Satellite-based Internet isn’t a new phenomenon in the US. But in 2021, the skies above us will open up to a fresh satellite Internet competitor as Elon Musk’s Starlink service becomes available to select Americans.
What is Starlink?
- It’s Elon Musk’s new satellite Internet service, launched by private aerospace company SpaceX
- Low-earth-orbit satellite “chains” or constellations provide the broadband
- With multiple satellites closer to the Earth than usual, almost anywhere could access high-speed Internet
Starlink is SpaceX’s low-earth-orbit satellite constellation, first prototyped in 2018 and made available to North American consumers in late 2020. SpaceX plans to have thousands of its low-earth satellites form a global cluster capable of delivering Internet services to almost anywhere the planet.
The advantage of low-earth orbits is that there’s less transmission space between the Starlink cluster and other competing satellite services, theoretically leading to faster services.
Time lapse taken of a Starlink satellite constellation (Getty)
If they’re low-earth satellites, does that mean I can see them?
With the right equipment — and sometimes with the naked eye — you can see them. However, they’re rapidly moving satellites: They circle the globe every 90 minutes, so don’t blink. There’s already a service tracking Starlink’s satellite visibility, so grab that telescope and get spotting!
Example of satellite chain locations across the US (red and yellow lines). Images taken from findstarlink.com, with graphics and legend overlaid for emphasis.
When can I get a Starlink service in the US?
Starlink’s local website recently went live promising service availability in “mid-to-late 2021” for most addresses.
Starlink is offering its services on a “first come, first served” basis, but there’s no real indication what that really means in terms of available service numbers or expected customer loads.
How much will Starlink cost in the US?
Starlink’s pricing for a single month plan goes for $99 with no stated data caps.
However, there’s more to it. You’ll also be on the hook for receiver equipment and hardware, costing $499 plus $50 for shipping and handling. If you’re selected as a Starlink customer, you’ll have to pay the equipment and shipping fee up front.
How fast will Starlink be in the US?
Starlink is advertising that its services will be capable of speeds from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, with latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations. But it also notes that there “will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.” Theoretically, that’ll be less of a problem as Starlink increases its satellite fleet over time.
However, as with any wireless technology, numerous factors can affect your network speeds, both environmental and in-network demand. So like a busy road, if it has too many customers trying to access the Internet at once, everyone’s service could slow to a crawl. That’s one reason why Starlink isn’t offering universal service.
How does Starlink compare to 5G networks?
Both services are wireless, but weighing 5G against Starlink leaves Starlink in the dust. If you’re looking at fixed 5G home broadband, you can score cheaper plans with much better latency and potentially higher data rates, depending on the network. There are upfront modem costs, but they’re nowhere near as high as Starlink’s prices.
The catch here is coverage areas. While there’s been a rapid expansion in 5G availability in the US, it’s still heavily concentrated on high population areas across both 5G networks.
Starlink can deliver a service to any open-air spot across the US. You won’t get much of a 5G signal in the middle of the Mohave Desert, but you could get a Starlink signal and service — the only other issue would be a sufficient power supply.