Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2003 with the goal of reducing the cost of space transportation and reigniting interest in space exploration. The company now has demonstrated capabilities to launch rockets and spacecraft in low Earth orbit and beyond with minimal expenditures. Nevertheless, building on this achievement, Musk ventured further into providing wireless communication services through satellite internet. Enter Starlink.
How Does Starlink Work: Understanding Satellite Internet Constellation
What exactly is Starlink? How does it work? What are its capabilities in terms of service coverage and internet speeds? Is Starlink reliable? Answering these questions requires understanding that Starlink is a network of low-Earth orbit satellites providing wireless internet access to target areas. The network is collectively called a satellite internet constellation.
Note that satellite internet access is internet access provided through small communication satellites orbiting in low Earth orbit that relays and amplifies electromagnetic radiation within the radio wave and microwave frequencies. These satellites communicate to the ground through ground stations or transceivers placed in designated areas. Coverage is determined by the number of these communication satellites and transceivers.
A network of satellites deployed to provide internet access is called a satellite internet constellation. Designing a particular constellation takes into consideration the number of satellites, the types of orbits, and the entire telecommunication architecture and infrastructure. The particular internet service promises to provide low-latency and broadband or high bandwidth internet access to individual consumers or the greater target population.
The advantages of satellite internet access and satellite internet constellation when compared with wired broadband internet access via fiber optics or ground-based wireless networks such as fourth-generation or 4G and fifth-generation or 5G cellular network technologies center on the fact that it is wireless and more accessible. In addition, these technologies allow longer wireless transmission of signals and the possibility of wider network coverage
Ground-based telecommunication infrastructures still depend on massive physical structures such as networks of ground-based and underwater cables and base stations such as cell towers and signal repeaters and amplifiers. This architecture has a notable disadvantage: it cannot be deployed readily in rural areas or remote communities that are not fully connected to developed rural and urban areas.
The physical limitation of ground-based telecommunication is the reason behind inequities in access to wireless communication and related technologies. Satellite internet access and satellite internet constellation do not depend primarily on networks of massive physical structures placed on the ground. This is the fundamental principle behind Starlink.
Is Starlink Reliable: A Review of Advantages and Disadvantages of Starlink
Pros: Capabilities and Advantages
The capabilities and advantages of Starlink rest on the advantages of satellite internet access and satellite internet constellation. Of course, as mentioned, these capabilities depend on the number of satellites deployed, the type of orbits, and the underlying telecommunication infrastructure. SpaceX has launched 2335 satellites. Most of these are still in orbit while more than a thousand have been licensed to operate. The internet service is available in more than 28 countries. Below are the specific details of the capabilities and advantages of Starlink:
1. Low Latency and High Bandwidth
Starlink uses and deploys small communication satellites in low Earth orbit or so-called LEO satellites. They have lower latency than geostationary orbit or GEO satellites because they are placed at lower altitudes. Note that latency is the time it takes for data carried by electromagnetic radiation to travel from one point to another. GEO satellites have a latency of around 477 milliseconds while LEO satellites have less than 27 milliseconds.
Furthermore, these LEO satellites transmit data using high-frequency bands within the K-under band with specific frequencies ranging from 12 GHz to 18 GHz and the Ka band with frequencies above 24 GHz. These frequencies are within the radio wave and microwave territories of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Higher frequencies in the upper limits of radio waves and within the range of microwaves have shorter wavelengths and they cannot travel long distances without signal repeaters and amplifiers than frequencies at the lower portion of the spectrum. However, higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths translate to better data transmission quality or more specifically, wider bandwidth, lower latency, and faster transmission speed.
2. Real-World Performance of Starlink
The initial data transmission speeds of Starlink are at 100Mbps downstream and 20Mbps for upstream but SpaceX has a long-term goal of achieving and providing a data transmission speed of 1Gbps for downstream. Several tech reviewers and consumers have tried and tested the capabilities and performance of their Starlink kits.
Nilay Patel of The Verge noted that his kit exceeded the promised data transmission speeds on several occasions with speeds topping 222Mbps for downstream and 24Mbps for upstream though his average downstream speed hovered between 30Mbps and 90Mbps. John R. Quain of Tom’s Guide experienced download speeds under 90Mbps during the initial testing period but saw the download speed spiking up to 200Mbps.
Data collated and presented by Ookla showed that Starlink hit more than 100Mbps of download speed in 15 countries during the fourth quarter of 2021. It was also the fastest satellite internet service provider in the United States and it demonstrate triple the speed compared with wired or fixed broadband services in Australia during the same quarter.
Downstream speeds below 20Mbps are insufficient nowadays. The promised data transmission speed and possibilities for faster speeds allow current-generation and next-generation broadband applications. These include support for seamless streaming of 4K videos or playing on-demand or cloud-based video games. Video conferencing services such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams can also benefit from faster internet connection speed.
3. Easy-To-Setup User Terminal or Kit
The Starlink satellite internet constellation does not connect directly to handsets but communicates via a terminal the size of a 12-inch square box that can be mounted on any flat surface such as on the ground or the roof of a house. The terminal has phased array antennas that pinpoint and track the position of a particular LEO satellite and it is part of an entire kit that includes a 100-foot cable for connecting to the included Wi-Fi router.
Patel described his experience of setting up the terminal and the entire kit as hassle-free. It is as simple as placing the terminal in an ideal location and placing the included Wi-Fi router inside the house. The process can take less than 30 minutes. The terminal takes a couple of minutes to configure itself as it downloads the satellite schedule to keep it aligned.
The review of Quain also emphasized the fact that there is even no need to plug things in because everything is already connected out-of-the-box. The company did not even bother including a user manual or detailed instructions because the setup process is highly intuitive. However, the kit includes a poster board with a large 3-step infographic guide. Be reminded that users need to download the Starlink app on their devices to complete the setup process.
4. Reachability Even in Remote Areas
Another advantage of Starlink and other providers of satellite internet services is that they do not depend on physical and conventional telecommunication infrastructures. There is no need for a nearby base station unlike wireless or cellular networks or long lines of cables running through underground or above-the-ground transmission lines.
The terminal is essentially wireless similar to a handset such as a smartphone or a wireless router. However, it is not dependent on a nearby base station. Remember that the terminal connects and communicates wirelessly to the LEO communication satellites. This general telecommunication architecture has specific advantages. The most notable one is that it allows the provision of internet services to remote areas.
Millions of people in the United States and around the globe either do not have access to advanced telecommunication infrastructure or remain trapped with old-generation telecommunication networks. Most providers are not interested in expanding and improving their services to remote areas because of the small potential customer base.
It is also important to highlight the fact that the independence from physical conventional telecommunication infrastructures makes satellite internet services resilient from natural disasters and human-made calamities that normally affect most communities. Starlink can work even when telecommunication lines are down or there are network outages affecting the nearest base station. The terminal can also work in off-grid electricity sources.
Cons: Limitations and Disadvantages
Similar to its capabilities and advantages, the limitations and disadvantages of Starlink bank on the disadvantages of satellite internet access and satellite internet constellation. Wired broadband using optical fiber remains the dominant route for delivering internet access. The promises of 5G and future-generation cellular network technologies can also compete against the purported promises of satellite internet services providers. Nevertheless, to understand further, take note of the specific limitations and disadvantages of Starlink:
1. Intermittentness Due To Obstructions
One of the main disadvantages of Starlink is that its service reliability depends on the fact that the terminal should be positioned in an area that has an unobstructed view of the sky. This means that it cannot be placed near trees or tall structures such as tall houses and buildings. It works best when placed on open ground or top of the roof.
The review of Quinn noted that he received notifications that obstructions were blocking his internet connection around 9 hours each day. The app guides users in the specific direction of the obstructions. Quinn found out that his connection problem came from trees that are hundreds of feet away from the terminal but still obstructed the transmission of signals. This limitation can be a problem in forested areas, mountainsides, and dense urban cities.
Patel had similar problems. His terminal was placed 60 feet away from his house but his connection was obstructed for two hours each day. The obstructions came from the top-most portion of his house and the trees behind. The experiences of these two reviewers collectively represent the fact that the performance of Starlink is limited by line of sight.
The aforesaid drawback of Starlink is also the disadvantage of mmWave 5G networks. Wireless connections using high frequencies have a line-of-sight limitation and susceptibility to obstructions. Take note that these frequencies cannot travel over long distances unlike frequencies in the middle and lower ranges of the radio wave spectrum. They cannot also pass through physical obstructions and can be limited by weather interferences.
2. Expensive than Other Broadband Services
In the United States and other countries, the cost of connecting to Starlink has increased across the board. The introductory price for the entire kit was USD 499.00 but it jumped to USD 549.00 and further to USD 599.00 in 2022. Of course, aside from the first cash-out cost, subscribers need to pay a monthly fee of between USD 99.00 to USD 110.00.
The cost is relatively expensive compared to other fixed broadband services providers and even cellular network providers. The average monthly cost of fixed broadband in the U.S. is around USD 68.38 for plans with a data transmission speed of around 100Mbps. Cellular network plans with access to 4G and 5G networks range between USD 60.00 to USD 70.00. Note that 5G networks in the U.S. have an average speed of 100Mbps.
For individuals that can be reached either by fixed broadband or cellular network services, especially those living in dense urban cities or areas with natural obstructions such as trees and mountains, switching to satellite internet service might not provide them with substantial benefits or a noticeable network performance gains in consideration of cost.
Starlink Review Verdict: Promising Service But With Notable Drawbacks
The introduction of Starlink and other satellite internet service providers that use satellite internet constellations has made the market more competitive. Competition is beneficial for the consumers because it can help other competitors innovate and improve their services, as well as bring down their prices to make them more appealing. The promised capabilities and advantages of Starlink center on high-speed broadband internet access. There is an allure to this.
However, the fact remains that wired broadband that uses optic fibers remains the most popular and most stable manner of accessing the internet. The aforementioned problems or disadvantages of Starlink and other satellite internet service providers cannot be disregarded. Network reliability has become as important as the uptime performance of power providers as people and communities become more dependent on the internet.
Starlink is promising and existing at the same time but only if people can afford it and if the sky remains clear and the subscriber is in an area free from obstructions. SpaceX and Elon Musk have promised to improve the capabilities and performance of its satellite internet service. More low Earth orbit satellites will be launched in the future to expand the Starlink satellite internet constellation and minimize the drawbacks of satellite internet.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Fomon, J. 2022. “Starlink Hits 100+ Mbps Download Speed in 15 Countries During Q4 2021.” Ookla Insights. Ookla. Available online
- Patel, N. 2021. “Starlink Review: Broadband Dream Falls To Earth.” The Verge. Available online
- Quain, J. R. 2021. “Starlink Review (Hands On): How Good Is Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Service?” Tom’s Guide. Available online