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What Starlink beta testers really think about Elon Musk’s satellite internet

For people otherwise stuck with sluggish performance from earlier satellite technologies or DSL, Starlink looks like a promising way to get up to speed.

What Starlink beta testers really think about Elon Musk’s satellite internet
[Photos: Flickr user Official SpaceX Photos; Screenshot: SpaceX]
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In less than a year, Elon Musk’s space startup SpaceX has gone from having launched 242 Starlink satellites to exceeding 1,000 as it builds its constellation of satellites dedicated to providing broadband internet access back on Earth, particularly for people who might lack other good options.

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Those 1,025 “smallsats” sent to space (962 remain in orbit, as tracked by astronomer Jonathan McDowell) have given rise to something new on the ground: testimony from early Starlink customers about SpaceX’s low-Earth-orbit broadband.

Since the October opening of Starlink’s Better Than Nothing Beta” to early adopters willing to pay $499 for receiver hardware and $99 per month for the service, reports have been bubbling up in such online forums as Reddit’s r/Starlink.

They generally agree that Starlink’s satellites, around 340 miles up, easily beat the previous options in much of the target rural market: aging DSL connections that might be no faster than 3G wireless speeds, and laggy satellite broadband from geosynchronous orbit, 22,236 miles up.

“I am more than satisfied,” emailed Leigh Phillips, a software developer in Kelowna, British Columbia. He called his speeds—downloads averaging 110 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of 20 Mbps, per the dashboard he posted— “good to go” for a household with two working parents, plus moderate gaming and video streaming.

Another r/Starlink regular, a business owner in Duluth, Minnesota, who asked to be identified as Bryan, reported slower connectivity— “upload speeds are pretty consistent (around 7 Mbps) but download speeds seem to swing quite a bit from 40-190 Mbps”—that he called “definitely acceptable” for streaming.

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He said his other broadband, CenturyLink DSL, hits 30 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up on good days.

Bandwidth data from Ookla’s Speedtest app tells a similar tale. In December, Starlink download speeds averaged 80.67 Mbps and uploads averaged 17.17 Mbps.

Starlink’s latency—the “ping time” indicating how fast it can get a single bit to a site and back—vaults it past geosynchronous satellite connectivity, the broadband of last resort. Speedtest averages put Starlink’s latency at 41 milliseconds (ms), while Phillips’s measurements put it at 29 ms. Traditional satellite? Think 600 ms and up, a nonstarter for applications such as gaming.

Starlink can’t reach cable and fiber-optic connections—Speedtest’s December U.S. averages for fixed broadband were 173.67 Mbps down, 63.76 Mbps up, and 25 ms latency—but that’s not the market SpaceX seeks.

As founder Elon Musk said at a conference in Washington state last March: “Starlink will serve the hardest-to-serve customers that [telecommunications companies] otherwise have trouble reaching.”

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Downtime dilemma

The biggest current catch with Starlink so far is blips of downtime when gaps open between its satellites. Its FAQ warns, “There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.” Once SpaceX sends more satellites into orbit this should be resolved, but for now it’s something early users need to live with.

Phillips’s dashboard shows downtime of 2.4%, though he added that over the last 72 hours it had been just .86%.

That’s led another tester, a Montana-based developer who asked to be identified by his NekMech handle on the NASASpaceFlight.com space-news site, to retain an older microwave wireless connection during Starlink’s beta. “Although it is way slower, the continuous uptime is important for me for some things,” he said.

Phillips and Bryan also warned about potential hang-ups positioning the motorized Starlink antenna for its first connection to the satellite constellation.

Users should make sure they have “a 100% clear view of the sky as per the Starlink VR app on your phone,” Phillips wrote. “I honestly DO NOT recommend self-installation unless you live in a clear field.”

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Bryan also emphasized the need to make sure the Starlink antenna is readily accessible for any maintenance. For example, ice can freeze it into place.

Maybe too bright

A different environmental fear, that reflections from Starlink (and future constellations of low-orbit internet satellites from OneWeb and Amazon) would interfere with astronomy, may have receded thanks to SpaceX’s work to reduce its sats’ brightness.

“They are still very, very bright for research telescopes, but [once in operation] should be invisible to the unaided eye,” emailed Jeffrey Hall, chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference, and Space Debris. “SpaceX continues to work on design tweaks to make the satellites even fainter, and Amazon and OneWeb have committed to do the same.”

But one key aspect of Starlink remains up in the air . . . er, space: whether it will impose a data cap akin to Comcast’s 1.2 terabyte monthly limit.

Beta testers noted that Starlink’s software doesn’t report usage and hoped that means no data cap is coming. Said Bryan: “Data caps would kill the platform.”

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Musk, however, seems to have studiously avoided answering Twitter questions (mine included) about whether the service will enforce a data cap. Starlink’s FAQ sticks to the present tense: “At this time there are no data caps under the Better Than Nothing Beta program.” SpaceX’s press office did not answer emailed questions.

The most painful complaint about Starlink, however, doesn’t come from current users—it’s the lament from would-be subscribers who can’t sign up because their homes sit too far south of the expanding coverage area.

Emailed Jack Mangold, a retiree in Collettsville, North Carolina, stuck with AT&T’s quasi-abandoned DSL who put his name on Starlink’s waitlist months ago: “I’ve heard nothing from Starlink, but have read a few stories about the rollout, largely with very good results.”

About the author

Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, social media, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He has met most of the founders of the Internet and once received a single-word e-mail reply from Steve Jobs.

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