In the testing phase for years now, Elon Musk’s Starlink is now rapidly approaching full-deployment status. As with anything Musk does, the technology has been massively hyped as an astounding technological leap. While it certainly earns that status in some regards, there are other ways in which Starlink’s potential is vastly overrated. Taking a look at the good and the bad, we want to explore how Starlink got this far. And why branding has formed an unreliable core of promoting the system within the public consciousness.
The Importance of Branding in eCommerce
Branding exists at the center of every business, and for good reason. It provides a central icon or theme around which the totality of a business is balanced. Where an effective effort can make the difference between success and failure. It’s for this reason that the design of systems like modern websites is so important, to convert interest into sales. The market around making an eCommerce website reflects this idea, where templates and tutorials are a driving force of many successful small to medium-sized businesses. It’s not just about making sales once, either, as a good brand and design for that brand can keep customers coming back for more.
While we tend to think of branding revolving around a certain business, there are instances where the idea can go further. This is the case for Starlink, which builds its brand not so much around the individual business, but the fame of its CEO, Elon Musk. This can be a complicated issue. However, when considering the man as he appears in popular media to the man as he really exists. Before that, however, we need to look at what Starlink can do.
Technological Ups and Downs
As a technology, Starlink operates as a form of satellite internet. This is a technology that has existed for years, since the 2003 launch of a consumer-accessible service from company Eutelsat. This was followed by newer systems like Anik F2, which raised bandwidth to a far more functional level. Later satellites over the next 16 years would further increase bandwidth. Though they still came with the caveat of high latency.
High latency was an inevitable part of early satellite internet, owing to the physical infrastructure of how these systems operate. Specifically, traditional internet satellites exist in geostationary orbit. To keep these from falling into the earth’s gravity, the distance from the planet is enough to ensure their placement. While this can aid in making them reliable to earth-based dishes. The sheer distance also means that data takes a long time to travel the distance, creating latency. These older systems typically hit a latency of 594-624 milliseconds. Compared to the 25-43 milliseconds you’d see on wired systems like DSL.
Starlink does not operate through geostationary means. It works from a network of thousands of satellites that are much closer, to reduce latency to around 20-80 milliseconds. Problem is that satellites have to be much closer to earth, they experience much more of the planet’s gravitational pull. To combat this, the satellites need to move at incredibly high speed to keep their orbit from decaying. While a clever solution, this also means that there are no fixed locations to lock onto, so gaining a solid connection, at least without a completely clear line of sight to the sky, is extremely difficult to achieve. In other words, while the potential speeds of Starlink are profound, they’re undercut by connection concerns that many seem to overlook. Elon Musk branding approach has this problem, where promise and hype are so often compromised by physical realities.
Man Versus Reality
At this point, Elon Musk leans into what is essentially a position of living meme status. He’s the real-life Tony Stark, a visionary like no other, and a genius with a personal hand in many great ideas. That is if you believe how he’s represented in popular geek culture. Lending this status to Starlink means it gets an enormous boost in visibility and popularity, but taking a closer look at Musk shows that as much as he promises, many of his ideas are instantly dismissible as overpromising and undercooked.
Perhaps the biggest example of this in action is his idea for small tunnels via work performed by the Boring Company. Created to help automatically navigate cities quickly, and cut down on traffic, the reality of these systems has been widely criticized by those with professional experience in public transportation networks. Essentially, the Boring Company plans cannot live up to the efficiency of subways, even if Tesla’s were completely reliable in their ability to self-drive.
As it just so happens, and as so many engineers have been pointing out for years, self-driving cars are not as easy to make as Musk originally claimed. Back in 2015, he said these could drive anywhere within two or three years. After years of being corrected, Musk finally admitted he was speaking from a position of ignorance, though not so directly.
Therein lies the problem with Starlink’s branding, in that it leans on the hypothetical expertise and genius of a man whose accomplishments are often overstated. While some of his developments, like work with low-cost rocketry, hold promise, much of his other work does not. It’s a branding effort based on a cult of personality, with a foundation that many are hesitant to trust. Make no mistake, Starlink is an incredibly promising technology, and one which we hope comes to fruition. But for anyone thinking of jumping in, we’d recommend first taking Musk’s history into account, rather than his public persona and carefully sculpted brand.