StarLink Has Finally Arrived…

Jeff Lee, LittleT Broadband

… well, it has finally arrived at our house. I am sure many others are still waiting.

Since supporting rural broadband development in WNC has become a second career for me, I am painfully aware that our home is in an area that is unlikely to be served by fiber or other high-speed broadband solutions anytime soon. We live in a census block that is covered by RDOF, which means our area is not eligible for state and federal grant funding, and I am not optimistic that Charter Communications (RDOF winner) will complete their build commitments in Macon County by 2028. We have been fortunate enough to have 1.5Mbps Frontier DSL service that works most of the time, so our situation could be much worse. However when you depend on an internet connection for work and other activities, a 1.5Mbps DSL connection makes everything painful.

So back in February of 2021 we placed a deposit for StarLink service. I would like to say we waited patiently, but that patience was tested and we almost pulled the plug on our deposit several times. We were contacted by StarLink a few weeks ago that though our area is still waitlisted, we could go ahead and get connected under their “Best Effort” program available to those of us on the waitlist with deposits on file. It is also possible to bypass the StarLink waitlist by ordering the RV service, at a higher cost. More on that later. After a bit of research on other user’s experience with Best Effort service, we decide to proceed. Our terminal arrived last Monday.

StarLink is a fantastic technology that can deliver high-speed internet service better than any of the conventional satellite services, much faster than rural DSL and many fixed wireless services, and on par with some wired services. However, one must keep in mind that StarLink is still a new technology that is evolving, still being developed, and is going through growing pains. StarLink is not as fast and stable as fiber or cable services, but when those options are not available it can be an impressive solution.

StarLink is a relatively expensive service, though not as pricey and restricted as conventional satellite services. One is required to purchase the dish (user terminal) up front at the current price of $599 + tax and shipping. Of course most folks also require extra accessories to mount the dish somewhere which are all extra. Around $800 later you have your terminal and accessories delivered from California to your home. The residential service is $110/mo and there is no discount if you are receiving the Best Effort service. If you choose to get the RV service, the performance is the same as Best Effort residential, the standard user terminal cost is the same, and the service charge is $135/mo. There are additional options for connectivity and service, but all are at much higher price points than basic residential and RV. StarLink does not participate in the federal ACP program (Affordable Connectivity Program), so the entry and monthly costs for the most basic service are a significant barrier for those households without the financial means. The service cost and lack of ACP support were two major factors that pushed the FCC to remove StarLink from the RDOF subsidy program last summer.

Within an hour or two of FedEx delivering our user terminal, I had the system up and running. Very impressive. We live in a creek valley and have a relatively open area for the dish, allowing setup with minimal/no obstructions. With StarLink, obstructions of clear northerly sky view cause regular/predictable service outages. In our case, with the dish sitting out in the grass and the cable running across the ground to our front porch, we started to receive internet service. I did learn overnight why sitting on the grass out in a field is not the best place to locate the dish… grazing deer can cause serious satellite obstructions. ;)

I got the dish mounted on a post (above deer height) and connected into our home network the next day. Still more work to do in making the installation permanent, but I must say that we have been pretty impressed so far. Even with Best Effort service we are seeing download speeds ranging from 5-145Mbps and upload speeds ranging 1.5-12Mbps. The speed varies depending on the time of day, and it appears the slow speeds are intermittent (not continuous) during peak usage hours. Most of the time the average speed is in the 40/8 range… amazingly better than DSL.

Though StarLink officially declared that beta testing was over in October 2021, to some extent I still consider the service in beta (under development). Even with a perfectly clear sky view (required for best reception), the StarLink network experiences continual small disruptions, outages, and other glitches. These typically only last a few seconds, and for most people using the service for web surfing, email, streaming, etc. these glitches go unnoticed. However for those who require a reliable continuous connection for applications like zoom, webex, teams, VPN, etc., the glitches can cause disconnection. StarLink also has some other issues which create complications for more advanced users. For example it is not possible to open virtual port connections on your router through StarLink and allow remote connections to your home.

In spite of the glitches and other nuances of StarLink, we have been pretty impressed with the service this week. It seems relatively unaffected by Nicole as the storm drops inches of rain on us. For the time being, we plan to keep our DSL service active. I currently have Frontier set up as a backup should there be any outages in the StarLink system. After we have had more time with StarLink and have more confidence in the service, we hope to drop DSL.