Internet from space: Elon Musk’s Starlink expands its New Zealand ambitions

The more we learn about Elon Musk’s Starlink, the more ambitious its plans look for New Zealand. And the latest clues have emerged from a chicken-run up north.

Starlink – a subsidiary of the Musk-owned SpaceX – is in the process of creating a global broadband network, utilising thousands of satellites, with New Zealand’s South Island as one of its testbeds.

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Over the past couple of days, various players have uncovered different parts of the puzzle – sometimes not being aware of each other’s efforts – and a larger picture is beginning to emerge.

First, on April 8, the Herald’s stablemate the Northern Advocate uncovered that, against a degree of local opposition, Vocus had gained a licence to install, operate and maintain a ground-based satellite station, with nine 2.7m high domes, just south of Whangārei – specifically, it’s being built on a piece of land leased off Otaika Valley Free Range Eggs along State Highway 1 at Puwera.

A resource consent was waived. The Whangārei District Council said that under the Resource Management Act, activity relating to the satellite station would be done legally under the National Environmental Standards for Telecommunication Facilities.

Under the Act, the National Environmental Standards for Telecommunication Facilities took precedent over the Operative Whangārei District Plan.

Additionally, there were no outstanding natural features involved, and it was not a heritage site for local iwi. Radio frequency emissions were well below the safety threshold.

Vocus is best known as the owner of retail ISPs Orcon and Slingshot, but it also owns NZ and Australia-wide fibre optic networks, as well as having international cable interests. ASX-listed Vocus planned to spin off its NZ business with a $722m IPO. But in March, it entered an agreement to be bought by investment bank Macquarie and Aware Super and scrapped the local listing.

Once complete, the Puwera ground station would connect to low-Earth orbiting satellites, Vocus said. It did not want to name its client. But across the ditch, IT News put two and two together and realised the Puwera ground station dishes were licensed for the radio frequency being used by Starlink, and looked identical to domes elsewhere with Starlink and SpaceX badging.

While Starlink satellites deliver broadband to punters’ homes, the satellites themselves need a connection to the internet’s main pipes on the ground, which is where ground stations come in. The more ground stations, the faster and better the coverage.

The Aussie paper credited the Herald’s stablemate with its unwitting scoop of uncovering a Starlink ground station.

But, in fact, there were more. A Geekzone member’s search of MBIE’s Radio Spectrum Management database found that Starlink has in fact been granted licences for dishes at six locations (see map below): the aforementioned Puwera, plus Te Hana (just north of Wellsford), Clevedon, Hinds (just north of Ashburton), Cromwell and Awarua in the deep south on the edge of the Catlins (see satellite images below).

Fadia Mudafar, national manager of MBIE’s Radio Spectrum Management unit, confirmed the six locations. Mudafar would not comment on whether Starlink had applied for licences at other locations. Starlink did not immediately respond to questions.

After a beta phase in the first half of this year, Starlink hopes to offer its commercial service proper in the second half.

The idea is that if you buy a Starlink satellite dish on your roof, or in your back garden, you’ll be able to get broadband internet wherever you live, in any corner of the Earth.

That’s once all the satellites are launched. Currently, those living from Latitude 43.0 to 44.6 or South Islanders from slightly north of Christchurch to Invercargill can join Starlink’s beta (test) launch, if they stump up a $799 up-front payment (plus $114 shipping) for “Dishy” the large pizza-sized dish, a tripod mount, 30m of proprietary cable and a Wi-Fi router, then $159 a month – which, at least in the beta phase, gives you unlimited data at 150 megabytes per second with 20 to 40-millisecond lag. That’s all the speed you need for Netflix or Zoom.

The price is not killer, but the unlimited data cap will be a huge attraction to people living in rural New Zealand, for satellite plans have traditionally come with tight data caps.

Installation is DIY, using a smartphone app to correctly orientate your Starlink dish, with no local partner named (though of course now Vocus is at least partly in the frame). But telco consultant Jonathan Brewer told the Herald that, if Starlink took off, he saw Sky and Freeview installers developing side gigs as de-facto Starlink installers.

Some early testers say they’ve got far beyond Starlink’s advertised speed, clocking 200 megabits per second (or twice the download speed of the cheapest UFB fibre plans). However, there’s also the caveat that there are relatively few early adopters; it’s a bit like being one of only a handful of drivers on a new stretch of motorway. Things could slow as more people pile on – but Musk says his company will be launching more and more satellites to take up the slack. And he also hints that Starlink could become cheap enough to compete with fibre and 5G everywhere – not to mention the small rural wireless ISPs which are already under pressure today.

So far, SpaceX rockets have launched around 1200 Starlink satellites. As more are launched, coverage expands. Eventually, Musk wants a swarm of 12,000 satellites (the number he has pre-approved), which will provide fast internet to every corner of the planet. Currently, around 120 are being launched a month. And the self-styled “techno-king” has talked of a constellation of up to 30,000 more birds on top of that. (For context, the 1000 Starlink satellites already in orbit account for about 25 per cent of all satellites).

Musk, who also founded Tesla and SpaceX, hopes Starlink will disrupt the broadband market just as its stablemates have shaken up the auto and aerospace industries.

It won’t necessarily be straightforward.

Critics have already raised space junk and light pollution objections.

And , since February, Starlink has been in regulatory scrap with a similar project: Project Kuiper, being run by Amazon – the company founded by Jeff Bezos. Over the past few months, Musk and Bezos have been trading places for the title of the world’s richest person.

Now they’re trading blows over satellite broadband, too. Project Kuiper, which wants to operate a constellation of 3236 satellites, is still at an embryonic stage.

But in the New Year, it complained to the US Federal Communications Commission about a Starlink plan to move some of its satellites into a lower orbit. The Amazon company said that would cause radio interference for its customers. Starlink shot back that Amazon was trying to smother its competition in the cradle.

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