When SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced to the world he wanted to blanket the world in internet coverage using satellites, many questioned if this bold idea would ever become a reality. This ambitious project was initially scheduled to launch in Australia mid-late 2021, but arrived much earlier, with the service taking customers in early April.
Starlink’s big sell is that it can provide internet service to customers outside urban environments. Traditional satellite services, like those being offered on the NBN’s Satellite service known as SkyMuster, are often plagued by slow speeds dramatically impacted by the volume of other users, particularly at peak times, limited data caps and latency that renders real-time video calls and gaming unviable.
Musk wants to change all that and offering high-speed internet with low latency and so far (currently in beta), has no data caps. The catch right now is the cost. The Starlink satellite costs A$809.00 and the service costs A$139 per month, so while it doesn’t come cheap, ask a farmer trying to run a business in rural Victoria and that’s a small price to pay for connectivity on a smart farm.
While better internet the world over is ultimately a good thing, Australia faces a population density heavily concentrated on the east coast. This means much of our large land mass, doesn’t make sense commercially to connect using typical connectivity methods.
Simple, smart, effective
The design of the Starlink satellite is fairly basic in appearance, but when you appreciate everything that’s happening here, there’s quite a lot of engineering effort to result in something so simple.
If you’re a child of the 90s, there’s a chance you had a satellite dish on your roof, to get Austar or Foxtel. Those dishes require qualified installers to calibrate the dish, aligning it to communicate with satellites in the sky.
The Starlink dish is designed to automatically detect and orient to the satellite constellations that make up the Starlink service, making it the smartest dish available. This makes setup incredibly easy, something almost anyone can do – just plug it in, let the technology do the work.
There is however one caveat to this simplicity and that’s the reality that you’ve got to move past the initial testing on your back lawn, onto a permanent installation on your roof. When you buy the Starlink service, pay for the dish and it comes with the tripod stand, but I think very few installations would actually use that configuration.
If you want to mount the satellite on a pole, or on the roof, you’ll need to buy those mounts from the Starlink website, for A$60 (each). Assuming you, or someone you know is pretty crafty, chances are you’ll be able to work through that installation, but then there’s the issue of getting the ethernet cable from dish, inside your home, to your router. This is where you can also hit issues, given you may be penetrating the roof and that needs to be done very carefully to both protect the cable and to ensure you don’t introduce a leak.
What I will give SpaceX credit for, is the extraordinarily long, weatherproof ethernet cable that comes with Starlink. This means you don’t have to run out and purchase a long cable to run the service inside your home. I do think this could be an area where Tesla could save money in the future, should they want to reduce hardware costs, given Musk has detailed they actually lose money on the dish right now. Ultimately the goal would be to have you fall in love with the service and you’ll more than pay back the price of cable (and eventually dish) over the months of payment for internet service.
To accommodate the vast array of temperatures the Starlink dish will be subjected to across the world, SpaceX incorporated heating elements into the dish, to melt ice, in the even it gets snowed on.
The other aspect to the design is the router provided with Starlink. For some installations, this Cybertruck-inspired, angular design to the router may be fine, but I found it lacked some serious features, like the ability to stand up for any significant length of time.
This feels like a battle the designers certainly won over the engineers, with form over function really winning out here. There’s almost none of the features we expect from a modern router. First off, the range is fairly average, given the lack of antennas (those spider routers look they do for a reason), there’s also just 1 additional ethernet port, while most are at least 4 and many gaming or high end routers offering 6 ports.
Basically if you’re after a way to do your first speed test, then great, but outside of that, you’ll probably need to look elsewhere for a decent router. I expect that SpaceX decided to cheap out on the router, as most homes already have an existing investment that would work just fine.
What I would recommend is that you try a mesh WiFi system, I connected Starlink to an Amazon Eero hotspot (which meshes to 2 others around my home and that instantly solved the range issue inside my house.
How does it perform ?
The whole point of considering Starlink as your internet provider is ultimately the speed and to get customers to move from their existing provider, the service has to offer better performance. SpaceX set the expectation on their website that you can expect speeds between 50Mbps and 150Mbps and latency from 20ms to 40ms.
In reality, the speeds I was able to achieve using Starlink in Wodonga, far exceeded these numbers. Outside the brief period in which I tried gigabit internet on FTTP, and brief 5G tests, these are some of the best internet speeds I’ve experienced.
When it comes to downloads, I regularly experienced speeds in the 200-300Mbps range, with the fastest speed experienced being 314Mbps on Saturday 29th May 2021 at 4:21PM. The upload on that test was 23.6Mbps, not bad, but also not amazing. Upload speeds seemed to bounce around a lot more than download, with uploads ranging between 16Mbps right up to 43Mbps.
The importance you place on uploads will really depend on the type of work you do, if you’re a content creator on YouTube, then upload matters a lot, but if you’re someone in the target demographic for Starlink, chances are, you’ll take these upload speeds over what you have, every day of the week.
Another key selling point is the low-latency, important for both real-time communication like Teams or Zoom calls, or those who enjoy online gaming and a higher latency can really break the experience and make you uncompetitive. Thankfully there’s good news to report on that front with regular testing landing fairly consist ping times in the 40ms range.
Given the number of gamers training to be elite eSports players that live in the bush are fairly slim, the vast majority won’t have any issue with latency, based on my experience.
SpaceX says that over the next several months as they launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically. Musk has stated online that we are likely to see speeds of 300Mbps and latency of 20ms later this year.
When this improvement occurs, it’ll be more than 10x the speed possible on the NBN’s satellite services.
With the service technically in beta, SpaceX gives the disclaimer that there may be outages. During my time with it, I rarely noticed any issue at all, maybe a minute here or there, but really nothing to be concerned about. If you were standing up a commercial service using Starlink, you may want to be a little more diligent about this, but residential users will be fine.
Stand out features of this device.
When it comes to features Starlink is fairly light on. When setting up Starlink, you’ll need to use their mobile app to configure their router, naming your WiFi hotspot and setting a password. You can also use the mobile app to check the status of your connection.
There’s also an AR experience that helps ensure that you (or rather your Starlink) has a great line of sight to the satellites passing overhead. This means you avoid overhanging trees, other buildings etc that could get in the way and cause signal loss, and ultimate slower internet speeds. While this seems fairly obvious, it may help in some tricky setups.
The automatic alignment to the satellites is easily one of the best features of Starlink, making setup a breeze. The white, sky-facing side of the dish, hides beneath it a very smart, phased array antenna that tracks to the Starlink satellites as they pass in the sky above.
Not everything’s perfect
SpaceX made a design decision with Starlink that has a fairly sizable drawback. One end of the ethernet cable is hard mounted to the shaft of the Starlink dish. The problem with this design is that if the ethernet cable ever gets damaged, like during rooftop installation, you need a new Starlink, rather than simply replacing a cable.
The inclusion of an ethernet cable that’s a very generous length is great, but I really hope SpaceX reconsider its decision to fix this on one end. I suspect they were attempting to protect the connector against the impacts of weather, given the outdoor installation, but there has to be a solution they can engineered.
I would expect Space could allow the cable to be run up the inside of the Starlink tube, then connected to the dish using an access door in the side that seals shut to protect it from the elements. This would enable access, in the event the ethernet cable needs to be replaced.
PRICE & AVAILABILITY
How much and when can you get one ?
If you want to move to Starlink for your internet service, you’ll pay A$709.00 for the hardware (Starlink dish, wifi router, power supply, cables and mounting tripod). There’s a A$100 charge for Shipping & Handling and when you feel the weight and see the size of this, you’ll appreciate why that figure is as high as it is. This is a flat rate, regardless of where you are in Australia.
When it comes to the Starlink internet service, you’ll pay A$139.00 per month, which makes a total of A$809.00 at the checkout.
The mounting tripod is designed for ground-level installation, or to support a quick start setup to test your internet connection. For users that require a roof install, roof mounts are available by signing into your account.
The flashing mount costs A$134.00, designed for water-tight protection when installing Starlink on shingles or siding and provides storage for extra cable. Requires additional purchase of Volcano Roof Mount.
The Volcano Roof Mount costs A$69.00 and is designed for most rooftops and does require drilling. Starlink must be mounted within 40° of vertical.
There is also a Pipe Adapter that costs A$69.00, designed to attach to any pole with a max diameter of 2.5″ (64 mm). Just slide the adapter over the top of the existing pole, fasten provided screws, and drop Starlink in.
In the event you need to run the cable through a brick wall to get it into your home, then SpaceX offers a Masonry Routing Kit for A79.00. This is designed for drilling through masonry, concrete or hard coat stucco (excluding EIFS) walls. Best for customers with prior internet cable routing experience and installation; must be comfortable drilling through walls. Kit includes a spade bit, drill bit, cable routing tool, silicone sealant, grommets, and wall clips.
Overall Starlink’s big selling point is the additional speed it can offer customers in regional and rural locations. The speeds I experienced during my 2 months or so with the service, compared very favourably against a number of different connectivity methods. If you currently connect to the internet using SkyMuster, Fixed Wireless, FTTN, FTTdp, or 4G hotspots for the home, you’re a likely candidate for Starlink.
If you, like me, are fortunate enough to have your house or business connected on Fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP), or live in the city where 5G is likely a better alternative, then Starlink is unlikely to make sense for you.
Even if the speed draws you in, you do have to balance that with the cost and right now, Starlink costs A$139pm for somewhere between 200-300Mpbs. I currently pay A$99pm for a fairly consistent 100Mbps with Aussie Broadband. While the potential to double or triple our download speed, 100Mbps is working fine for multiple TV streaming 4K content so the move would really cost more and reduce our upload speeds.
For many Australians, their internet experience, even after the rollout of the NBN, has left them with under-performing internet speeds and thankfully there’s now a really viable alternative. If you are frustrated by the internet speeds you have, you now aren’t limited by the technology, instead of by your budget. If you can stomach the cost, then I highly recommend you try Starlink.
With no caps and a single plan, the choice is easy, take it or leave it, but as the customer base for Starlink grows, I’m hopeful we’ll see the opportunity for Starlink service costs to be reduced, making it more affordable for more people, which was kind of the point in the first place.
Having an internet service blanket virtually the whole globe, opens the door to a lot of potential use cases, like in-flight WiFi and connectivity on cruise ships (thinking forward to a post-Covid19 world). Starlink can also play an important role in offering backhaul data services to those ISPs that are required by law to provide services to remote and regional customers, but lack the population density to make large fiber runs make sense for the bean counters.
As crazy as it seems to send dozens of rockets into space to deliver satellites, SpaceX, using their reusable rockets, seem pretty good at it. Despite the price of the service today, I think SpaceX really is on to a winner with Starlink, as long as they can maintain the speeds, reduce costs as they scale out the service to face the load from an expanding userbase.