Elon Musk’s SpaceX has set up a Starlink satellite base on Isle of Man

LONDON — Starlink, the space internet service created in 2015 by Elon Musk’s space transportation firm SpaceX, has set up a “ground station” on a tiny self-governing island in the Irish Sea to help it beam internet from satellites in low Earth orbit to homes and offices.

Starlink’s Isle of Man ground station, first reported by The Telegraph late last month, can be seen on the Starlink.sx website.

The government of the Isle of Man said Starlink has been working with local communications provider BlueWave, adding that the pair have together licensed some of the island’s available spectrum.

BlueWave has a ground station just outside the capital of Douglas that can be seen on Google Maps. It acquired the site last year from SES Satellite Leasing. SES pulled out of the Isle of Man last summer.

The site boasts between four and eight radomes, according to a local source who works in the satellite industry who asked to remain anonymous as they’re not permitted to discuss the matter. These are structural, weatherproof enclosures that protect a radar antenna, which sends and receives data transmissions.

“There is a nearly new vacant base station array here linked directly into data centers,” said another source who works in the Isle of Man’s tech industry, who asked to remain anonymous as they’re not directly involved with the Starlink project. The source added that it has “an excellent horizon scan because being surrounded by sea, it means there is nothing in the way.”

Measuring 32 miles long and 13 miles wide, the Isle of Man is a British Crown Dependency that sits in the middle of the Irish Sea roughly equidistant from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Starlink already has bases in Buckinghamshire and Cornwall in England, and the Isle of Man base will enable the company to provide blanket internet coverage across Britain. 

The island’s location, spectrum and existing satellite infrastructure have all contributed to Starlink’s decision, according to the two CNBC sources.

The first source, who received a Starlink kit in May, said the island has a “very efficient” telecoms regulator that’s fast to issue relatively cheap licenses.

“Then of course, the Isle of Man is a low tax jurisdiction so [there is] very little overhead,” they added. “Plus the nation has an adequacy agreement with the EU for GDPR compliance. All this makes the island a good place for satellite or data related services.” GDPR is a set of data protection and privacy regulations introduced by the European Union in May 2018.

The island also has its own spectrum bands that are less busy than those used in the U.K.; the Isle of Man has just 85,000 inhabitants whereas the U.K. has around 70 million.

The Isle of Man Communications and Utilities Regulatory Authority confirmed to CNBC on Thursday that Starlink and Bluewave have been granted a license for “provision of services and location of associated equipment on the island.”

A spokesperson for the island’s Department for Enterprise told CNBC, “This is very exciting and positive news for the Island which will enable the deployment of satellite broadband service on-Island and further afield.”

They added: “Locally, the licensing of available spectrum will provide more choice for local consumers and potential for further jobs within the Island’s telecoms sector.” 

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment, while BlueWave declined to comment.

What is Starlink?

Starlink ultimately wants to provide the world with faster internet, starting by improving internet access in parts of the world that aren’t currently served by broadband providers.

It allows people to connect to the internet via a satellite dish that is placed on or near a person’s property. The internet is beamed down to the dish via a network of Starlink satellites that have been put into orbit by SpaceX and ground stations.

The company has said it plans to spend $10 billion putting 12,000 small satellites into low Earth orbit that can beam high-speed, low-latency internet to the ground. It has launched 1,700 so far and the service is being used by 90,000 customers in 12 countries.

“You can assume they’ll need lots of ground stations, in lots of places, to ensure uninterrupted coverage,” Craig Moffett, an analyst at research firm MoffettNathanson, told CNBC.

“The satellites aren’t yet equipped with fiber interlinks, so for now, they need to be in constant contact with the ground. That requires a tremendous number of ground stations,” Moffett said.

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