Many folks are asking about whether Starlink is a viable alternative for internet connectivity on the boat. I'll cover what I know and link to some other useful bits of info.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a satellite-based internet solution being created by SpaceX which has been in beta test for a while. It's based on a “constellation” concept using low earth orbit (LEO) satellites only about 300 miles up.
The big advantage of something in low earth orbit is that it is closer to you and allows for much faster speeds and lower latency. The bad part is that means that the satellites are always moving, sort of like in a “train”, and that means the dish on the ground has to track a band where those satellites will pass through, which is more complicated to make work.
SpaceX has been launching huge quantities of satellites for a while now, and have coverage in very specific areas. That is changing as they continue to launch and configure more satellites.
In the last few weeks, folks who signed up to be notified of the service being available in their area have been getting emails allowing them to place an order. While that is encouraging, release dates are still pretty high level – some regions are being told mid-2021, while others are being told later-2021. I don't have any more detailed information on release dates than what is public, but it does seem like many regions are going to see production versions of Starlink this year.
How is this different than traditional satellite?
Starlink satellites as mentioned above are in a low earth orbit of about 300 miles. Traditional satellite internet solutions are much, much higher – 22,000 miles! Those extra miles add a huge amount of latency, or delay for the signal to go between the two points, and dramatically reduce the bandwidth you can use.
In addition, traditional satellite systems are usually setup to track a specific single satellite once you have a connection, rather than a series of them passing by.
What does it cost now?
Starlink costs $499 for the hardware and $99/month which appears to be unlimited, but remember, things are still in beta. I'm sure there will be some sort of overall caps, and in busy areas with multiple users, speeds will slow down. However, this is pricing for residential systems, not mobile or boat systems.
Residential satellite using traditional, non-Starlink methods from companies like HughesNet and Viasat cost $100 or more for a data-capped plan that only has 10-35Mbps speeds. These are much higher latency systems, sometimes requiring a phone line to work, and these are residential solutions, not mobile or maritime.
What will it cost for boats?
There isn't a mobile version of Starlink, so there isn't any pricing yet, and I doubt we will have any for a while. The big question is whether it will be cheaper than current satellite internet solutions for boats, and I think this is a big grey area.
Residential internet has subsidies and discounts from local and federal governments, while mobile satellite internet on a boat does not. That means your per-month operating cost is not going to be $99 – it will be much higher on a boat.
Maritime satellite plans are quite expensive with current solutions. You can expect a minimum of $1000/month for most basic services, all the way up to $10k and beyond depending on your usage.
The cost of a static dish is much cheaper than one that rotates and tracks things dynamically, works in a salt environment, and runs off of DC power more efficiently. So the hardware is going to cost more. Hopefully not as expensive as current mobile/marine solutions – those can easily be $15k for a good KVH setup, and much more.
So I don't think that you'll see Starlink mobile/maritime priced at $99/month. It takes more expensive satellites to provide service in remote locations that likely won't be a priority for ground stations (see below), and you'll need a more complicated antenna to make it work.
I do believe that Starlink will revolutionize satellite internet (it already has essentially) and drive prices down everywhere, but to expect it to be cheaper than current satellite solutions, or cheaper than LTE solutions, is just not something I think is going to happen in the short term. New technology always costs more, and nothing on a boat ever seems to be cheap!
The folks over at Sea-Tech Systems have written up a good article on using Starlink aboard which has some info in it backing up the details above, as well as an excellent article on S/V Delos Viasat system and the true cost of something that you can buy today.
What about speeds?
Beta testers have been seeing anywhere from 50-150Mbps download speeds, and uploads up to 25Mbps. The latency is what is amazing – given that the Starlink satellites are much closer than traditional satellite internet (300 miles versus 22,000), you end up with a shorter journey for your data, which results in latencies at or slightly above LTE.
There have also been reports 10-30 second outages as one satellite hands off to another, although this is suspected to be something that will improve with software tweaks. Many people who have used it with Zoom and other latency sensitive programs like gaming have said the outages cause major interruptions, so there's still work to be done before this can replace existing solutions.
However, the speeds in general have been amazing compared to traditional satellite, and as Starlink continue to make improvements, it will only get better. The speeds in general are comparable to very good LTE signals both in terms of download and upload, and slightly higher in terms of latency. A phenomenal achievement!
What are ground stations?
The constellations of satellites need some way to actually get an internet signal, and that is done using a ground station. Part of the challenge with a train design is that you need a lot more ground stations that the satellites can point down at and get their internet signal from since they are moving across the sky constantly. A more traditional satellite really only needs one ground station since it is essentially staying in a fixed position above. Starlink is building hundreds of these ground stations which will take quite a bit of time.
Keep in mind that if you are offshore, Starlink won't have any way of connecting to a ground station, and may not be a viable technology for some time. Newer versions of the satellites use lasers between each one, allowing each satellite in a train to communicate to the one next in line, thereby connecting them together in a string until one has a ground station.
So, while ground stations might work in populated areas, more remote areas that you might cruise in could potentially not have one in sight of a train right now, or may not have the new updated laser satellites.
Have you tested it?
I've done a couple of days worth of tests with a unit that belonged to a beta tester at their house. I was not a beta tester (I tried to be!) and do not have a unit at this time. However, a couple of days of testing is a far cry from my usual test methodology, so my first impressions are just that – first impressions and not a full set of tests.
Did it work?
I tested the unit in a stationary location and it worked fine, of course, and I was impressed with the throughput and latency. I simulated being at anchor by using a slowly rotating turntable and it did not work hardly at all, as I would expect. Others have tested on cars and vans and it has not worked there either in any reliable form.
Why wouldn't it work?
The primary reason is that the current solution was built to be stationary. The receiver is designed to find a track or train and lock onto that and not move. Any sort of movement at anchor or on a mooring, or while underway, is going to mess up the lock that the receiver has.
Some have theorized that a software solution would fix this given that this is a phased array antenna being used, and that is possible. There's even been some tests on jets and ships that have shown that it works, but the details of how those tests were performed aren't 100% clear.
I think it might be more likely to be a combination of software improvements and perhaps a small gimbal or other device to help in extreme situations, but these are all just guesses.
There may be a need for a similar mount to what traditional satellite systems are using, but it is too early to tell.
When will there be a mobile solution?
Probably not for a year or longer. The priority for Starlink is residences that don't have high speed internet now, both in the US and globally. Mobile users come after that somewhere. There have been no official announcements, no timelines, nothing, so I would not expect it to happen anytime soon. Launching a global constellation of satellite trains + ground stations is a big job, and mobile just isn't something they're addressing yet.
In a recent tweet from Elon Musk, he replied to a request for a coverage map that “Most of Earth by” end of 2021 will be covered, and “all by” 2022 for their standard service. Getting info from Starlink in general is hard, and tweets and social media posts have been very common for this rollout. We can't be sure this means all of the entire world, or just the “low to medium population density areas” which could mean remote areas, like where you cruise, are not even scheduled to have coverage by 2022.
So, even if there is a mobile solution available, the areas you cruise in may not have coverage/ground stations/be supported.
Read the Starlink FAQ!
Starlink has created a FAQ that covers a number of questions, two of which are critical for anyone considering using it on a boat:
Can I change my service address?
What this is telling me is that they really want you to keep it at the address you ordered it for.
Can I travel with Starlink, or move it to a different address?
So…. essentially if you move it, it won't work. So probably not a good idea to buy one and stick it on a boat and go cruising. I'm sure some folks will figure out how to get around this, but I would not be surprised if this is a violation of their terms of service, and you could have your account cancelled as a result…
Should I wait to buy LTE stuff?
If you are starting new or need to upgrade, I wouldn't wait. LTE works now and will likely be a prime technology for several years to come. Remember, ground stations aren't going to be built everywhere, so LTE may be the only decently affordable way to stay online in remote locations.
No mobile solution has been created for Starlink, and according to their FAQ, you're not supposed to move it, so you can't even hack one together without having issues. LTE or traditional satellite remain the primary choice, and will likely be that way for a couple of years.
- Starlink is not ready for mobile use yet, and there are no concrete details about how or when this will work.
- The cost is also unknown, and I predict it will not be as cheap as residential service.
- Ground stations or laser enabled satellites will need to be available in more remote regions that you might cruise in and there are no timelines for that either.
- Starlink's priority is residential customers in low to medium density areas, which means the above items might not be addressed for a year or more.
- LTE is still the primary technology to use for higher bandwidth, lower latency coastal cruising needs.
- Consider the Starlink FAQ – you aren't supposed to move it or use it on a mobile platform.
My friends over at the Mobile Internet Resource Center have done a series of articles throughout the beta, and generally keep an updated article describing what Starlink is along with cautions and details for mobile users. Their latest article is below.
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