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Who is Starlink really for?

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Who is Starlink really for?


Six weeks ago, however, his circumstances changed, thanks to Starlink. Woodward became a beta user of SpaceX’s internet service, which uses a growing fleet of 1,600 satellites orbiting Earth to deliver internet access to people on the surface. As of the end of July, the company was reporting close to 90,000 users. “Within the first few weeks, I became a real fanboy of Starlink,” says Woodward. 

“For anybody that’s been living out of the sticks like me, Starlink will come as something of a revelation,” he adds.

But Starlink wasn’t designed just to hook up remote cybersecurity professors: SpaceX has made bigger claims than that. It hopes to bring high-speed satellite internet to many of the 3.7 billion people on this planet who currently have no internet connection at all. Many simply make do with mobile-phone connections—an expensive workaround in its own right. (One gigabit of data in sub-Saharan Africa costs 40% of the average monthly wage.) 

And that’s not even considering people who have internet access but lack a broadband connection. Almost the entirety of the US has access to the internet, but 157 million Americans, most of whom live in rural communities,don’t use it at broadband speeds. Black communities are disproportionately more likely to lack access to broadband internet, even when they are in close proximity to whiter (and wealthier) communities. After living through covid and a time when most people relied on the internet as a lifeline, it’s difficult to think that high-speed internet is still an unattainable luxury for some.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether Starlink can actually solve this larger problem. “It’s really meant for sparsely populated regions,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said at a conference in June. “In high-density areas, we will be able to serve a limited number of customers.” And many rural citizens of the world will be locked out because they won’t be able to afford it. 

Starlink must get costs down fast in order to expand its customer base, but it must also make enough money to continue launching hundreds or even thousands of satellites every year. It’s a delicate needle that might be impossible to thread.  

Price points

Typical satellite internet services place just a few satellites in very high orbits, called geostationary orbits. From up there, individual satellites can provide wider areas of coverage, but the latency (or lag time) is greater. Woodward has used such services before but has always found them to be “useless.” 

Starlink and its competitors, like OneWeb and Amazon Kuiper, instead deploy tens of thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). Their closer proximity to Earth means latency is significantly reduced. And while each one covers a smaller area, the sheer numbers mean they should theoretically blanket the planet in coverage and prevent any loss of connection. 

Starlink began beta testing last year and is now available in 14 countries. Last December, the US Federal Communications Commission awarded SpaceX $886 million as part of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which subsidizes US telecom companies that are building out infrastructure to help get broadband access to rural places. 

But it’s not totally clear whether rural America is a viable customer base for Starlink. The biggest issue is cost. A Starlink subscription is $99. Speeds can vary greatly, but the average user should expect 50 to 150 megabits per second. You’d have to pay traditional satellite internet companies like Viasat (which operates geostationary satellites) double that amount to get the same speeds. Not bad.

It’s the upfront expense that will hit you hardest with Starlink, however. Costs for things like the satellite dish and router come out to a whopping $499—and that equipment is sold to customers at a loss. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has previously said he hopes these costs can come down closer to $250, but it’s unclear when or if that might happen. For much of the rural world, in America and elsewhere, the price is simply too high. 

So who will the first Starlink users be? The physical and financial demands of building satellites and launching them into orbit (though cheaper than ever, still a very expensive enterprise) mean Starlink will be operating at a loss for some time, says Derek Turner, a tech policy analyst at Free Press, a nonprofit that advocates for open communication. And getting costs down will mean looking at customers beyond just unconnected individuals in the countryside. 

Instead, the early customers are more likely to include the US military, which when operating in remote areas often relies on geostationary satellites plagued by congested service and high latency. Both the Air Force and the Armyare interested in testing Starlink. Some intelligence experts have pointed to the troubled pullout from Afghanistan as an example of where the service could have helped. 

Airlines that want to offer passengers faster and more stable in-flight Wi-Fi are also looking into Starlink. Other commercial businesses in rural areas might also find value in it. And of course, there are techies and curious customers in the suburbs and cities with the money to try it out.

In Turner’s view, adding those customers could help bring prices down for everyone, but it also means less bandwidth to go around. Starlink can offset this problem by launching more satellites—which it eventually plans to do, but that’s assuming it has enough subscribers. 

Musk has said it will take tens of billions of dollars in capital before Starlink has enough capacity to generate a positive cash flow. It’s launched 1,600 satellites so far with no problem, but the eventual goal of 42,000 is an entirely different matter. “It doesn’t scale as favorably as wired broadband does,” Turner says. It’s not at all clear yet how many satellites Starlink will need in order to deliver reliable high-speed internet to hundreds of thousands or even millions of subscribers logging on at the same time. 

And for many customers, especially commercial businesses, there are cheaper alternatives to Starlink that can still fulfill their needs. A farmer who’s using smart sensors to track things like local weather and soil conditions doesn’t need broadband internet to connect these devices. That’s where smaller companies like the US-based Swarm come in: it uses a fleet of over 120 small satellites to help connect IoT devices for such use cases. Swarm (recently acquired by SpaceX) offers a data plan starting at just $5 a month. And of course, if you’re in a well-populated area, spending $99 a month with another ISP will likely get you speeds closer to 1,000 mbps.

Backtracking

On the surface, the FCC’s RDOF award to Starlink would suggest that rural America is an essential part of how Starlink will grow. But Turner says this is a misconception, and that SpaceX should not have been allowed to put down RDOF bids in the first place, because it will be building out the Starlink network anyway. “I think the FCC would have been better to direct its resources toward bringing future-proof broadband to areas where it doesn’t make sense economically to deploy,” he says. 

Acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel spearheaded a review late last year of how RDOF subsidies were awarded under her predecessor, Ajit Pai, and found that billions were doled out to companies to have them bring broadband internet to places where it was unnecessary or inappropriate, like “parking lots and well-served urban areas.” A report by Free Press estimated that about $111 million of SpaceX’s own award would be going to urban areas or places with no real infrastructure or need for internet connections, like highway medians. The FCC is asking those companies, including Starlink, to essentially give back some of the money. (SpaceX did not respond to questions or requests for comment.)

Turner acknowledges that LEO satellites are “going to be a very important innovation in the telecommunication space.” But he still thinks services like Starlink will be a niche product in the US, even in the long term—and sees the general trend continuing toward fiber. Even an emerging technology like 5G relies on very dense networks of antennas that can connect back to fibers as quickly as possible. Cable broadband has improved consistently over time because companies are pushing fiber networks deeper and closer to customers. 

Underdeveloped parts of the world might find Starlink to be a boon, since many of these places do not have physical networks like the cable system that the US laid out in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. But beta testing so far is exclusive to the US, Canada, parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. It’s too early to tell what kind of impact it could have in the developing world, especially if subscription and equipment costs stay high.

Woodward’s experience is the kind the company would like to replicate for all its customers. But Woodward knows he’s fortunate to be able to afford Starlink, and that it’s able to meet his needs. For now, at least. “It will be interesting to see how Starlink holds up when they get 200,000 users,” he says. “Prices will have to come down, but speeds and service will have to remain the same. That’s all to be determined.”



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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing

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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing


The researchers claim that their approach could be used to train AI to carry out other tasks. To begin with, it could be used to for bots that use a keyboard and mouse to navigate websites, book flights or buy groceries online. But in theory it could be used to train robots to carry out physical, real-world tasks by copying first-person video of people doing those things. “It’s plausible,” says Stone.

Matthew Gudzial at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has used videos to teach AI the rules of games like Super Mario Bros, does not think it will happen any time soon, however. Actions in games like Minecraft and Super Mario Bros. are performed by pressing buttons. Actions in the physical world are far more complicated and harder for a machine to learn. “It unlocks a whole mess of new research problems,” says Gudzial.

“This work is another testament to the power of scaling up models and training on massive datasets to get good performance,” says Natasha Jaques, who works on multi-agent reinforcement learning at Google and the University of California, Berkeley. 

Large internet-sized data sets will certainly unlock new capabilities for AI, says Jaques. “We’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s a great approach.” But OpenAI places a lot of faith in the power of large data sets alone, she says: “Personally, I’m a little more skeptical that data can solve any problem.”

Still, Baker and his colleagues think that collecting more than a million hours of Minecraft videos will make their AI even better. It’s probably the best Minecraft-playing bot yet, says Baker: “But with more data and bigger models I would expect it to feel like you’re watching a human playing the game, as opposed to a baby AI trying to mimic a human.”

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death


+ Scientists have found a way to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab. It could offer them new ways to start a family—without the need for distressing IVF procedures. Read the full story.  + How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent. Advances could lead to babies with four or more biological parents—forcing us to reconsider parenthood. Read the full story.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Elon Musk wants to reinstate banned Twitter accounts
It’s an incredibly dangerous decision with widespread repercussions. (WP $) 
+ Recent departures have hit Twitter’s policy and safety divisions hard. (WSJ $)
+ It looks like Musk’s promise of no further layoffs was premature. (Insider $)
+ Meanwhile, Twitter Blue is still reportedly launching next week. (Reuters)
+ Imagine simply transferring your followers to another platform. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Russia’s energy withdrawal could kill tens of thousands in Europe 
High fuel costs could result in more deaths this winter than the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ Higher gas prices will also hit Americans as the weather worsens. (Vox)
+ Ukraine’s invasion underscores Europe’s deep reliance on Russian fossil fuels. (MIT Technology Review)

3 FTX is unable to honor the grants it promised various organizations 
Many of them are having to seek emergency funding to plug the gaps. (WSJ $)
+ Bahamians aren’t thrilled about what its collapse could mean for them. (WP $)

4 It’s a quieter Black Friday than usual
Shopping isn’t much of a priority right now. (Bloomberg $)
+ If you do decide to shop, make sure you don’t get scammed. (Wired $)

5 The UK is curbing its use of Chinese surveillance systems 
But only on “sensitive” government sites. (FT $)
+ The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Long covid is still incredibly hard to treat 
Its symptoms vary wildy, which can make it hard to track, too. (Undark)
+ A universal flu vaccine is looking promising. (New Scientist $)

7 San Francisco’s police is considering letting robots use deadly force
The force has 12 remotely piloted robots that could, in theory, kill someone. (The Verge)

8 Human hibernation could be the key to getting us to Mars 
It could be the closest we can get to time travel. (Wired $)

9 Why TikTok is suddenly so obsessed with dabloons 
It’s a form of choose-your-own-adventure fun. (The Guardian)

10 We can’t stop trying to reinvent mousetraps 🧀
There are thousands of versions out there, yet we keep coming up with new designs. (New Yorker $)

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?


His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter. The court approved their wishes, and Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored in a local sperm bank. 

We have the technology to use sperm, and potentially eggs, from dead people to make embryos, and eventually babies. And there are millions of eggs and embryos—and even more sperm—in storage and ready to be used. When the person who provided those cells dies, like Peter, who gets to decide what to do with them?

That was the question raised at an online event held by the Progress Educational Trust, a UK charity for people with infertility and genetic conditions, that I attended on Wednesday. The panel included a clinician and two lawyers, who addressed plenty of tricky questions, but provided few concrete answers. 

In theory, the decision should be made by the person who provided the eggs, sperm or embryos. In some cases, the person’s wishes might be quite clear. Someone who might be trying for a baby with their partner may store their sex cells or embryos and sign a form stating that they are happy for their partner to use these cells if they die, for example. 

But in other cases, it’s less clear. Partners and family members who want to use the cells might have to collect evidence to convince a court the deceased person really did want to have children. And not only that, but that they wanted to continue their family line without necessarily becoming a parent themselves.

Sex cells and embryos aren’t property—they don’t fall under property law and can’t be inherited by family members. But there is some degree of legal ownership for the people who provided the cells. It is complicated to define that ownership, however, Robert Gilmour, a family law specialist based in Scotland, said at the event. “The law in this area makes my head hurt,” he said.

The law varies depending on where you are, too. Posthumous reproduction is not allowed in some countries, and is unregulated in many others. In the US, laws vary by state. Some states won’t legally recognize a child conceived after a person’s death as that person’s offspring, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). “We do not have any national rules or policies,” Gwendolyn Quinn, a bioethicist at New York University, tells me.

Societies like ASRM have put together guidance for clinics in the meantime. But this can also vary slightly between regions. Guidance by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, for example, recommends that parents and other relatives should not be able to request the sex cells or embryos of the person who died. That would apply to Peter Zhu’s parents. The concern is that these relatives might be hoping for a “commemorative child” or as “a symbolic replacement of the deceased.”

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