by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – On February 9, SpaceX’s Starlink internet service announced that its “first-come, first-served” beta program will cover Hardwick and other towns in the region.
The service is designed for regions with challenges similar to those of the Northeast Kingdom: rural areas with limited ground-based infrastructure to get true high-speed internet.
On its website, Starlink describes the service as “ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge. Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable.”
During the beta phase, “users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.”
SpaceX is launching additional satellites that will further augment the service’s reliability and availability. As of February, SpaceX had put over 1,000 “low-earth-orbit” satellites into orbit and had over 10,000 customers, according to a release.
Latency (the delay due to sending data between a ground location and a satellite) can cause problems for some applications. According to arstechnica.com, “Latency remains satellite’s Achilles’ heel. The lengthy round trip that data packets have to make between Earth and satellites results in a noticeable delay between the moment a user clicks on something and the moment in which the user sees the result.” According to speedtest.net, the average latency for fixed broadband in the US is 25ms [milliseconds], while the rate on mobile networks is at 48ms. To date, the Starlink beta test is reporting an average latency of 30ms.
SpaceX says that the Starlink satellites orbit at 550km (340 miles) up, compared to previous generations of internet providers’ satellites, that orbit at an altitude of approximately 22,000 miles. The satellites themselves are relatively small, described in Sky & Telescope Magazine as “the size of a table. The satellites maneuver via krypton gas-fueled, Hall-effect thrusters.”
What customers install is also small compared to traditional satellite services: the dishes are listed in an FCC filing as having a diameter of 0.48 meters, or approximately 19 inches.
Like all satellite services, Starlink is susceptible to obstructions. In the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section on its website, Starlink states that “Users who live in areas with lots of tall trees, buildings, etc. may not be good candidates for early use of Starlink. However as more satellites are launched, the field of view constraints will decrease, enabling a wider variety of users.” The equipment is not designed to be moved from location to location easily.
Customers who have ordered the equipment are reporting the company’s promised speeds mostly to be accurate. Just days ago, a user who said they were in Stannard posted a speedtest.net result showing 101MBit down and 42MBit up. That result also showed a latency of 34ms, which is good enough for online gaming. Another Vermont beta tester in Monkton reported “Multiple tests at various times of day have shown that most [tests] fall in a range of 80-140 mbps down and 18-22 up. Pings [latency] in the 20-30 ms range are common, occasionally up into the high 30s. This is as good or better than my DSL.”
The service has attracted controversy and competition. In response to people worried about the satellites cluttering up the dark skies many enjoy for viewing and astrophotography, Starlink has committed to “making the satellites generally invisible to the naked eye within a week of launch” and “minimizing Starlink’s impact on astronomy by darkening satellites so they do not saturate observatory detectors.”
Amazon is launching its own low-earth-orbit satellite program. Dubbed “Project Kuiper,” it received FCC authorization last summer to put up to 3,200 satellites into orbit. Other companies have expressed interest in the low-earth-orbit strategy.
A big hurdle for installing the service in the NEK: Starlink is not cheap. The one-time cost for the dish is $499 and the monthly cost is $99, though there are no contracts.