Elon Musk, are you there? SpaceX Starlink internet service becomes more reliable and mobile

A SpaceX Starlink dish temporarily installed above a garden shed (secured with old bicycle tires) on the outskirts of town in rural Northern California. (Photo GeekWire/Todd Bishop)

ORLAND, CA – Looking north into the night sky during a visit to my hometown last year, I was momentarily stunned by a line of lights moving steadily from west to east, noticeably brighter than the stars.

Are the aliens finally arriving in the almond orchards? No, but Elon Musk’s high-speed internet service was.

It was a train of SpaceX Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit, returning the Internet to the surface of the planet. These satellites, developed at a SpaceX facility in Redmond, Wash., have become an increasingly common sight around the world as the company has deployed thousands of them to supplement its internet constellation.

On a whim, I signed up for the Starlink waiting list that night. Knowing the wait would be long, I quickly forgot about it until several months later when our GeekWire accountant asked me about an unexplained charge on my corporate card. I had forgotten the Starlink email letting me know my order was ready.

Whoops ! I guess I better test this thing.

That’s what I did this week in my hometown in Northern California. For the record, this is real Northern California, a farming community 100 miles north of Sacramento, not the Bay Area, which is do not Northern California. The world doesn’t start in Los Angeles and end in Los Gatos, despite what people in Silicon Valley might like to believe. Look at a map, people.

Don’t get me started. The fact is, this is exactly the type of place where new forms of satellite internet could bridge the digital divide with the promise of more affordable, accessible and reliable high-speed broadband.

My real-world experience with Starlink suggests that its reliability has improved dramatically since some tech critics were frustrated last year with the patchy nature of Starlink’s first beta.

I was also able to use Starlink in several places, confirming that the roaming feature (officially not supported) works in some cases.

Takeaway: Starlink is becoming an increasingly viable alternative to incumbent providers in rural areas – if you don’t mind waiting on the list until 2023, and if you can afford the cost of the Starlink satellite dish and the Wireless Router, which just went up $100 to $599, with an $11 increase in service fees, to $110/month.

Here’s what I learned and experienced with Starlink in Orland this week.

The set up: The Starlink kit I received in the mail was the second generation rectangular dishreleased last fall as a successor to the first-generation flyer “Dishy McFlatface,” the weirdly cute name Starlink gave the dish.

With a flat, white surface, it measures approximately 19 inches long by 12 inches wide and 4 inches deep at the thickest point of the convex back. It weighs about 8 pounds, according to the scale at home.

Starlink satellite dish and router, fresh out of the box. (Photo GeekWire/Todd Bishop)

It snaps into a four-legged metal stand, about 2 feet by 1 foot, and connects to a wireless internet router via a detachable 75-foot cable. The router plugs into the wall. And that’s the extent of it.

I found it simple and easy to set up a temporary setup (above my parent’s garden shed) using the Starlink app on my Android phone.

You will want to place it in a location with maximum exposure to the sky and limited obstructions. The Starlink app has a feature to help determine where to place the dish. A roof is probably your best bet for permanent installations, and you’ll need to find a way to get the cord into the house to connect to the wireless router.

The dish, a multi-element antenna, moves automatically to lock onto the satellites.

Speed ​​and reliability: I’ve consistently seen peak download speeds of over 100 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds as fast as 8 Mbps, more than enough for emails, web browsing, and video calls during the week.

A representative speed test of Starlink service in Orland, CA.

Over several days of use, there were times when the speed dropped significantly or the connection dropped completely. But these times were sporadic, and they most often happened after moving the dish or putting it back in place after taking it to a new location (see below). It seems to take a bit of time to find its bearings after any major change.

During a 45-minute video call on Thursday, for example, my co-workers reported that my video sometimes pixelated on their end, and the podcast recording service we use reported that my connection strength was sometimes reduced. . But the connection did not completely drop.

This increased reliability reflects the continued expansion of Starlink service.

“Since launching our public beta service in October 2020, the Starlink team has tripled the number of satellites in orbit, quadrupled the number of ground stations, and made continuous improvements to our network,” Starlink said in a message to users announcing the price increases, which she attributed to inflation.

Of course, as locals will tell you, the ultimate test in the Sacramento Valley is the brutal north wind. The weather gods provided the perfect conditions for this test on Monday. I was impressed with the reliability of service even in 20 MPH winds, no doubt helped in part by the dish’s aerodynamic design.

Roaming: Officially, at least, every Starlink device is tied to its registered address, with no guarantees of service elsewhere. However, the ability to move locations has been officially unlocked by the company as part of a humanitarian deployment in Ukraineand it seems that unofficially available in other locations.

To be clear, this does not mean in-motion use, on a moving vehicle. But moving the device from one fixed location to another seems increasingly doable.

For example, I was able to set up the Starlink and use it at my sister’s house in Chico, about 20 miles east of the designated address for my kit, with speeds and reliability comparable to what I had seen in Orlando.

Last night at a friends house in a rural area a few miles west of Orland, I put the Starlink on the ground in the driveway and ran the cord through the front door to to the router.

After taking about 15 minutes to find his bearings, it was good to go, just in time for some online games of Call of Duty: Warzone, completely lag-free, unlike the normal Internet experience. I felt bad taking the Starlink dish with me when I left.

Testing Starlink at Black Butte Lake outside of Orland, Calif. (GeekWire Photo/Todd Bishop)

I even took the Starlink to Black Butte Lake, 15 miles west of town, where I plugged it in the bathroom near the boat ramp in the recreation area of Buckhorn and I ran the cord to the dish on the roof of my mom’s van nearby.

There, the service was much more sporadic, cutting from time to time. However, I temporarily saw speeds above 90 Mbps. Based on my later realization of how long it takes for the dish to find its bearings, I think it could have become more reliable if I had given it more time (and been less concerned about what the US Army Corps of Engineers personnel who run Black would say Butte if they noticed what I was doing).

If you’re moving the Starlink dish, you’ll want to use the app’s ‘stow’ feature, which places the dish in a secure position for transport.

You will also need to be careful when transporting and packing it. Yesterday I noticed a small chip on the surface of my Starlink dish, probably caused by a careless bump during one of my on-site experiments. This does not appear to have had any impact on the performance or reliability of the service.

Competitive comparison: Ultimately, whether Starlink is suitable for a given individual or household will depend heavily on price. For a basic comparison to a large urban area, I pay about $80 a month for gigabit (1000 Mbps) fiber optic Internet service from Lumen (formerly CenturyLink) in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.

My parents live within the city limits of Orland and pay $73 a month for Xfinity cable internet service with speeds of up to 200 Mbps. Comparable out-of-town broadband can cost up to $150 per month, including service from competing satellite providers, with generally lower speeds and varying levels of reliability, as well as data caps in some cases. .

Even at the new monthly rate of $110, Starlink offers a competitive service price. However, the nearly $600 upfront cost for the Starlink kit is several times the installation cost of most other services and requires some do-it-yourself setup unless you can find (and pay) a technician. independent to help you.

Sunset on Starlink: Old bicycle tires worked temporarily to secure the dish, the cord running into the house through a slightly open sliding door, but you’ll want a more permanent setup if you decide to try Starlink as a daily service. (Photo GeekWire/Todd Bishop)

On the plus side, Starlink does not lock you into a long-term contract. In this week’s post announcing the price increases, the company said existing users can cancel and return their hardware within the first year of service for a $200 partial refund. Full refunds are available for returns made within 30 days of receiving the Starlink kit.

Amazon is developing its own satellite internet service, Project Kuiper, but the first satellites aren’t expected to launch until later this year, and pricing for the service has not been announced.

At the end of the line : As it stands, Starlink seems to be the best fit for people out of town, in areas not served by existing providers like AT&T or Xfinity. If your contract with your existing rural ISP expires next year and none of the above scares you, it’s worth considering a spot on the Starlink waitlist.

By the time your turn comes, Starlink service should be even better.

Just keep an eye on your email to make sure you really want your very own Dishy McFlatface before you get a surprise on your doorstep and your credit card.

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