Should you be looking to the stars (and Starlink) for the future of internet delivery?
At a Macquarie Group virtual technology conference held in June 2021, Gwynne Shotwell, president of Starlink, said the company expects to achieve delivery of satellite internet services across much of the populated world around September 2021, pending regulatory approvals in various countries. Starlink is the satellite internet division of Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
SpaceX’s Starlink is currently available in beta at some locations in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and a few other countries. Advertised data speeds during the beta phase are 50 Mb/s to 150 Mb/s. According to Starlink, latency varies between 20ms and 40ms at most locations, and is expected to remain that way over the next few months.
Starlink also informs existing and potential subscribers to expect short periods of no connectivity at all. Starlink expects latency, data speed, and uptime to get better once they have more satellites in orbit, install more NOCs, and upgrade their networking software.
What is satellite internet?
Satellite internet refers to a wireless mode of connection wherein satellites in space, orbiting the earth, receive and transmit data to a satellite dish, called a Network Operations Center (NOC). This NOC is located on the earth’s surface. Each NOC is connected to the internet.
This technology uses radio waves to communicate with satellites in orbit. Data travels from the consumer’s device via a router, a modem, and a satellite dish installed at his or her home or office to a satellite in space, and back to an NOC on earth. The NOC sends the request to the internet, receives information from the internet, and transmits the data through the same network to the satellite in orbit, from which it is delivered back to the consumer’s satellite dish, and finally his or her device.
At present, the main satellite internet companies operating in the United States are Viasat and HughesNet, which deliver satellite connectivity to a large number of rural locations and small towns. Starlink is still in beta, and two other companies — OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are expected to launch in 2022 and 2026, respectively.
Fad vs. future of internet delivery
Satellite internet’s key advantage is that it can work almost anywhere. It’s the only internet connection type, for example, that is available nationwide in the United States, in all 50 states. For many rural areas in the United States, satellite internet is the only way to get online.
Other pros are that it can deliver broadband speeds in some situations, speed can be faster than advertised, and post-disaster recovery is relatively quick. Satellite internet is suited for rural areas, remote locations, and other settlements where land-based infrastructure, such as cables and DSL are not available. It’s the most popular connection type across rural America.
There are disadvantages, however, that make satellite internet an unlikely option in areas where cable and fiber internet are available. If you live in a city where cable or fiber connectivity is easily accessible, it’s advisable to opt for either of the two.
Satellite internet is not just slower than fiber or cable, it comes with latency issues, is relatively expensive, doesn’t normally offer unlimited data, can be affected by bad weather, and doesn’t support most traditional VPN types. Also, satellite ISPs usually require users to sign very long contracts.
Given these disadvantages as well as concerns around governance of an internet in international space, and high deployment costs, it’s unlikely that satellite internet will edge out cable or fiber internet in the near future.
Speed and reliability
Though speeds have improved in the last few years, satellite internet is still slower than cable or fiber internet. It can, however, deliver better speeds than dial-up and DSL, in some cases. Though slower than cable or fiber, satellite internet is fast enough to support video conferencing, e-mail, social media, gaming, streaming Netflix, and other online activities.
Advertised download speeds are 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps for Viasat satellite internet plans, and 25Mbps for HughesNet. While Viasat plans offer different speeds, HughesNet offers the same speed on all their plans.
Traditional satellite internet speeds are not always reliable due to high latency. Latency or “ping time” refers to the length of time it takes a single unit of data to travel from device to satellite to NOC to satellite and back to the device. This is why traditional satellite internet isn’t always suitable for high-speed online gaming or VoIP.
Also, bad weather can affect satellite reception. A heavy rainstorm, tornado, blizzard, or a hurricane can cause signal loss or damage your outdoor satellite infrastructure.
Satellite internet infrastructure
Like its more traditional cable, fiber, and DSL cousins, satellite internet delivery requires both provider and consumer to have various devices and infrastructure in place. Let’s take a closer look at what’s required:
Internet service provider (ISP) requirements
A satellite ISP requires satellites in space and an NOC hub, which connects to the internet. The NOC uses a much bigger satellite dish than what consumers use to receive requests and transmit information.
Traditional satellite ISPs, such as HughesNet and Viasat, use satellites that hover around 22,300 miles above the equator. These satellites are in geostationary orbit, so called because they orbit the earth at the same speed as the earth rotates, completing 24 hours in one orbit.
New satellite ISPs like Starlink use satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), around 300 miles above earth’s surface. Because they are closer to the surface of the planet, these next-generation satellites are capable of delivering lower latency and faster data speeds than traditional satellite internet.
These new satellites, however, have much narrower area coverage. Thus, many more next-gen LEO satellites are required to cover the same area that two or three traditional geostationary satellites can cover.
If you plan to use satellite internet, then you will need an internet-enabled device — such as a computer, or a tablet, or a console — a Wi-Fi router, a satellite dish or modem, and a network cable. You need a clear view of the sky. The Starlink App can enable consumers to determine the right location.
Starlink provides subscribers with a Starlink dish, Wi-Fi router, network cable, power supply, and a tripod. Starlink claims that their satellites are roughly 60 times closer to earth than traditional satellites. Hence, latency is lower, as a result of which Starlink internet has the potential to support online services, such as high-speed gaming and video calls.
A satellite dish on every roof?
The fact there is existing competition from traditional providers, and that other tech titans such as Amazon are rushing to enter the fray, suggests that Starlink is not alone in pursuing the satellite internet business model. There are certainly challenges to be overcome before a majority of internet users switch over. Nobody wants internet that is, at unpredictable times, slow or sketchy or both.
On the other hand, many customers of land-based internet suffer from a lack of options, as cable providers with vast existing infrastructure squeeze out the competition. If Starlink and other companies like it prove that they can offer a truly equivalent product at a competitive price, then receiving dishes may soon be everywhere you look.