Sunday, May 30, 2021

Starlink Review

Nilay Patel:

We might envision an ISP that smashes through the plodding local politics of digging fiber trenches by literally achieving escape velocity and delivering fast, reliable internet from the heavens above. […] Starlink, a new satellite internet service from SpaceX, is a spectacular technical achievement that might one day do all of these things. But right now it is also very much a beta product that is unreliable, inconsistent, and foiled by even the merest suggestion of trees.


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.


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.


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. […] Starlink’s latency also swings from fine — Zoom did not exhibit any delay when it worked — to pretty bad.


HughesNet uses geosynchronous satellites to provide the internet. These satellites are 35,786km (22,236 miles) above the earth. As a result, HughesNet has a minimum of 600ms latency. Sometimes it goes up to 1200ms.

On the other hand, Starlink uses low earth orbit satellites. These satellites are placed in 550km (340 miles) orbit above the earth.

Starlink regularly achieves a latency of less than 50ms. Reports show that the latency between 20ms to 40ms is typical, which is mindblowing for satellite internet.

Nilay Patel:

I have gotten about a dozen emails from Starlink customers who don’t love my piece for various reasons, which is fair. The common thread? All of them hate their local ISPs. Here’s just a sample.

Russell Brandom and William Joel (via Nick Heer):

This map shows where the broadband problem is worst — the areas where the difficulty of reliably connecting to the internet has gotten bad enough to become a drag on everyday life. Specifically, the colored-in areas show US counties where less than 15 percent of households are using the internet at broadband speed, defined as 25Mbps download speed.


Instead of the FCC’s data, we drew on an anonymized dataset collected by Microsoft through its cloud services network, published in increments by the company over the past 18 months. If the FCC monitors the connections that providers say they’re offering, this measures what they’re actually getting.

9 Comments RSS · Twitter

Old Unix Geek

It's night and day from my previous ISP. Feels like I'm living in the future! I went from 2-4 Mbps to 60-220 Mbps. Like everything else, one does get used to it quickly though. But the ability to download things when one needs them rather than schedule an overnight download is great.

So far it works well even when it rains or snows. The main problem has been that it sometimes hangs with a red light on the router. So far power-cycling has fixed it. Hopefully that's only because it's still in beta.

I am concerned that Elon Musk, who *supposedly* cares about space exploration, has launched these satellites which are now severely hampering that exact thing. At least Nilay Patel mentioned this in his review… but it came pretty far into the review. This is really unfortunate. Musk doesn’t care about space exploration. He cares about attention and profits, in that order I believe.

Seems like 5G modem from mobile carriers will be faster and have less caveats then this system. Am I missing something?

All in all, this competition will probably cause ISP to lower their prices and provide better service which will be a win for everyone

@Julian Starlink works in areas that don’t have 5G or even good 4G, and won’t anytime soon. And it’s cheaper and unmetered.

> Musk doesn’t care about space exploration. He cares about attention and profits

I don’t think Musk doesn’t care about space exploration, but he clearly allows the subject of astronomy to take a backseat. I think "he only cares so long as it garners attention and profits" is facile; he does, I assume, share a certain level of excitement over technology and sci-fi.

But all this does open a concerning question: why does one particular billionaire get to unilaterally decide to more or less permanently affect our view of the sky? Shouldn’t that be something a delegation of nations should’ve consulted on?


@Sören: Even more concerning, why cripple worldwide sky to solve a US issue. Most developed countries don't have ISP problem and are capable to provide quality and cheap internet country wide.

Old Unix Geek


It's not just the US. Rural France has shit internet too. Indeed, people there I know are even having problems getting their telephone lines maintained in zones-blanches. (no cellphone reception). They're thinking of replacing their phone by StarLink + VOIP.

I understand the concerns about astronomy. However there are plenty of satellites up there already. And there will be plenty more (OneWeb, Russia, China, will probably all do the same thing, partially to keep control of their own citizenry). If human civilization does not collapse, it seems inevitable that we'll have many satellites in low orbit. However the satellites are in such a low orbit, that they'll only stay up there 2-3 years if not boosted (5 years if boosted). Compared to climate change, this is a very minor, self-healing, problem.

Also, I believe the skies in the Arctic and Antartica are free of Starlink satellites (they orbit the planet at an oblique angle).

Old Unix Geek


5G? Ha! I'm in the US not that far from a startup hub. I have no cellphone service whatsoever, let alone data. No DSL. Until Starlink, my choice was 28K modem (not 56K) which is unusable or 2-4Mbps shared local Wifi.

Harald Striepe

I'm in the queue. But I live in a rural area on a hillside surrounded by trees. The roof has clear sky exposure, but the total arc is likely less than 60 deg. bounded by tree tops. So it will need more satellites before there are no interruption.

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