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The Complete History of Starlink: Bringing Global Internet from Space

Starlink, the satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, has an ambitious vision – to provide high-speed, low-latency internet access to people across the globe. Since its inception in 2014, Starlink has rapidly progressed from an idea to a fledgling network of over 2,000 satellites, with users testing the service across five continents.

The origins of Starlink trace back to SpaceX itself and the leadership of founder Elon Musk. Let‘s step through the key events that have marked Starlink’s journey so far.

2014-2016: Conceptualizing a Space-Based Internet Network

In January 2015, SpaceX officially announced its intention to build a satellite constellation for the purpose of providing global broadband internet connectivity. This initiative likely began gestating within SpaceX as early as 2014.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell later explained the rationale behind Starlink: “Elon came in one day and said ‘I want to talk to you about a project to put 4,000 satellites in space.” The goal was to drive down costs and boost reliability for consumer internet access.

By November 2016, SpaceX had filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate a new satellite system comprising 4,425 satellites in low Earth orbit. This kicked off a formal approval process that laid the regulatory groundwork for Starlink.

2017-2019: Early Testing and First Trial Launches

With FCC application in motion, SpaceX got to work on early Starlink prototypes. By February 2018, two experimental satellites – Tintin A and B – were launched to test key technologies like spacecraft maneuvering and positioning. Though Tintin A and B quickly stopped communicating, the learnings paved the way for improved models.

In May 2019 came a major milestone – the first full batch of 60 Starlink satellites blasted off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. This crucial test run kicked off in earnest the buildout of the mega satellite constellation.

By that year’s end, SpaceX requested an expansion of the Starlink fleet to 30,000 units. Regulatory reviews and planning for production ramp-up began for this next growth phase.

2020-2021: Beta Testing and Commercial Debut

With satellites proliferating in orbit and ground stations locking into place, SpaceX initiated public beta testing in October 2020. Invites went out en masse to potential users in the northern US and Canada.

Early reviews confirmed Starlink’s game-changing potential. Download speeds consistently clocked in at over 160 Mbps – far faster than traditional satellite internet and viable for high-bandwidth uses like video streaming. By mid 2021, there were over 100,000 active subscribers.

In August 2021, Starlink shipped its 100,000th user terminal. By year end, coverage had expanded to encompass Europe, Australia, and even remote research bases in Antarctica – a demonstration of Starlink’s reach.

The Present and Future

Today, Starlink’s constellation has grown to over 2,000 satellites covering territory across five continents. More advanced Gen2 satellites are set to launch in 2022, boosting capacities further still.

Meanwhile, ambitions remain sky-high in Starlink’s front office. Shotwell projects up to 400 million eventual subscribers – a staggering figure but not out of reach for an organization of SpaceX’s pedigree and resources. With thousands more satellites slated for launch in the coming years, we’re likely still only glimpsing the start of Starlink’s capabilities.

Where there are lofty goals, challenges are never far behind. As Starlink expands, everything from space debris to production bottlenecks will need to be managed carefully alongside opportunities like next-gen satellite and laser interlinking tech. Still, if history is any indicator, bet against SpaceX and Starlink at your own peril. The mission to connect the globe marches steadily onward.