SpaceX Starlink is Coming to Animal Care Clinic Brampton! Starlink Post #1

I am really excited! Animal Care Clinic was just invited to join Starlink's "Better Than Nothing Beta" program. In this post, I'll tell you about why I'm excited and we'll explore what Starlink is and how it works. 

When the hardware arrives, I'll post about the unboxing, installation and impressions. Stay tuned for those. You can also watch my YouTube videos on this as well (the link is at the bottom).

Why Am I so Excited About Starlink?

Simple: Animal Care Clinic switched our practice management software to the cloud a year ago. This is cutting-edge for veterinary clinics (I know: the cloud isn't exactly cutting-edge, but our software tends to dismally behind the times...) which allows us to provide more integrated care for your pets.

However, this means we need rock-solid internet. We have a reasonable high-speed connection, but it's a little flaky - it tends to be more unstable than we would like (we lose connectivity for 5 - 30 minutes semi-regularly, which doesn't play well with cloud-based software). As a result, we want a second, independent internet connection for back-up.

Animal Care Clinic is a Farm?

Animal Care Clinic Map
So, the issue we have is that, despite being decidedly in suburbia - we are in Brampton in the suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area - our clinic has been around for so long, that we are still zoned as an agricultural property. We are essentially seen as a little farm in the middle of the suburbs.

Unfortunately, this means the only feasible option for a back-up connection is the really slow "high-speed" country DSL connection, which quite frankly, isn't up to the task. This is despite me watching one of the Big Guys laying down fibre optic internet cable about 30' from our front door. They have refused to hook us up as it's "not available in our area". Hey: We aren't a farm! Sigh.

Fortunately, I'm a Space Nerd

A lot of people don't realize that I am a huge space nerd (I even have my own space website: outerspaceinfo.com - check it out :). As a result, I've been watching the incredible rise of SpaceX with great interest.

What is SpaceX?

SpaceX is a company that is driven to land people on Mars to create a "back-up" civilization of humans (seriously). It was founded by Elon Musk (the same guy with that little electric car company you may have heard of called Tesla!). To do this, they needed to build rockets that are far more efficient than any every built before. To do this, they decided to start with improving orbital rockets (these are rockets used for getting things - like satellites - into earth orbit vs. going to Mars). This includes reusing orbital rockets - something that was considered basically impossible before SpaceX proved otherwise. 

After near-bankruptcy on several occasions, fast-forward nearly 2 decades, and they are now one of the dominant space launch companies. In May 2020 they even became the first private company to launch astronauts into space (to the International Space Station). What they are doing is literally revolutionary for space travel.

Gotta See It!

Have you ever seen SpaceX land a rocket? It's awesome (this one is landing on a pitching barge in the Atlantic ocean!):

What Does SpaceX Have to Do With ACC Internet??

Everything: SpaceX, to fund their ongoing efforts to get to Mars, have started to build the Starlink satellite internet constellation. Like SpaceX, Starlink is a revolutionary concept.

Starlink

SpaceX started launching Starlink satellites a few years ago and is quickly building a huge network of satellites. It is currently in the beta testing phase, meaning that only a select few people have access to try it (mainly those in remote regions).

Why is Starlink Revolutionary?

Starlink is revolutionary simply because its satellites are in low earth orbit (LEO). Current internet satellites are in geosynchronous orbit (GSO - meaning they stay over the same spot on earth). The difference is all about data transfer speed (called latency) and coverage.

Aside: A Primer on Good Internet

Good internet service needs 3 things: Excellent stability, high speed and low latency:
  • Stability: This is the "up time". It's not much use to have blazing-fast internet if it's going down all the time 
  • Speed: This is the amount of data an internet connection can deliver, often expressed in megabits per second (typically speeds are 100 to 200 MBS). Gigabit internet (typically fibre optic internet) provides over 1000 MBS, which is really fast
  • Latency: This is the time it takes between a request for data being sent, and when it's received. Internet connections send data in "chunks". This is different from speed in that each request (chunk) may have a lot of data (high speed), but if the time it takes for each chunk to return is very long (high latency), the connection will be choppy. Latency is typically expressed in milliseconds. Good latency is usually less than 30ms

Why LEO?

GSO satellites are really high up (around 36,000 km high), so signals travelling to and from them - even at the speed of light - take a while, which means higher latency (often 100-200 ms). This was OK back in the days when we just loaded static web pages (and for satellite TV before that, as the signal was only one-way), but in the COVID-fueled video conferencing world of today, this latency is simply too high.

LEO gets around this by being much closer to earth (400-500 km high or so - about 1/75th the height of GSO), which drops the latency dramatically - very close to land-line latency, which means we can do all of our real-time internetty stuff again.

So Why GSO?

This of course begs the question why the original internet satellites are in GSO. Why aren't they in LEO? This issue is that GSO is way simpler. GSO satellites stay over the same place on earth, which means they are way easier to set up: Simply point a satellite dish at them and you're done. 

You also only need a few satellites to cover a large area (providing service to lots of people, which is more cost-effective for the satellite companies, since satellite launches cost around $200,000,000, give-or-take + the cost of the satellite).

LEO is HARD

To make a LEO satellite constellation work, you need 
  • Way more satellites, as they're buzzing by overhead really fast (the lower the satellite, the faster it has to move to stay in orbit)
  • A really complicated receiver dish that can move to track the satellites buzzing by overhead
  • A way to interconnect all of the satellites and receivers so that the connection remains seamless (despite the fact that the actual satellite connecting to a receiver is always moving and changing)
The second two are hard, but solvable. It's the first point that is the real issue. To get this to work, you need at least 1,000 satellites and ideally 10,000 to 12,000. That's not chump-change, and not feasible if a company is paying $200M per launch!

Starlink is SpaceX

This is where Starlink really stands out: Since it's owned by the company that makes and launches the rockets, they get launches at cost. AND since SpaceX is the only company able to reuse rockets, the rockets used to launch Starlink have already paid for themselves in previous commercial launches. (Starlink rockets have been launched up to 7 times previously so far - that's a huge cost savings.)

Oh, and they also build their own satellites (very unusual), so they get those at cost too. And, BTW, those satellites themselves are also revolutionary, further improving the internet while lowering their cost... Just another day at SpaceX!

Animal Care Clinic is Joining the Space Age

So there you go - Animal Care Clinic is truly joining the space age with Starlink internet service. It solves a big problem for Animal Care Clinic, it allows us to provide even better care for your pets, and it really delights the astronomy nerd in me. Win-win-win! :)

When the hardware arrives, I'll post our unboxing, installation and service experience.

More About Starlink and Space

Watch my YouTube video that compliments this blog:


Starlink's website: starlink.com
SpaceX website: spacex.com
Outerspace Info (my space website): outerspaceinfo.com


With Care,
Dr. Hans Christoffersen
Owner Animal Care Clinics


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