There has certainly been a lot of buzz recently around Elon Musk’s Starlink project and his endeavours in outer space. It’s put satellite internet in the spotlight and has more people asking whether it’s suitable for them as a broadband connection. But before we get to that, what is Starlink?
In a nutshell, Musk’s goal is to revolutionise the way satellite internet services are delivered with a new system that puts thousands of satellites into low orbit to improve the end user internet experience. To date, they have already launched well over a thousand satellites, and you may have seen them yourself in the night sky (look out for the straight line of lights). However, there's still a ways to go before Starlink will offer service around the world which would require around 10,000 satellites in orbit. (Musk and Starlink have alluded to as many as 42,000 as the eventual goal.)
How does satellite internet work?
While the technology itself is quite complex, the way satellite internet works is actually fairly straight forward. Your house is connected to a satellite via a dish on your roof, that satellite is also connected to an even bigger satellite dish at a local “ground stations” (Starlink has six of these currently in New Zealand). Those ground stations are connected by the fibre network into the global internet.
So whenever you are streaming TV, the content has to go all the way from a server up to a satellite and then back down again to your house. The below video goes into the process in more detail.
What equipment does it use?
As well as a wifi router, you are going to need a satellite dish, ideally mounted on your roof and of course a network cable to connect to it. If you’re a handy DIYer you might be able to do it yourself but for the best results, you’ll need to get it installed professionally.
What can you expect as far as performance?
Traditionally, satellite internet services have been in the slower end of the broadband spectrum with speeds similar to copper ADSL connections ranging from 5Mbps to 30Mbps for download activities. Historically, there have also been well known issues with the use of satellite internet that included challenges with weather. These storm-related interruptions were named “rain fade” as users had to wait for a storm to pass in order for service to resume. Heavy accumulations of snow around the satellite dish also often had to be removed. However according to the Starlink website the system is designed and tested to handle a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions including snow, hail, sleet, heavy rain, and extreme heat.
Compared to traditional satellite services, Starlink has massively improved the download speeds, with reports on social media by customers in New Zealand of being able to get speeds between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. Upload speeds and latency however appear to be well below alternatives, being 10 to 20 Mbps for upload with over 50ms latency. This suggest Starlink works pretty good for downloading and streaming content but is still not the best performer for activities like gaming or video calling. You can read more about those measures and how different technologies compare here, although at this stage satellite isn’t measured under the Measuring Broadband New Zealand reporting programme.
How much does a satellite plan cost?
- Starlink plans start from USD$99/month. Their equipment can be costly up-front. For instance, an address search in central Auckland produced a quote of $949NZ for a Starlink Kit (wifi router/power supply, cables and base) that comes pre-connected.
Looking beyond Starlink, plans and costs in New Zealand vary according to the provider and your internet habits. At a glance, these are the other providers and their indicative monthly fees (as at February 2022).*
- Bluedoor – The SAT12 plan with 12mbps Download Speed and 10mbps upload speed and unlimited data will cost $185/month and there is a one-time installation fee of $655.
- Farmside – An unlimited satellite broadband plan is $199/month with up to 16Mbps download and 2Mbps upload
- Gravity – A Standard Unlimited plan with speeds up to 12 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload runs $169/month
- Wireless Nation – A plan from $289 a month but not clear what the installation costs are.
- Woi – Unlimited plans start from $169/month and installation fee of $395
* Prices listed were listed on the provider‘s website(s) during February 2022 and are included in this article as an indicative reference only. For a personalised and complete quote, contact the provider(s) directly.
Who is satellite internet right for?
In a nutshell – while Starlink is changing things quite a bit, satellite internet as a service in general appears to still be best suited to those living in rural areas where fibre is not available. While it can be more expensive, but the connectivity it is delivering is improving. . The key thing though, is to make sure you check out your own situation and identify services specifically available at your address, think about what kind of performance you’ll need from your broadband, and consider how both the upfront installation costs and ongoing monthly plan costs stack up between your options.