So what’s Starlink satellite really like? One user reports in

The Verge takes a look at Starlink’s beta from a user’s perspective. The original article includes a lot more but I wanted to pare it down. The quick take is that he did see speeds that were faster than advertised, but he also was not able to do a lot of things (like Zoom) consistently because of reliability issues…

The idea of ordering a $499 dish with a $99 monthly fee that can deliver Starlink’s current goal of 100Mbps down and 20Mbps up would indeed be a dream come true — especially since Starlink has set a long-term goal of 1Gbps down. It represents competition, something the American broadband market sorely lacks.

Author gives Starlink a try…

Starlink is a lot of very bold engineering advancements packaged up in a $499 consumer product; the whole thing is far more advanced than previous satellite internet systems, which are slow, heavily data-capped, and very expensive.

The Starlink coverage map divides the globe into a honeycomb-like hexagonal grid; the satellites launched so far mostly provide service in the northern part of North America. The whole thing is still in beta, so access is limited — even if you’re in a coverage area, there are only so many available slots in each part of the grid, so as not to stress the system.

Luckily, my area has not yet filled its allotment yet, so I was able to simply sign up on the website, and my kit arrived about a week later. Let’s smash the system, I thought.

Then I learned about trees.

Inside the large gray Starlink box, you’ll find four items: the dish itself, which is connected to a 100-foot power-over-Ethernet (PoE) cable; a short black metal tripod stand for the dish; the main black Starlink power adapter; and a small silver Wi-Fi router with its own white PoE cable. The fundamental setup is incredibly simple: you plug both Ethernet cables into the power adapter, plug that into the wall, and you’re done. The printed instructions in the box are just pictograms, like Ikea for space internet.

All of the hardware is nicely designed — even though it’s in beta, it feels close to a consumer product already, with a sense of style that goes well beyond the hospital equipment vibes of most satellite gear. The dish itself (officially named “Dishy McFlatface”) is made of white plastic, with a matte white texture on its face. Two buttons on the mounting pole click into the included tripod mount, and that’s that. There are motors that rotate and tilt the dish to align it automatically; no fiddling required.

(One design oversight: the cable is permanently attached to the dish, so if it gets damaged — it’s outside, after all — you’re likely looking at replacing the entire dish, not just the cable.)

Although the Starlink kit ships with a short tripod and the sparse online instructions refer to it being “knee-high,” the dish really needs to be mounted as high up as you can get it. Starlink requires near-perfect line of sight to its satellites, which are often fairly low in the sky. Trees, buildings, and even poles will easily obstruct the signal, so if you’ve got tall trees blocking the horizon there’s really no choice but to get up and over them. Starlink beta testers have gone to hilarious and wonderful DIY lengths to solve this problem. (If there is one unreservedly excellent thing about Starlink, it is the community of beta testers, who are all the sort of clear-eyed we’ll-figure-it-out nerds that lend early tech products an air of infectious discovery and enthusiasm. I love you, Starlink people.)

I am going to emphasize the line-of-sight requirement, since it is crucial to understanding what Starlink can and cannot do right now, and it’s an important reality check on what it might be able to do in the future. Like the similarly over-hyped mmWave 5G, Starlink is remarkably delicate. Even a single tree blocking the dish’s line of sight to the horizon will degrade and interrupt your Starlink signal. Whatever satellite internet dreams you may have will run crashing into this reality until you can literally rise above.

Starlink’s website makes all of this crystal clear. “If any object such as a tree, chimney, pole, etc. interrupts the path of the beam, even briefly, your internet service will be interrupted,” says Starlink. “The best guidance we can give is to install your Starlink at the highest elevation possible where it is safe to do so, with a clear view of the sky. Users who live in areas with lots of tall trees, buildings, etc. may not be good candidates for early use of Starlink.” (I encourage you to square the advice to mount the dish as high as possible with the Starlink team’s further recommendation to bring ol’ Dishy inside in high wind conditions. Keep that ladder handy.)

Why am I hammering this point home? Because Starlink’s solution to the line-of-sight issue is to put more satellites into space, and, well, that’s not necessarily great. While Starlink has an army of devoted heart-eyed fans, it has an equal number of critics in the scientific community who note that blanketing the sky with tiny satellites will interfere with astronomers the world over. Starlink satellites are already bright enough to confuse people, and their potential to interfere with telescopes is well-documented. (No, you cannot just paint them black because the idea is to look at space, not thousands of little black satellites.) …

Once you’re all set up and plugged in, there’s not much to say. Starlink offers a moderately fast, very inconsistent broadband connection. I definitely saw speeds that exceeded the promised 100Mbps down, topping out at 222Mbps down and 24Mbps up. But my usual speeds hovered between 30 and 90 down, matching what others have reported, and the connection slowed down and dropped out with surprising frequency.

If Starlink could offer consistently fast speeds, it would be competitive with the fastest package I can get from my rural cable provider, which tops out at $200 / mo for 325 / 25 but is still not attractively priced compared to the services available in more populated areas.

In my week of testing, Starlink was perfectly fine for anything that buffers — I was able to stream Netflix and Disney Plus in 4K and jump around YouTube videos without significant issues — but doing something faster-paced, like quickly scrolling through TikTok videos, would run into delays.

Services that require a sustained, real-time connection, like Slack, Zoom, or gaming, simply weren’t usable for me, even when I was seeing the fastest speeds. I had high hopes that I could spend several days working over Starlink, and after just a few lost Slack messages and Zoom calls where my video dropped to low resolution and then froze entirely, I gave up. Many Starlink beta testers similar report experiences — consistent dropouts of a few seconds, every few minutes.

Starlink’s latency also swings from fine — Zoom did not exhibit any delay when it worked — to pretty bad. My feeling is that the connection dropouts are going to be worse for gaming than latency, so I didn’t spend any time testing gaming latency, but Starlink itself measures ping times for Counter-Strike: Go and Fortnite in its app, and I rarely saw those numbers dip below 50ms, mostly hovering around 85-115ms. Those aren’t numbers you’d want to game with, unless you like losing. (Some Starlink testers have been able to play games and even use Stadia, but that seems both inconsistent and heavily dependent on satellite coverage in your area.)

There are no data caps right now, but Starlink is clearly thinking about it, using the same “preventing abuse” language as any other broadband provider. If you are dreaming of signing up for Starlink as a way to tell your local cable monopoly to kick rocks, well, consider what might happen when Starlink is your space-based internet access monopoly.

This entry was posted in Satellite by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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