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February 04, 2021

Starlink Broadband Passes “Better Than Nothing” Beta Test

May become the access answer for many at the end of the road.

DishyThe icicle dripping dish in the picture is the antenna for Starlink, a satellite-based broadband service from SpaceX – one of Elon Musk’s other companies. It came Saturday just before the snow arrived here in Stowe, VT. It’s heated so I didn’t have to shovel it out and it’s working despite its frozen beard.

The pandemic has shown us that its socially irresponsible to leave any family without broadband access. That lesson hasn’t been lost on our elected representatives. Gobs of money are going to broadband in the next year. Gobs of money have gone to broadband before with disappointingly slow progress towards universal access.

Depending on how quickly SpaceX can scale the service from today’s limited availability and fix Beta reliability issues, Starlink could be an Internet answer for many currently unserved and underserved locations in America and around the world before the end of 2021. It’s spookily easy to install; it’s blazingly fast compared to anything but a fiber connection. It’s more than adequate for email, uploads and downloads today. It’s adequate for streaming. Frequent short interruptions, planned and unplanned, make it unstable for video conferencing and Voice over IP (VoIP). These are plainly disclosed in the marketing information for the Beta and should be fixed in the months to come; but seeing will be believing.

Installation: Starlink pretty much installs itself. It’s fun to watch. You put the dish in its stand (hidden under the snow), run a wire into your house (that was the hard part for me), plug it in, stand back and watch the dish search the sky and orient itself to the proper position. It quickly figures out where it is and downloads the current satellite schedule from the first satellite it talks to. Once positioned, the dish stops moving and its electronics to passing satellites. Won’t work without a good view of the northern sky in the northern hemisphere). Roof and long pole mount kits are available.

You use an app on your smartphone to set the id and password for your network and you’re online. The same app tells you how well the service is doing as shown in the picture nearby. Screenshot_20210203-170525_Starlink

Speed: Starlink is blazing fast. I’ve been getting speeds between 30 and 130 Mbps (Megabits per second) for downloads and between 20 and 40 Mbps for uploads. This leaves DSL and the older geostationary-satellite based services in the dust, is faster than you can get from most wireless ISPs, and compares favorably with most cable and/or fiber services. Other than running a server farm in your basement or minting bitcoin, this is all the speed you could possibly need for work from home today. Obviously at this speed you can stream many different videos to many different devices at the same time.

Latency: Latency is the time it takes for a message (technically an IP packet) to get to a server somewhere and for the reply to get back to you. If latency is high, web pages build very slowly and, even more important, voice over IP (VoIP) has very poor quality and videoconferencing may be impossible. Latency is the Achilles-heal of geostationary satellite services like HughesNet. Their satellites are so far away that each packet takes a long time even at the speed of light to go up and down. Starlink uses low earth orbit satellites (LEOS) so the signal has a negligible distance to travel. Typical latency is between 40 and 60 milliseconds, plenty good for conferencing, gaming, and even most high frequency stock trading.

Reliability: Starlink says: “During Beta… there will … be brief periods of no connectivity at all.” Right now my experience and that of most other users I’ve heard from is that there are brief periods of non-connectivity about three times per hour. These averaged 18 seconds in a twelve-hour test I ran. According to the app, in the last twelve hours my dish’s view of the sky was obstructed for four minutes, I lost four minutes due to Beta downtime, and there were 15 seconds when no satellites were available. However, measured from my computer, there was more down time than just eight minutes and fifteen seconds. For comparison, I got about one interruption per hour with an average duration of 6 seconds while using my wireless ISP.

These outages aren’t noticeable while doing email and file transfer and web surfing. They usually don’t interfere with streaming video, but they do keep me from using my Starlink connection for Zoom or Skype.

[update: 5 days later Starlink has reconfigured the existing satellites and added 60 more; I've moved my dish slightly to reduce obstruction. Interruptions less than 2/hour. I am using Starlink for Skype and Zoom].

It’s quite possible that, once I can dig my dish out, I’ll be able to move it to solve the obstruction problem. It may also be solved for me as Starlink launches more satellites. They are planning to launch 120 more tomorrow on two of SpaceX’s reusable rockets! Beta services do require adjustment so it’s credible but not certain that these interruptions will be gone by summer.

In a weather emergency, satellite-based services will stay up when lines and poles topple. As long as you have power, you’ll have connectivity. Even when cellular fails because the towers have fallen down or run out of standby power, solar-powered satellites will be happily spinning.

Price: To take part in the Beta, I had to buy a $499 dish and other equipment (actually $581.94 with tax and shipping) and agree to pay $99/month plus taxes for service. However, that’s less than the price of most smartphones and not much more than cellphone monthly charges. There is no contract and there is 30-day nofault money back guarantee on the equipment.  I expect there will be higher and lower prices available for different tiers of service and that competition will bring the equipment cost down. Richard Branson is also launching tiny satellites although has no service based on them yet and Jeff Bezos says he will have such a service.

Future proofing: Absent the outages, Starlink is more than adequate for most home and work from home use today. However, some fiber providers are offering gigabit service (1000Mbps) today. The fact that these speeds are being sold means that applications will develop that need them. It’s not the end of the world if you have to scrap a $600 investment in a few years; but will Starlink be able to keep up? They say:

“During beta users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system…

“As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.”

Elon Musk has talked about being able to offer Gigabit service over Starlink and described the technology that will be used to provide it (basically laser communication between satellites which is only in the experimental stage now).

Conclusion: There is no doubt that Beta Starlink is “better than nothing.” It is also clearly better than the older satellite services. For many it will be better than available DSL. Starlink is faster than most wireless ISPs although their technology is improving as well. To use a wireless ISP, you need a good and reasonably close view of their antenna; to use Starlink, you need to see the right part of the sky. Location will often be the decider between these alternatives.

Starlink is NOT better than high-end fiber or fiber/coax offered by cable companies. Where population is sufficiently dense, fiber will remain the connection of choice; I will get a fiber connection as soon as I can. But fiber won’t be everywhere we need connectivity for years if ever. If Starlink can scale, it can be a big part of bringing all rural America online.

You can find out if you can be part of the beta by clicking  CHECK AVAILABILITY.

See also:

Starlink Broadband Service - More on the Beta plus Exciting Video

Satellite Broadband Access – OK If You Have To

Why Satellite Internet Access Sucks

Is Starlink the Tesla of Broadband Access?

 

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