SpaceX Conducts One Million Starlink Tests & Doubles Speed Through Software Update

Ramish Zafar
Starlink render
A rendered trio of Starlink satellites in orbit. Image: KCRG

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Data shared by Space Exploration Holdings LLC., a SpaceX subsidiary, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has revealed key information for the company's Starlink satellite-based internet service. SpaceX opened up beta participation for the network last week, and in its email to potential customers, the company shared important performance details for the network; details that demonstrated key gains over satellite and terrestrial internet service providers in America.

Soon after, data by Speedtest Intelligence revealed that Starlink had made big gains in download speeds in October, as it nearly doubled the speeds from September. The change was striking and it came just as SpaceX opened up the beta participation. SpaceX's presentation to the FCC reveals the reason behind this jump, and other important details for the internet service's latency and testing.

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SpaceX Details Testing Conditions, Latency Figures For Starlink

The presentation shows that either at the start of October or in late September, SpaceX installed key software upgrades for Starlink. These upgrades, according to the company, resulted and will result in the internet service's download speeds improving by "2.5 times" prior to previous values -  a gain nearly mirrored by Speedtest's data.

This data had shown that during September, Starlink's average download speed had stood at ~43 Mb/s and that during October, this had increased to ~80 Mb/s - reflecting an 86% gain. For uploads, the speed stood at ~10 Mb/s during September and increased to ~14 Mb/s in the next month, for a much smaller change. In the second slide of its presentation, SpaceX states that the software upgrade will directly affect Starlink's throughput - a metric measured in mega-bits-per-second or Mb/s.

Naturally, since averages also include the extreme endpoints of a data set, SpaceX is most likely using these endpoints to reflect the effects of its software updates.

Slide 3 from SpaceX's presentation to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made on October 13, 2020. SpaceX's head of satellite policy Mr. David Goldman and Vice President of government affairs Ms. Patricia Cooper made the presentation to members of the Commission's International Bureau responsible for International telecommunications and satellite programs. Image: SpaceX IB Ex Parte, posted on October 16, 2020, ID: 101548191460

Figures for latency or the time that it takes for an information packet to travel to and from an internet server to a user's machine are very important for Starlink. They are crucial for remote working and teleconferencing platforms and for online gaming, as they end up determining the end-user experience from an internet service to a larger extent.

Company's Data Set Shows Widely Varying Upper-End Latency For Starlink

SpaceX provided key details for this metric in its presentation. According to the company, the median (the largest prevalent value in a dataset) latency value for Starlink sits at 30ms - a reading that is significantly below what other satellite internet service providers can achieve but higher than what terrestrial network providers offer. This value should reflect what the end consumer will receive since SpaceX achieved it by testing Starlink on "consumer-grade equipment".

More importantly, the company also addressed concerns about network congestion in its tests and presentation. SpaceX claims that it tested Starlink in "peak busy hour conditions, heavily loaded cells, and representative locations." These tests involved 30 "high-usage" customers, with over one million data points.

Their results show that the majority of the data points had a latency of roughly ~30ms, which is in the middle of SpaceX's promised 20ms - 40ms emailed range to its customers for the service's beta program. Additionally, they also reveal that latency exceeding 40ms was present only for the most extreme range of tests or for its 95th percentile. However, while SpaceX's dataset reveals that the minimum latency for Starlink is currently 20ms, the highest value can range in excess of 60ms.

SpaceX has big plans for Starlink as it hopes to provide internet connectivity through the constellation not only on Earth but on Mars as well. The service is expected to provide the company with much-needed capital for building out its Starship interplanetary crew and cargo transportation system, which is expected to conduct a 12-mile test 'hop' soon.

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