As a fan of technology, when Starlink started getting attention, just like the rest of the world, I got excited. Who can’t get excited for an entirely new way to provide Internet service? That excitement led to me signing up to be a beta tester. After a few months of hearing nothing, the equipment showed up around a month ago and the fun began.
If you pay attention to the pundits, you hear all kinds of opinions. “Satellite Internet delivery can never replace terrestrial” or “The latency will be too high for today’s symmetrical applications.” Well, after playing with the service and using it as a daily driver, I can easily say, this is different.
We have experience with other satellite-based Internet delivery systems, but Starlink is different. How is it different you ask? Without going into too much detail like their krypton thrusters (great name), I will try to explain how the service works from a customer perspective, but I will let others much smarter than I dig into the nitty-gritty details.
Traditional satellite Internet service is provided by geostationary satellites. These are typically in orbit around 36,000km high with hundreds of milliseconds of latency. Starlink is in low earth orbit around 550km with around 5 milliseconds of latency from dish to satellite. You can find all kinds of deep-dive videos that really get into physics with a quick search if you are interested.
Onto my real-world testing. Starlink comes with a dish and a router. The setup is super easy and anyone that is comfortable fishing cable and mounting the dish to the roof should be able to handle the installation. My testing was completed via Wi-Fi from the supplied router. And to be clear, this was not in a Wi-Fi-free zone. It was in our office with a lot of Wi-Fi interference, so it is a very real-world test.
To make it as real as possible, I switched my streaming television service to Starlink so there was constant usage that would be easy to see/hear when latency issues or connection issues arose. I also switched my primary computer and iPad as well. At Nex-Tech, we use Microsoft Teams and have a lot of video conferences so that is a perfect way to test quality. So now that you know the setup, how was the experience?
From a high level, it really worked well. The way I explain it internally is that you can’t tell a difference except for a few times when for some reason it would drop about 15 packets. I am not sure why other than I assume it is some sort of hard hand-off between satellites. When that drop would happen, you would see it with disconnects or pauses on video conferences and buffering of streaming video. With that said, about 99% of the time, it was great. The Teams calls were very good, normal web surfing or usage of cloud services was no different from our traditional fiber networks. During my testing, we only had a few days of rain or snow and while it did affect the quality/latency, the service itself still worked.
I did a lot of speed tests using speedtest.net during this time and showed an average of 64ms of latency with 103meg downloads and 28meg uploads. The highest latency I saw was 391ms and that was during a snowstorm. The highest download was 161meg and the highest upload was 44meg.
So as a broadband provider the obvious question is… is Starlink a legitimate competitor? My short answer would be no, but it isn’t that simple. I am assuming as they continue to add satellites and improve their service, things will only get better and more reliable. The reasons I answered no are due to cost and the need to mount something on your home. The up-front cost is $499 with a $99 monthly fee. Until they can get those costs down, I do not see them as a real competitor to a fiber broadband provider. But if you are a WISP that charges an installation or hardware fee, this could be a problem for you.
We are definitely living in interesting times as Starlink is just the first and most publicized Low Earth Orbit (LEO) provider coming online. Project Kuiper (Jeff Bezos) will be coming online in the next few years and will be pushing Starlink (Elon Musk) to see who can be the dominant provider. Not sure who will be able to survive, but having two of the wealthiest people on earth competing for space dominance should be fun to watch.