Starlink To Test Hundreds Of Dishes At Maximum Power To Improve Service

The Falcon 9 standing tall after launching Starlink satellites last month. Starlink let SpaceX broadcast high quality footage of the rocket landing on its drone ship. Image: SpaceX

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Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) Starlink satellite internet service is gearing up for a major testing run that will enable it to develop better user terminals. Starlink provides its users all over the world with dishes that connect with its orbiting satellites to provide internet connectivity, and these terminals have seen several changes ever since SpaceX opened Starlink's doors to the public.

Since then, not only has Starlink introduced new dishes in the market, but it has also developed and deployed these terminals on all types of vehicles such as airplanes, ships and ground vehicles. Now, a new application submitted by the company to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) late last month reveals that Starlink is aiming at evaluating the potential for its terminals to stay connected with its satellites for a longer time period without harming users.

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Starlink To Test User Terminals At Maximum Duty Cycle To Improve Service

The key specification that the test will aim at testing is the user terminal's transmit duty cycle. In radio frequency terminology, this is the time that a device is powered on to connect with its external receiver and sender. For the Starlink dishes, this is simply the time that they spend actively connected to a satellite, and the longer this time period is, the better connectivity the user will experience.

However, this comes with its own set of drawbacks. For starters, a higher cycle results in the terminal using more power, which is particularly important for mobile users. Additionally, it also increases the radiofrequency hazard of the dish, since it will be emanating signals for a longer time period.

As a result, Starlink assures the FCC that its tests will not involve the general public and will be undertaken under controlled conditions only. It also states that the tests are designed to "explore ways of providing enhanced service to end-users in a variety of contexts."

The Federal Communications Commission's guidelines for Radiofrequency exposure limits. Image: 47 CFR § 1.1310 - Radiofrequency radiation exposure limits/ Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute

The tests will use up to 200 user terminals, some of which are designed to be used in fixed locations while others are what Starlink calls Earth Stations in Motion (ESIMs). The ESIMS will be used on a variety of vehicles as well, such as those on the ground, in water and in the air. Additionally, the terminals can operate at a staggering transmit duty cycle of 78%, which is the limit allowed by the FCC rules. In layman terms, this means that in a single time unit, such as ten minutes, the terminal will be communicating with its satellites  78% of the time.

As the application narrative outlies:

The operations described in this application would occur only under controlled conditions and would not involve members of the public. Thus, under the FCC’s current RF-exposure guidance, these SpaceX user terminals may operate at a duty cycle of up to 78%—the appropriate limit for occupational exposure under current OET guidance.3 The details of this radiation hazard analysis are included as a separate attachment to this application.

This test is not the first time that we have come across the duty cycles for Starlink terminals. The first time we came across this crucial metric was in June last year when newer terminals were pegged to have a duty cycle of 14%, marking a 3% increase over their predecessors. Then, a handful of months later, Starlink outlined its plans for ESIMs and divided these dishes into two categories.

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The terminals intended to be used by the general public had a duty cycle of 15.5% while those marked for occupational or controlled use had the highest cycle time of 33%. The latter terminals would also come with warning labels and be installed only by qualified personnel, Starlink had assured the Commission back then.

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