Starlink promises to bring high-speed Internet to rural and remote areas currently underserved by wired Internet. Can it also bring high-speed internet to your next camping trip? This weekend I embarked on a 1,600 mile road trip to find out.
What is Elon Musk’s Starlink device?
Created by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Starlink aims to bring high-speed internet to the entire planet. It does this by using constellations of small satellites. To date, SpaceX has put about 2,000 Starlink satellites into orbit. That’s enough to cover most of the contiguous United States, parts of Canada and Alaska, Western Europe, all of New Zealand, and southern Australia. Eventually, Musk hopes to increase that total to 42,000 satellites, expanding coverage across pretty much the whole world.
Starlink customers use a compact satellite dish to communicate with these satellites. Coming with a power cord, stand, and WiFi modem/router, the consumer version of this kit currently costs $599, while the monthly service contract, which includes unlimited data, costs $110. To be listed, you will need to pay a deposit of $99, which does not include shipping costs (additional $50).
The dish itself, its cord and its holder are weather resistant. The modem/router is not. Starlink requires a normal three prong 110 volt household outlet to operate.
Current speeds are reportedly between 100-200 megabytes per second download and 10-20 Mbps upload, with latency as low as 20 milliseconds, depending on the clarity of your view of the sky and atmospheric conditions. These numbers are consistent with my tests and equivalent to most wired internet connections in homes, if only about half the speed of fiber optic setups.
Starlink should be faster, cheaper, more reliable, and provide wider coverage than other satellite internet providers.
Yeah, should be fully mobile later this year, so you can move it anywhere or use it on a moving RV or truck. We need a few more satellite launches to get full coverage and some key software updates.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 15, 2021
Notable limitations, according to crowd data
Here are some obvious questions: Will Starlink work on your property? Can you use it in places other than your service address? Is its reception affected by bad weather? If so, how much and by what type? How long will it take to receive your kit?
Like other Musk projects, official information is thin. And Musk’s own responses, seemingly randomly distributed via Twitter, are often exaggerated and unreliable.
Thus, many questions are best answered by other users. Take, for example, a base map of areas covered by the existing network of Starlink satellites. This open source map is much more useful than Starlink’s.
Groups like Reddit’s Starlink User Community and the Starlink Facebook group for RVers and other mobile users are also full of useful information. It was through them that I verified that Starlink seemed to work in areas away from the owner’s service address and seemed to have very few operational issues even in heavy rain or snowstorms. Wind can be a problem, but users in these groups have found mounting devices that seem to work well for a variety of different needs.
But while crowdsourced data is good at providing general information, by its nature it struggles with the specific. The only way to know if Starlink will work for you is to buy one. The company only ships to addresses in serviced areas, and only when enough satellites come online in those areas to provide sufficient capacity for these new users. So if you receive a unit, you can be reasonably sure it will work in your area, but the specific nature of your property may still limit or prevent its use. Reviewers have noted that its satellite signals can be obscured by trees, and terrain such as mountains and hills can completely block them.
Will Starlink work in other places? Official information suggests it’s only guaranteed to work at your service address – the address your device ships to – but Musk tweeted that it’s fully portable to anywhere Starlink constellations are covered. It’s unclear whether or not you’ll be allowed to access satellites far from your service address if those are already being used by others, and what formula Starlink might use to determine the signal allocation.
Deployment of 50 Starlink satellites confirmed pic.twitter.com/3uuAMNxrHC
—SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 25, 2022
Using Starlink couldn’t be easier
I live in southwestern Montana, one of the areas served by the initial constellation of Starlink satellites, and also an area plagued by poor service from cable and satellite internet providers. This means there is a high demand for the service here. I placed my deposit the second they became available in March 2021 and received my unit almost exactly one year later. There was almost no communication from the company between ordering and delivery, and there was no way of knowing an expected delivery date at any point in the process.
Cautiously optimistic, I placed the dish and modem/router on my back porch, and plugged it in. The unit, which has no external controls of any kind, rotated the dish out of its stowed configuration and into a horizontal orientation, where it sat for around 10 minutes, before apparently locating a satellite and rotating to face north at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. I connected my phone to its WiFi signal, opened the app, named the network, and set a password. And that was it, I was online.
A few days later, I unpacked the dish and router somewhere in the remote southern backcountry of Idaho. He went through the same process and then my phone started buzzing with emails and texts once online.
Starlink is really simple plug-and-play.
The WiFi router seems to offer good range. Camped on the shores of Pyramid Lake in western Nevada, I set it up about 40 yards from my truck and still managed to get a strong signal inside my GoFastCampers rig. In this camp, several people have shared its Internet service with me, without noticeable degradation in the speeds provided.
Starlink must operate from a fixed position. You can’t mount it on a moving vehicle and expect it to work, although Musk has tweeted this capability may be possible at some point at some indefinite future date.
Solar panels + battery better than generator as no heat signature or smoke and no fuel shortage
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 2, 2022
What other equipment do you need?
Starlink is not designed to be portable, but it is relatively compact. The new rectangular dish that is now shipping is just 12 inches wide, 19 inches long, and weighs 9.2 pounds. It is convex at the back and is permanently mounted on a short pole, with a servo which allows the dish to move on this pole. The post then plugs into a four-legged stand. The included cable runs 100 feet between the dish and the modem/router, giving you plenty of freedom to set up the dish in an open space, then place the modem/router inside a building, vehicle or a tent, sheltered from the weather.
That leaves two obvious things you’ll need to take it camping: a power source and a storage container of some sort.
For the first, I used a Jackery Explorer 1500 Solar Generator ($2,900). In my tests, the Starlink consumed an average of 38 watts of electricity per hour. Which means it will draw around 912 watts every 24 hours. The Jackery includes four 100 watt solar panels; together, the battery and panels are easily able to keep Starlink continuously operational, even on cloudy days.
Could you get away with a smaller battery? A 500-watt battery like the Jackery Explorer 500 Solar Generator ($830) could handle daytime use just fine, but probably wouldn’t have the capacity to run Starlink all night.
You will also want to keep the Starlink contained and protected during transport and storage. The kit comes in a rudimentary cardboard box, but is secured inside using molded plastic molds. I found these shapes fit perfectly in a 17-gallon ($15) HDX Tough Tote. Obviously, said bin doesn’t offer the shock or weather protection that a Pelican case might, but it’s much smaller and lighter, making it easier to carry around.
—SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 19, 2022
Is Starlink right for you?
This is the strange nature of the products produced by Elon Musk’s companies. I can tell you that Starlink works at my house and has covered a wide swath of the mountain to the west with no problems. I can tell you that it appears to be of sturdy construction and extremely easy to use. But since the company refuses to provide much concrete information, I can’t tell you if Starlink will work where you want it to, whether at your service address or elsewhere. And while using it away from my service address last weekend worked perfectly, it’s unclear if the company will continue to allow users to connect to it from outside their home area, especially in places with high user density.
These same groups of Starlink users report that they have been unable to access the network while roaming in certain areas, apparently due to overcrowding.
So will Starlink work for you? The only way to find out is to buy one, wait for it to arrive, and then see if it does. I can’t tell you how long this command will take, and I can’t guarantee that the device will work if you try to travel with it, or in what areas. All I can do is tell you that this is working for me right now.
And all of this is frustrating, because Starlink is so promising. Could it bring high-speed Internet to schools in rural communities? Could it open telemedicine to patients in remote places? Could this finally make the off-grid property of your dreams a reality? Could you use Starlink to zoom in on a work call from a surf spot in Mexico? May be. Maybe even probably. But right now, I wouldn’t risk your life or even your job on this.