About three weeks ago, SpaceX launched a public beta for Starlink, their satellite broadband service. This means real world testing is finally revealing what kind of service it’s going to be. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from the various beta tester forum posts and videos I’ve been tracking.
The kit, which includes a mount, the dish, a power supply, and a wi-fi router, costs $500 dollars and takes a few days to arrive via FedEx. The service is $99 per month.
Setup is opening the box, placing the tripod mount somewhere with a clear view of the sky, slotting the dish’s pole into the mount, and plugging in the power supply. The dish has built in motors that orient it to the optimal position so no manual aiming is required. Many people who have shared their setup experiences have said it’s about a 10 minute affair from opening the box to running their first speed test.
Speaking of speed tests, the download speeds being reported range from about 40 mbit/s to over 200 mbit/s with most people seeing just over 100 mbit/s. The upload speeds are between about 15 mbit/s and about 45 mbit/s with most seeing something like 20 mbit/s. Latencies are about 30 to 60 ms.
All of the beta testers so far are in the northern most parts of the US and southern Canada. That’s because the satellites in orbit so far only provide full-time coverage for those northern latitudes. But there are several additional satellite batches (each batch launched is about 60 satellites) that are still raising their orbits and maneuvering into their final constellation positions. (Depending on the launch and the final orbit, that maneuvering can take several weeks or several months.) By January most or all of the satellites launched so far will be in their final spots and the beta will be open to people at my latitude and perhaps the rest of the US.
If I’m lucky enough to get into the beta program in January, I’ve got some challenges to actually utilizing the Starlink service. First up is the dish placement.
Because the constellation of satellites is still in its infancy, with under 1,000 satellites launched (of 12,000 planned) the satellites are all still very far apart. That means the dish requires a wide view of the sky to see the outgoing satellite at one horizon and the next incoming satellite at the opposite horizon. Today, that required field of view is something like a 100 degrees. As the constellation becomes more dense with satellites much closer together, the required window on the sky will shrink. But for now, you need a quite expansive, unobstructed view of the sky.
Why am I explaining all of that? Well, it’s because I live in a canyon with 100 to 200 foot tall redwood trees all around, and I don’t have anything even close to that kind of view of the sky anywhere on my property, even if I go up on the roof. That means I’m going to need to get creative. As luck would have it, a previous owner topped a great big Douglas fir tree in our back yard. They cut it right at 100 feet, and if I’ve done my math right, that 100 foot tall living tower will be just high enough that if I mount the dish up there it’ll have the necessary 100 degree view of the sky above all the surrounding trees.
Getting the dish mounted on top of a 100 foot tall tree will be the first big challenge. Fortunately, I’ve got a lumberjack friend in the neighborhood and he’s interested in helping me with this project. But that’s not the only issue.
Because the dish draws quite a lot of power the ethernet cable from the dish to the house is only 100 feet long. (Even though the power over ethernet spec allows for cables as long as 328 feet, it does not allow for power draws as high as what the Starlink dish requires.) If the Starlink cable was much longer, because of resistance, it’s possible that not enough power would reach the dish. The problem here is that my tree is 100 feet tall and it sits 50 feet from the house so I need more than that 100 feet of cable to reach from the dish to inside the house where the power supply needs to live.
Now, it’s hard to know if 100 feet is right at the limit for the power supply’s output and the dish’s needs, or if SpaceX is being overly cautious here. I’ve done some math on the output of the power supply (180 watts) and the power loss over long distances of cable (1.32 watts for every 10 feet) and I *think* I can extend it by 50 feet and still deliver enough power to cover the dish’s peak requirements (150 watts.) That assumes my limited understanding of electrical engineering is correct, my math is fine, and the beta tester reports of peak power draw are accurate.
I could take another approach. Rather than extending the ethernet cable to reach the power supply inside the house, I could bring power out to the foot of the tree. But that’s dealing with AC and I don’t really want to do that myself. So, I’m going to try to extend the ethernet cable. But how to do that. It’s hard-wired at the dish so I can’t replace the whole length. I think I’ll do the extension with an inline coupler. (I also considered a punch down junction box but the included hardwired cable has stranded rather than solid conductors and I’ve read that stranded conductors don’t seat as well with punch downs.) Next I’ll need to protect that coupling from the weather because we’ll be setting up in the middle of the rainy season here. I think I’ll use heat shrink tubing over the junction and then put that section of cable in a small weatherproof box.
If that all works out, then in less than two months I could have an internet that’s 100 times faster than what I have today and have had for 11 years since moving to this little cabin in the woods. A 100 fold increase in speed would be amazing.