In 1989, while assigned to an Army SMU, I used a small satellite radio, the size of a mobile phone of that era, with a small dish antenna pointed at the assigned satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Some satellites were good enough to only require the antenna pointed in the general direction rather than being carefully aimed with compass and protractor. During one exercise, I cruised along the Tamiami Trail with the antenna, radio and Toshiba 1100 laptop on the passenger seat. I held secure conversations and transmitted data while cruising down the highway. I know. Distracted driving is a no no, but I didn’t run over any gators.
DIA equipped all DAOs and operating bases with Iridium phones in preparation for Y2K. Much like in 1989, we had voice and data communications. Iridium has an entirely new satellite constellation from what was available for Y2K, consisting of 66 cross-linked low Earth orbit satellites. Iridium also maintains an extensive ground infrastructure for control, maintenance, redundancy and customer support. One of the Iridium antennas I’ve seen resembles a UFO on a stick.
Unfortunately, the above two systems are only practical for the military, well funded businesses and organizations or the filthy rich. Today there are several hand held satellite communication services publicly available for a reasonable price. One is the Spot X two way satellite messenger. The device is $200, cheaper than most smart phones. The unlimited messaging service is $30 per month, again cheaper than a lot of smart phone services. But the Spot X is not a replacement for smartphones. The messaging service is similar to an IM service like Jabber or qq, limited to 140 characters. The Spot X is best suited for coastal and back country navigation since they work off the GPS satellite system. The messaging service is good for those who break the heart of kith and kin and roam the world at will. It’s a way to tell your loved ones you haven’t been eaten by a shark or bear… yet.
I seriously doubt Musk is aiming for “the men that don’t fit in” as the market for Starlink. Starlink has to be able to please the Starbucks bound masses with their noses glued to their smartphones watching cute kitten videos or their friends incessant selfies to be a successful business model. Those UFO on a stick terminals will probably be the satellite antennas with WiFi capability that will enable users to keep their smartphones and tablets and stream the same content they are accustomed to streaming. Eventually Musk will be selling handheld devices that connect directly to Starlink capable of handling streaming data.
I’m sure Starlink will have a ground infrastructure for control, maintenance and customer support at least as large as Iridium. ISPs will change their business structure. They will consolidate and be largely subsumed by data centers where they're mostly located anyway. The data centers will all sprout massive golf balls on their roofs housing satellite transmission antennas for all that streaming content. Cable providers will feel the pinch as they already do from internet streaming services. Starlink will be a boon for people like my brother living in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire. His present internet service uses a radio antenna line of sight shot to a mountain top repeater station connected by cable to a provider’s ground station. He’s too far from a telephone switch to use DSL and cable just doesn’t go there. There is no TV in my brother's house. Starlink will be a life changer to all those throughout the world far more isolated than my brother.
Of course, I’m not Elon Musk. I may be way off on how Starlink will fit into future communications. A lot will depend on how affordable Starlink will be to us normal Earthlings.