Starlink: How Elon Musk’s New Tech Changes Home Internet

This new take on satellite internet could be a major game-changer, especially for people in rural areas.

Starlink GearCourtesy of SpaceX
A Starlink starter kit

We’ve now reached a point where a reliable home internet connection is as essential to people’s daily lives as basic utilities like water and electricity. It’s easy to take a strong, consistent and fast internet connection for granted, especially if you live in a highly-populated area where there are plenty of internet service providers (ISPs) to choose from.

But if you don’t live near a major city, your internet access options are likely much more limited. Thanks to cable companies’ regional monopolies and exclusivity agreements undercutting the free market and limiting competition, people in many areas only have one ISP available to them. According to a 2020 study at least 83.3 million Americans can only access broadband through a single provider.

Want to work full-time out of a home office or get into online gaming? Well, if you live in single ISP area that doesn’t offer high speeds or a reliable connection, then you’re pretty much out of luck.

Here’s the root of the problem: An ISP without direct competition has no incentive to improve the quality of its service, especially in sparsely populated and rural areas. They won’t improve their networks or offer higher speeds simply because they don’t have to. They know you’re stuck with them no matter what level of service they provide.

Enter the competition: Starlink.

What Is Starlink?

Starlink is an initiative by SpaceX currently in beta testing. The goal of Starlink is to provide high-speed, low-latency internet connections on a global scale to areas that are underserviced or ignored by cable companies and ISPs.

(Latency is the time it takes for your device to retrieve and display information from a remote server — usually milliseconds. The lower the latency, the better.)

Since 2015, SpaceX has been steadily deploying a network of satellites orbiting the Earth. With the Starlink kit’s router and satellite dish, people from any location can connect to one of those satellites and access an internet connection with speeds from 50 to 150 mbps.

According to the company web site, “Starlink is ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge. Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable.”

How Does Starlink Work?

The Starlink kit contains a satellite dish, WiFi router, power supply, cables and a mounting tripod. The satellite dish needs to be positioned where it has a clear, unobstructed view of the sky.

Once the system boots up, the receiver searches for a satellite. When your Starlink dish connects to a SpaceX satellites, that satellite will connect to one of Starlink’s ground stations and provide you with a fast internet connection.

That’s it. That’s all it takes. No cable company required.

How Much Does Starlink Cost?

During the announcement of its beta program, Starlink revealed it would cost $100 a month plus an initial $499 payment for the hardware kit. That’s certainly expensive, considering that the average monthly bill for high-speed internet in the U.S. is just $50.

But while you might pay more monthly, the Starlink setup also lets you avoid all the hassles that come with cable companies — long-term contracts, unnecessary bundles, hidden service fees and installation costs. Perhaps most importantly, Starlink doesn’t have a data cap, so there’s no limit on how much you use it. And if within thirty days of shipping you decide you aren’t satisfied with Starlink, you can return your kit for a full refund.

Is Starlink Better Than Fiber Internet?

Fiber internet sets the gold standard for home internet connections, supporting speeds up to 1000 mbps— ten times faster than Starlink provides in beta. Clearly, Starlink at present can’t compete with fiber in pure speed.

That’s fine, though, because it was never a speed competition in the first place. Fiber internet is currently only available in some metropolitan areas, and expanding the range of fiber networks is expensive and time-consuming.

While it’s entirely possible fiber internet will be widely available one day, that day is still a good way down the line. Definitely go with fiber internet if it’s available in your area. But if you’re one of the tens of millions of people who can’t access a fiber network, Starlink might quickly become one of your best options.

Who Can Access Starlink?

SpaceX has announced it expects to continue beta testing Starlink well into 2021. More than 10,000 people are using Starlink across the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. According to the Starlink website, orders are being filled first-come, first-served. Anyone interested in ordering a Starlink kit now will be put on a waiting list.

What Is the Future of Starlink?

Starlink at present falls short of its lofty goals. But based on a Twitter interaction between SpaceX founder Elon Musk and a Starlink beta tester, SpaceX expects an exponential upgrade in the network’s capabilities before the end of 2021.

In late 2020 SpaceX submitted the paperwork for up to 30,000 more Starlink satellites, on top of the 12,000 already approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Clearly, the company is intent on launching as many satellites into orbit as it needs to create a fully global high-speed internet network— hopefully one that gives traditional cable companies and ISPs some healthy competition.

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