets, 100-person Starships, or bases on the Moon and Mars. As such, Musk notes that SpaceX will consider taking Starlink public – but if and only if Starlink reaches a point where “revenue growth is smooth & predictable.” Shotwell and Musk, in other words, are on the same page.
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