Recent tests revealed in a PCMag study show that speeds and latency levels delivered by Starlink, Elon Musk’s emerging low-Earth orbit satellite broadband service (owned by SpaceX), far exceed those from satellite-powered rivals. However, initial high costs for the new service could be a show stopper even for consumers in rural areas who lack access to broadband Internet service. Starlink has deployed almost 900 satellites to date. The company appears to be ramping up its beta tests ahead of its commercial service launch. SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted Monday that “several thousand” additional beta invites are going out this week.
Average Starlink speeds jumped to 79 Mbit/s down and 13.8 Mbit/s up in October, improving on an average speed of 42 Mbit/s down and 9.7 Mbit/s up, according to the PCMag study. The speed tests were conducted by Ookla (Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company). Starlink quoted speeds of “50Mb/s to 150Mb/s” in a recent email to beta test users, so the results we’re seeing are in that range.
Starlink is joining HughesNet and Viasat’s Exede as a last-resort internet service provider for rural users who can’t get cable or fiber. Starlink’s speeds are a huge jump over existing satellite systems. According to Speedtest Intelligence, in October 2020 HughesNet averaged 19.84Mbps down while Viasat’s Exede system averaged 24.75Mbps down.
Starlink’s latency numbers were outstanding. Latency in recent tests varied wildly, but averaged at 42ms. That’s much longer than wired internet systems but shorter than HughesNet and Exede, which averaged 728ms and 643ms in September, respectively. The company says it expects “to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.” 4G LTE is currently in the 40ms range for latency, according to Speedtest Intelligence data. My home fiber connection gets 2-3ms latency.
Latency is extremely important for 2 way video conferencing. Participating in Zoom calls requires both a clear uplink and relatively low latency, which means it’s been very difficult for people using existing satellite connections. Starlink could bring rural users much better remote learning capabilities.
Lower latency is one of the big advantages of the new “low earth orbit (LEO)” satellite systems. Starlink’s many small satellites orbit at about 340 miles above the Earth, while the satellites for HughesNet and Exede are up at 22,000 miles (geostationary orbit). So it takes much longer for a signal to get up to and back down from the older-model satellites.
Satellite internet service is relatively expensive: $99/month in Starlink’s beta phase pricing, plus $499 for the satellite dish and a Wi-Fi router for customer premises transmission/reception. The PCMag report notes that HughesNet’s 25 Mbit/s service with 20 gigabytes of data costs $69.99 per month, while Viasat’s 12 Mbit/s unlimited plan (users can use up to 40GB before data is prioritized behind other customers during periods of network congestion, resulting in slower speeds) goes for $100 per month along with a 30 Mbit/s plan that costs $200 per month.
Starlink’s Beta Program and Future Plans:
According to Business Insider, Musk also noted that Starlink’s beta program, which is focused today on the northern U.S. and southern Canada, could be extended into Florida by January 2021. If Starlink gets the necessary approvals, it could get to parts of Europe by February 2021 and India by mid-2021.
Musk said European countries would get access “as soon as we get country approval,” which he estimated would be in February or March. “This is required for each country individually, as no EU-wide approval system exists. Probably start receiving final (there are many steps) approvals around Feb/March,” he said.
Florida could get access to the public beta in January, he said, adding that “lower latitude states need more satellites in position.”
India can expect connectivity “as soon as we get regulatory approval,” likely in mid-2021, Musk replied to another user.
SpaceX has not said how many people are taking part in its Starlink beta program, but it said this summer that nearly 700,000 people across the US had expressed interest in the service, CNBC reported.