Satellite-based Internet isn’t a new phenomenon in New Zealand, with consumers in more remote and regional communities served by a number of satellite broadband providers.
In 2021, however, the skies above us will open up to a fresh competitor in the satellite Internet space as Elon Musk’s Starlink service becomes available to Kiwis.
What is Starlink?
- Elon Musk’s new satellite Internet service, launched by private aerospace company SpaceX
- Broadband is provided from low-earth-orbit satellite “chains” or constellations
- Satellites are closer to the Earth than usual, so no matter where you live in NZ, you’ll be able to access high-speed Internet
SpaceX and Starlink
Starlink, SpaceX’s low-earth-orbit satellite constellation, was first prototyped in 2018 and made available to North American consumers in late 2020. SpaceX’s plan is to have thousands of low-earth satellites forming a global cluster capable of delivering Internet services to just about any spot on the planet.
The advantage of low-earth orbits is that there’s less transmission space – quite literally – between the Starlink cluster and other competing satellite services, which should lead to theoretically faster services.
Time lapse taken of a Starlink satellite constellation (Getty)
Spacelink satellites are 60 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites. So, with the right equipment (and sometimes with the naked eye), you can – although they’re rapidly moving satellites. They circle the globe every 90 minutes, so you can’t really afford to blink much.
There’s already a service tracking the likely visibility of Starlink’s satellites, so grab that telescope and get spotting!
Example of satellite chain locations across NZ. Images taken from findstarlink.com, with graphics and legend overlaid for emphasis.
When can I get a Starlink service in New Zealand?
Starlink’s website went live recently, with service availability promised in “mid to late 2021” for most addresses we tested.
Starlink is offering its services on a “first come, first served” basis, but there’s no real indication as to what that really means in terms of available service numbers or expected customer loads.
It could mean that city dwellers looking to hook up will get the same priority as those whose only option is satellite services.
Starlink’s indicative pricing at launch is for a single $159 a month plan with no stated data caps.
However, that’s not all you’ll pay as the receiver equipment also carries a $799 fee, plus $114 for shipping. It’s worth noting that Starlink is taking pre-orders now for that mid-to-late-2021 availability window, but you only have to pay $159 upfront if you are selected as a Starlink customer.
Starlink is advertising that its services will be capable of speeds from 50Mbps to 150Mbps, with latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations. However, it also notes that there “will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all”. Hopefully, that’s a minimising problem as Starlink increases its satellite load over time.
However, bear in mind that like any wireless technology, there are a variety of factors that can affect your achievable speeds on the network, both environmental and in terms of network load. That will be part of why Starlink isn’t offering universal service. Like a busy road, if it has too many customers trying to access its services at once, everyone’s service could slow to a crawl.
For New Zealanders in regional areas already hooked up to satellite internet, there are several advantages to Starlink.
- Speed. The obvious advantage – taking Starlink at its word in terms of speed claims – is that 150Mbps is considerably faster for current satellite broadband customers, especially those on lower-quality connections. Many current satellite internet providers in New Zealand can only offer speeds up to around 30-40Mbps.
- Latency. Satellites closer to earth means data has to travel less far, which means lower latency. If Starlink’s claims of 20ms to 40ms are accurate, it will be a solid option for those who want reliable, fast internet for video conferencing or gaming.
- Unlimited data. Initially, at least, there will be no data caps on Starlink plans. This is not the case for many satellite plans available in NZ in which data caps are employed to ensure equal service availability for all users.
- Value for money. $159 a month for high-speed internet in rural areas is pretty hard to argue with, even accounting for the equipment and shipping fees. However, proof of the actual level of service is needed before anyone can get too excited.
Aside from satellite, some Kiwis living in rural areas may have the option of a wireless broadband service over a 4G network.
If Starlink lives up to its promises, the service will likely be faster for many. While 4G can be as fast as 100Mbps, an average of 30Mbps to 40Mbps is much more realistic for those in rural areas. Many on an RBI wireless plan will also have to deal with data caps, which is obviously a major issue if you intend to be anything other than frugal with your data usage.
However, on the pro side of 4G is cost. Even ignoring the initial equipment costs involved with Starlink, a 4G service is significantly cheaper.
What about 5G?
5G internet service providers are not really in competition with Starlink as 5G will remain limited to high population areas like Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown for some time.
Starlink can, in theory, deliver a service to any open-air spot across New Zealand, but you won’t get a 5G signal in the middle of Central Otago, for example.