If you provide internet service in rural areas, there’s a new competitor knocking at the door. Or rather, on the roof. Starlink is a new satellite internet service created by SpaceX, which promises blazing fast speeds and (eventually) worldwide service even in rural areas.
What is Starlink?
Announced in January 2015, Starlink will be a mesh of thousands of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, owned by SpaceX, which will be used to provide satellite internet service.
At the time of writing, Starlink consists of over 900 LEO satellites – out of a planned 1440 LEO satellites in the next couple of years. SpaceX have filed paperwork with the FCC to allow up to 42,000 satellites eventually (most of those would be further from the Earth). They are currently providing a beta service in the northern United States / southern Canada.
You can see the locations of the satellites on this map. There are also red lines showing the region where the beta is available. If you watch for a few moments you can see the satellites moving on the map.
How does Starlink work?
There’s a great video on Youtube that gives a good overview of how things work and why SpaceX are doing this. Here’s the really short version.
- Each user buys a Starlink terminal (dish) that communicates with the satellites via radio waves.
- Once in space, the Starlink satellites use lasers to communicate with each other, to pass the signal to the destination.
- The signal is then passed back down to the ground using radio waves again.
Is it any good?
Early testing from Ookla shows speeds of around 70Mbps download and 14Mbps upload. This isn’t particularly impressive compared to wired internet, but is dramatically faster than the other satellite internet providers.
Of course, in some rural areas internet service might not otherwise be available – and is often not very fast. One commenter on Reddit shared that even during a snowstorm, he still received 20Mbps download and 7Mbps upload, which was “way better” than the local ISP.
Interestingly, one area where Starlink excels is in latency. Lasers communicating in a vacuum (space) are faster than lasers communicating in glass, so for applications where latency is critical (think high-frequency trading on the stock market, and some internet-of-things applications) Starlink will be in high demand.
What does this mean for rural ISPs?
Starlink plans to have near global coverage by 2022, and is likely to start offering service more broadly in the USA in 2021 – so if you provide internet service to a rural area, you need to be ready for this.
The advertised speeds are 50-150Mbps download, and the price (for the beta at least) is $99/month. There’s also a $499 one-time fee for the equipment.
Most residential users aren’t going to care too much about the latency improvement (unless you have some very serious gamers?) so the real question is going to be whether you can compete on bandwidth and price.