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Starlink promises to bring high-speed Internet to rural and remote areas currently underserved by wired Internet. Can it also also bring high-speed Internet along on your next camping trip? This weekend, I embarked on a 1,600-mile road trip to find out.
What’s Elon Musk’s Starlink Device?
Created by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Starlink’s goal is to spread high-speed Internet across the entire planet. It does that 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 bring that total to 42,000 satellites, expanding coverage across pretty much the entire globe.
Starlink customers use a compact satellite dish to communicate with those satellites. Packaged with a power cord, stand, and modem/WiFi router, the consumer version of that kit currently costs $599, while the monthly service contract, which includes unlimited data, costs $110. To get on the list for one, you’ll need to put down a $99 deposit, which doesn’t include shipping (another $50).
The dish itself, its cord, and stand are weatherproof. The modem/router is not. Starlink requires a normal 110-volt, three-prong household power outlet to operate.
Current speeds are said to be between 100 and 200 megabytes-per-second download, and 10 to 20 MBPS upload, with latency as low as 20 milliseconds, depending on how clear your view of the sky is, and atmospheric conditions. Those numbers are consistent with my testing, and are equivalent to most cable Internet connections in homes, if only about half the speed of fiber optic setups.
Starlink should be faster, cheaper, more reliable, and offer more widespread coverage than other satellite Internet providers.
Yeah, should be fully mobile later this year, so you can move it anywhere or use it on an RV or truck in motion. We need a few more satellite launches to achieve compete coverage & some key software upgrades.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 15, 2021
Notable Limitations, According to Crowd-Sourced Data
Here are some obvious questions: Will Starlink work at your property? Can you use it at locations other than your service address? Is its reception impaired by inclement weather? If so, how badly and by which kind? How long will it take to receive your kit?
Like other Musk projects, official information is thin. And answers from Musk himself, distributed seemingly at random via Twitter, are often exaggerated, and unreliable.
So, many questions are best answered by other users. Take, for instance, a basic map of areas covered by the existing network of Starlink satellites. This open source map is a whole heck of a lot more useful than Starlink’s own.
Groups like Reddit’s community of Starlink users, and the Facebook group Starlink for RVers and other Mobile Users are also full of helpful information. It was through them that I verified that Starlink appeared to work in areas far away from the owner’s service address, and that it seems to have very few problems operating even in heavy rain or snow storms. Wind can be an issue, but users of those groups have found mounting devices that seem to work well across a variety of different needs.
But while crowd-sourced data is good at providing general information, by its nature it struggles with the specific. The only way to find out if Starlink will work at your house is to buy one. The company is only shipping to addresses in areas that do have service, and only as enough satellites come online in those areas to provide enough capacity for those new users. So, if you do receive a unit, you can be reasonably sure that it will work in your area, but the specific nature of your property may still limit or prevent its use. Reviews have noted that its satellite signals may be obscured by trees, and that terrain like mountains and hills may block it entirely.
Will Starlink work in other places? Official information suggests its only guaranteed to work at your service address—the address where your unit is delivered—but Musk has tweeted that it’s fully portable to anywhere covered by the Starlink constellations. It’s unclear whether or not you’ll be allowed to access satellites away from your service address if those are already being used by other people, and what the formula Starlink may use to determine signal allocation might be.
Deployment of 50 Starlink satellites confirmed pic.twitter.com/3uuAMNxrHC
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 25, 2022
Using Starlink Couldn’t Be Simpler
I live in southwest Montana, one of the areas served by the initial constellation of Starlink satellites, and also a region plagued by poor service from both wired and satellite Internet providers. That means there’s high demand for the service here. I placed my deposit the second they become available in March 2021, and received my unit almost exactly a year later. There was almost no communication from the company between order and delivery, and there was no way to find out a projected delivery date at any point during the process.
Cautiously optimistic, I set the dish and modem/router on my back porch, and plugged it in. The unit, which has no external controls of any kind, swiveled the dish out of its stowed configuration and into a horizontal orientation, where it sat for about 10 minutes, before apparently locating a satellite and pivoting to face due north, at about a 45 degree angle. 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 backcountry of southern Idaho. It put itself through the same process, then my phone just started buzzing with emails and texts once it was online.
Starlink really is plug-and-play simple.
The WiFi router appears to provide 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 receive a strong signal inside my GoFastCampers Platform. In that camp, several people shared its Internet service with me, with no noticeable degradation in provided speeds.
Starlink needs to operate from a fixed position. You can’t mount it to a moving vehicle and expect it to work, although Musk has tweeted that capability may be possible sometime at some undetermined future date.
Solar panels + battery pack better than generator, as no heat signature or smoke & doesn’t run out of fuel
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 2, 2022
What Other Equipment Do You Need?
Starlink isn’t designed to be portable, but it is relatively compact. The new rectangular dish that’s now shipping measures just 12 inches wide, 19 inches long, and weighs 9.2 pounds. It’s convex on the back side, and is permanently mounted to a short pole, complete with a servo that allows the dish to move around on that pole. The pole then plugs into a four-footed stand. The included cable measures 100 feet between dish and modem/router, giving you a lot of freedom to set the dish in an open area, then place the modem/router inside a building, vehicle or tent, out of the weather.
That leaves two obvious things you’ll need to take it camping: a power source and a storage container of some kind.
For the former, I employed a Jackery Explorer 1500 Solar Generator ($2,900). In my testing, the Starlink drew an average of 38 Watts of electricity each hour. Which means it’ll draw about 912 watts every 24 hours. The Jackery includes four 100-watt solar panels; together, battery and panels are easily capable of keeping Starlink up and running continuously, even in cloudy weather.
Could you get away with a smaller battery? A 500 watt battery like the Jackery Explorer 500 Solar Generator ($830), could handle daytime use without issue, but likely wouldn’t have the capacity to keep Starlink running all night.
You’ll also want to keep the Starlink contained and protected during transport and storage. The kit ships in a rudimentary cardboard box, but is secured inside that using molded plastic forms. I found those forms fit perfectly inside a 17-gallon HDX Tough Tote ($15). Obviously, said bin doesn’t offer the protection against impact or weather that a Pelican case might, but it’s much smaller and lighter, making it easier to transport.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 19, 2022
Is Starlink Right For You?
This is the weird nature of products made by Elon Musk’s companies. I can tell you that Starlink works at my house, and roamed across a broad swath of the mountain west without issue. I can tell you it appears to be robustly made, and that it’s dead simple to use. But because the company refuses to provide much in the way of concrete information, I can’t tell you if Starlink will work where you want it to, whether that be at your service address, or somewhere else. And while using it far away from my service address this past weekend worked flawlessly, it’s unclear if the company will continue to permit users to connect with it away from their home area, especially in places with dense populations of users.
Those same groups of Starlink users are reporting that they’ve been unable to access the network while roaming through some areas, apparently due to overcrowding.
So, will Starlink work for you? The only way to find out is to buy one, wait for it arrive, and then see if it does. I can’t tell you how long that order will take, and I can’t guarantee the device will work if you try and travel with it it, or through what areas. All I can do is tell you that it works for me, right now.
And all that is frustrating, because Starlink holds so much promise. Could it bring high-speed Internet to schools in rural communities? Could it open up telemedicine to patients in remote places? Could it finally make the off-grid property of your dreams a reality? Could you use Starlink to Zoom into a work call from a surf break in Mexico? Maybe. Maybe even probably. But right now, I wouldn’t stake your life, or even your job on it.