Starlink: One Mainer’s Experience As A Beta Tester
By Joe Meadows (Liberty, Maine)
My wife and I live on an island in a pond (most people would call it a lake, as it’s several hundred acres) in rural Maine, almost two miles down a dirt road with a total of four full-time residences and about the same number of seasonal homes. As a city-dwelling friend commented when he first visited, it’s the place you go if there’s a zombie apocalypse. Most folks would say it’s isolated, while we call it heaven. That said, it’s not a place where you have easy access to all the things found in a more densely populated area. Chief among things that are lacking has been fast, reliable internet service, which is a real challenge when you earn a living giving people advice as a management consultant, and you’re forced to work from home in the middle of a pandemic. We had cobbled together a variety of wireless internet services to address this problem at a cost of hundreds of dollars each month, and still had frequent issues and slow speeds. But recently, our internet access issues appear to be largely resolved, thanks to Elon Musk and his Starlink satellite internet service. However, Starlink is definitely not for everyone, or even most people. There are still limitations, and I’m asked about the service often enough that I put together the following summary, rather than having to repeat the same advice and offer the same “watch outs”, over and over. If you can learn from this and make a more informed decision about whether to try Starlink now or wait until it’s more fully developed, then I will have accomplished my mission in writing this, and hopefully help you make a more informed decision.
Starlink is very different than “traditional” satellite internet, which we had in the past, and frankly hated. The lags and delays found in the older type of satellite connection simply don’t exist with Starlink. I won’t take the time or space here to fill you in on how it is different from those satellite technologies because you can just look at their website (Starlink.com). If you’re interested, go do that. But if you know about the service and just need to read the experience of a real-world user who depends on the internet to make a living, here’s what I can tell you.
1) Starlink is not currently for you if you have access to cable or fiber internet and can reliably get download speeds in excess of about 75 mbps and upload speeds of more than 15 mbps, with latency under about 50 ms. And if those terms are confusing to you, you might want to read up on internet services, or even wait a bit, before plunging into Starlink at this stage. Starlink is currently targeted toward those who don’t have access to those levels of service because of where they live (like us), and the service is still in a beta test, meaning that it will have glitches, hiccups, and problems, at least occasionally. We knew all this when we signed up and have the technical savvy to deal with it. So, if you have decent internet service or can’t deal with problems as they pop up, I’d advise you to stay out of the beta test.
2) The biggest thing to remember about Starlink, at least at this stage, is that you need to be FREE of essentially all obstructions to not have interruptions of at least a few seconds occur regularly. Let me repeat that: FREE OF OBSTRUCTIONS. You can download the free Starlink app on either the iOS App store or Google Play store, and use that app to tell you whether or not you will have obstructions in the location you wish to mount your Starlink dish, without having to sign up or purchase anything. DO THAT. The app is very accurate, and you should do this BEFORE you order, to check out your location. Be aware that if you have just a tiny little bit of a tree that is barely visible in the area that's supposed to be free of obstructions, you will still have a loss of signal each day, which means no service, even if just for a few seconds or so each time. That interruption might last only a few seconds, but those seconds might occur during your most important call of the week. And the more obstructions you have, the worse it will be. Satellites don't follow your schedule, and wishing that the situation was different won't change things, to be blunt. Almost every person who installs Starlink but isn’t happy with it has obstructions, and I suspect the vast majority of them thought, “Well, it’s not all that obstructed… I’ll just try it anyway.” That’s a mistake if you plan to use the service for VOIP calls or web conferencing, and you will almost certainly be frustrated if you try to “force fit” an installation into an area where the dish isn’t completely free of obstructions. Obstructions bring the Starlink signal to a screeching, full stop rather than just slowing it down, so this means your call or video conference will just freeze up. If it’s just a little bit of obstruction, you won’t usually notice it when streaming a video because video streaming has some buffering built in that helps to make up for that. But you notice every second of loss during a call or web conference, so keep that in mind.
Obstructions to the north (NOT the south, in contrast to other satellite services) are especially bad in the US (except for Alaska, I believe). The obstruction-free area required will improve over time as more satellites are launched, but at present, in our Maine home with many trees around it, we found that even if we mounted the dish on the roof of our two-story home, we needed about 50 yards (not feet – YARDS) of clear area to the north, and about 15-20 yards to the sides, and about 10 yards to the south, to be free of obstructions. We had exactly one spot where we could mount the dish, but that was, luckily, all we needed. Your situation will vary based on the height and location of trees or other obstacles, and the height at which you can mount your dish. Height is the single best thing you can do to improve things because it helps you clear obstacles around you, but it’s also a difficult thing to achieve for most homeowners. So again, USE THE APP TO TEST FOR OBSTRUCTIONS, BEFORE YOU ORDER.
3) Expect interruptions at least once or twice each day, for at least a few seconds, even with no obstructions. IT'S A BETA TEST. THERE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE A FEW PROBLEMS, BECAUSE THEY'RE TESTING THINGS. While we have not experienced it, some early beta testers report that the system will go down for an hour or more because something that needed to be tested really didn't work well at all. If that bothers you, stay out of the beta test or do what we do and have a backup that can be launched within seconds, preferably automatically. In fact, I would never advise someone who depends on the internet to make a living to use Starlink without a backup, at this stage of its development. As of this writing, I get perhaps 5-20 seconds of downtime on calls each day, which isn’t much different than I see from others with whom I work, who have fiber or cable internet. But it’s not perfect, and you should plan for that.
4) Starlink is much faster than your DSL signal, and yes, you can stream movies and do a video call, and surf the web, and run a speed test, all at once, almost all the time. Until you can't, for reasons you will not fully understand. This is NOT yet a "utility". It's a fantastic technology that is improving every month, but if you demand something close to perfection, then a beta test is not for you. In our case, Starlink is already more reliable than our other sources of internet (mobile or fixed wireless), but it still has problems, and you need to expect them now and then.
5) If you must have reliable internet almost all the time, plan for that. If you have a reliable carrier that's just slower than you like, but still want to be in the beta test, KEEP the reliable carrier and run what’s known as a “dual-WAN router” (or even better, a “multi-WAN router”) that can automatically switch between internet sources. In our case, we can have up to five internet sources feeding into the same router, and the router can combine them, and/or switch from one to another, based on whether each carrier is working properly. You probably don’t need that many internet sources (we’re now down to just two, including Starlink) but if you need reliable internet and having multiple sources that allow you to access the internet is not something you are prepared to do, you probably shouldn’t be in the beta test.
Bottom line: For us, Starlink is even better than we were promised. They have definitely under-promised and over-performed. However, as I’ve said more than once, the more you are obstructed, the worse it will be, and that’s THE thing that people either don’t comprehend, or don’t want to accept, or just don’t check out in advance. If you’re more than about 5-10% obstructed (my numbers, not Starlink’s), I think you will have many problems. If you can just barely see a tree limb in the area of the app that’s supposed to be clear, you may have at least a few seconds of signal loss a few times each day, including, potentially, during your important calls or meetings. If the app says you have obstructions and you aren't willing to get rid of them or get above them, then you are proceeding at your own risk, with a likelihood of a bad experience.
Also, if you think spending $500 upfront and then $99/month means you should get trouble-free service, the beta test is not for you. Wait a year or two. Things will get much better, and some obstructions will likely be tolerated once a few thousand more satellites are up (less than 10% of the planned number of satellites are yet in orbit as I write this). The area of clear sky required will almost certainly get smaller over the next few months or years. But the situation today is not the situation of the future, no matter how much you want it to happen. There are no magic slippers for you to click together to make it happen. It's just a matter of time.
Finally, please remember that most people are lousy beta testers. That means there is a high probability YOU are a lousy beta tester. That doesn't mean you are stupid, or lazy, or a bad person. It just means that being up to your chin in the problems that come with testing out a new technology isn't what you call fun. Some of us are weird this way. We don't understand your love of stamp collecting, or your obsession with your favorite quarterback, or whatever it is you do for fun, either. So, we don't pay to participate in those things and then complain about having done so. Please don't do that with our geeky little obsession, either. Starlink goes out of its way to warn you that problems will occur during the beta test, and I’m echoing their words here. When it's ready for prime time, they will let you know that the service is no longer in a beta test, and that most people can rely on it. But that’s not today. I know of many who came into the beta without understanding (or more likely, accepting) the caveats, and they are not happy. In almost all cases, they have obstructions, even if they won’t admit it, or don’t understand just how much clear sky is really needed. At least some didn’t bother to use the app to find the best location for their dish or didn’t believe its results. If you follow their lead, you almost certainly won’t be happy, either. Again, you’ve been warned.
Am I glad we decided to be in the beta test? Absolutely! Starlink is working beautifully for us 99% of the time now, and when it goes down, our system switches to the backup faster than our generator comes on when the power goes out. And, I've beta-tested technology for over half my life. I expect, and plan for, it to fail. If you aren't willing to do that, STAY OUT OF THE BETA. The last thing this technology and service needs is a bunch of people who expect it to work like a public utility at this stage. That's not what it is, yet, and fostering that expectation during a beta test is a surefire way to give the technology a bad name before it has a chance to improve.
Anyway, that's what I tell my friends and neighbors, when they ask about Starlink, and whether it might be right for them. Good luck with whatever you decide to do.