Starlink Summary

I got a couple of questions from friends about what exactly Starlink is. Here’s a summary. (I think I posted one of these before, but here it is again 🙂

Starlink is a new kind of high-speed satellite internet service from the rocket company SpaceX.

I’ll fist explain what’s wrong with traditional satellite internet and then I’ll share how SpaceX is solving those problems to provide a service that’s competitive with terrestrial internet.

Traditional satellite internet has a few problems that make it slow for the price. First, the satellites are super high up there. They sit about 22,000 miles up where their speed matches the Earth’s rotation. This is how they seem to always be in the same place in the sky and your dish can point to that one spot and not have to have a motor to track the satellite’s movement. But there’s a big downside to having a satellite so high up. They’re really far away. Even though the signal moves at the speed of light, light has a finite speed, and 22,000 miles means at least half a second round trip. This makes the internet feel “laggy”.

The second problem with traditional satellite is that the technology is often kind of old. Historically it cost a lot of money and took a lot of time to build these communication satellites. This means that the traditional providers don’t upgrade their satellites very often with the latest and greatest technology so even though technically they could be faster, they’re often relying on years-old tech that’s just not up to speed.

The third problem with traditional satellites is that the service providers over-subscribe. They simply have too many people connecting to a single satellite which has limited bandwidth and so all the customers suffer as a result. They can get away with this because there’s little to no competition for rural broadband. When it’s your only option, you’ll take it even though it’s not great.

Starlink tries to solve all three of these problems and it does so on the back of SpaceX’s very affordable rocket launch service. Where every other major rocket launch company throws their rockets away with each launch, SpaceX lands its boosters and re-flies them many times so their costs are ridiculously low (perhaps as low as 10-20% the cost of a new rocket.)

What can you do with super-low-cost rocket launches? Well, you can put a lot of modern satellites up quickly and affordably and replace them with new ones as soon as you’ve got something better. SpaceX has a massive assembly line that builds small, cheap, flat-packed satellites, and then they rely on those used rockets to launch the satellites in batches of 60 at a time. Starlink currently has about 1,000 satellites orbiting Earth and will have many, many thousands more in just a few years.

The Starlink satellites fly at very low altitudes, about 340 miles up. This has two implications. First, round trip time to the satellite is dramatically reduced compared to those flying at 22,000 miles. SpaceX plans on sub-20ms latency so your internet won’t feel laggy. (As we speak they’re directing the the whole constellation to lower itself a bit to further improve latency with a target of 16ms.)

The second implication of flying this low is that the satellites are moving really fast to maintain orbit. This means they don’t sit in one place in the sky but rather move across the sky pretty quickly . And that means you need a lot of them in order for one to be visible overhead at all times and you also need an antenna that can track their movement.

As I mentioned earlier, SpaceX already has over 1,000 orbiting satellites on their way to many thousands, even tens of thousands. But what to do about needing an antenna that steers to follow the moving satellite. SpaceX solved this problem not with mechanical steering but with something called a phased array antenna.

A phased array is a collection of many small antennas and when power is supplied to each one in just the right amount, their individual signals interfere with or reinforce each other in just such a way as to bend or steer the beam. This is digital steering, not mechanical steering so the user’s terminal can be a simple solid state device and doesn’t need a motor running all the time which would wear out and consume a lot of power.

OK, so that’s how Starlink addresses the traditional satellite problem of latency. What about the other two problems? The second problem with traditional satellite internet was stale technology. Because Starlink can launch satellites so cheaply, and because they build small, cheap satellites at scale, they can iterate their designs and put up improved versions of the satellites as soon as their engineers have made those improvements. So the constellation is always up to date with the latest and greatest technology while the earlier generations of satellites are simply de-orbited. (Note: they burn up fully on de-orbit.) A Starlink satellite is only expected to be useful for a few years. They’re almost disposable.

Then there’s the oversubscriber problem. This has more to do with business than with technology but both play a part. Traditional satellite internet services only have a few satellites to support all of their users and those satellites can be on 5 year old technology. SpaceX’s Starlink has thousands of satellites to support their users and those satellites are becoming more and more capable every year. So, as long as SpaceX is careful with not selling service to too many people in a geographic area (which is why they’re targeting rural users and not city dwellers right now) and they meet their target for how many satellites they want to have up there, then bandwidth should be good for all of their subscribers.

So, Starlink is a constellation of thousands of cheap, low-flying satellites and a technologically advanced user terminal/antenna that today can provide about 150 Mbit/s internet speeds with 20-30ms latency for $99/month and in a few years should be gigabit with even better latency.

Most of this is made possible by SpaceX’s innovation in rocket re-usability.

Right now, SpaceX is beta testing their constellation with over 10,000 customers. I’ve just joined that program. If you’re interested, you can try to get into the beta program or reserve your spot for when they become generally available at

Starlink Mount Idea

In anticipation of joining the Starlink internet beta program in January or February when it reaches my latitude, I’ve been planning how to hook it up. The trees are too tall here for the satellite terminal on the ground or even the roof to see enough of the sky for continuous coverage during the early sparse days of the Starlink constellation so I think my only choice is to go up a tree with the dish.

As luck would have it, there’s a nearby large Doug fir that was topped by a previous owner. It doesn’t have much in the way of limbs and it’s about 4 foot diameter so I’m hopeful it won’t sway much in the wind. It’s basically a massively scaled up,living utility pole :-)
My first thought was to mount to the cut top of the tree but after thinking about it some more I’m not convinced that even long lag bolts would be strong enough going into end grain. So now I think I’ll mount to the side of the tree and I’ve been working on the design for a simple mast that stands off of the tree a bit and rises just above the cut top for the dish to be able to orient in any direction.

The first draft of the mount required some fabrication, cutting and welding, that I wasn’t too happy with so I worked at it for a bit and this week came up with an alternate design that should work and doesn’t require any fabrication beyond drilling a couple of holes in a piece of 1 1/2 inch pipe.

The main horizontal support is a 3/4 inch diameter, 12 inch long lag bolt (why are they called bolts when they’re actually screws?) and the spacers off of the tree, the tee, and the mast itself are all simple iron pipe and fittings that I can screw together.
Here’s a diagram I whipped up in Sketchup. Let me know what you think? Will this iron pipe mast work to support an 11 pound satellite terminal? Will it be easy to build and then install 100 feet up a big tree? Feedback welcome.

diagram showing a desing for a satellite mast constructed with black iron pipes and fittings and secured with large lag bolts

Starlink Beta

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.

Adiantum aleuticum

Walking around the redwood forest, it’s almost impossible not to come across ferns. We have several species growing around our home and today’s post is about the native western maidenhair fern, sometimes called the five-fingered fern, botanical name Adiantum aleuticum.

These delicate-looking ferns are found mostly in western North America from Alaska down to Mexico. (It’s more common along the coast but can be found in the Rockies and as far away as Maine, Quebec, and Newfoundland.) They prefer to grow in shady, moist, humid forests, along streams and often thrive in the spray of waterfalls.

The western maidenhair is a deciduous fern, shedding its leaves in the winter. Like all proper ferns, the western maidenhair reproduces with spores rather than seeds. The spores develop on the underside of the leaves, ripening and releasing in the summer and fall. New growth emerges, bright green, in the early spring and leaves darken by the fall.

The leaves, or fronds, extend from dark brown or black stalks. They grow wide rather than tall, with fronds reaching one to three feet in length.

[Photo credit: me, jerry1 via iNaturalist, and Morgan Stickrod also via iNaturalist]

western maidenhair fern

closeup of western maidenhair fern

wide shot of western maidenhair fern


Next in this series on the coast redwood forest floor is the Pacific trillium, also called the western wakerobin, botanical name Trillium ovatum.

Pacific trillium is found in moist coniferous forests from central California up through Oregon and Washington into southern British Colombia and also inland in Alberta, Idaho, and Montana (and further?)

This trillium is a long-lived native perennial herb. It reaches maturity (and starts reproducing by seed) at about 15 years of age and can live as long as 70 years. The stem of a mature plant will grow about a foot to a foot and a half tall with three broad, pointed deep green leaves about half way up. Sitting atop a stalk that rises well above the leaves is the flower which has three sepals and three distinctive petals that start off white, move to a rose shade, and then to a beautiful lavender, maroon, or purple.

Around here, the Pacific trillium grows in the shade of the redwoods and Doug firs, in boggy areas, and along streams. It’s one of the first flowers to bloom in our forest, starting in February and continuing through June.

[Photo credit: Deanna L. Pierce, ekohner via iNaturalist, and John D. Anderson via Flickr]

closeup of pink pacific trillium flower

pacific trillium with white flower

pacific trillium with purple flower


In 1928, a man named W.O. Miller bought a small parcel of land at the intersection of two creeks in the Middleton Tract — a new residential community deep in the redwood forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s probable, but not confirmed, that Miller hired a Finnish American from Boulder Creek named Leander Erickson and his sons to build a redwood log cabin on the site. The home was completed that same year.

The trees for the building were second growth coast redwoods, probably cut from a farm about a mile and a half up the mountain side. The original forest in the area was clear cut starting about half a century earlier, so these were “young” redwoods, about a foot in diameter.

I don’t have any photographs of the cabin being erected, but I’ve included a photo of Erickson and sons building a neighboring cabin. (There were half a dozen log cabins built in the neighborhood around that time, and ours is quite similar to the one pictured.) As you can see from the photograph, it was all done by hand.

It’s interesting to me that so many early residents of this neighborhood chose to build with logs when dimensional lumber was readily available. Was it nostalgia? Something else? Another curiosity is that the log cabins built in the neighborhood were built with logs that retained their bark. Was this simply a Finnish style that Erickson knew and preferred? Or were there some other reasons for leaving the bark on?

I’ve read quite a bit about log homes since we moved here and it seems very common to strip the bark off of the logs for this kind of construction. The reasons are that it makes fitting and chinking easier and that bark is notorious for bug infestations and rot. Perhaps because these cabins are built from coast redwoods, which have a sturdy and highly bug resistant bark, there was simply no need to take the extra step of stripping the logs. Or maybe the more rustic look was just preferred? I honestly don’t know but it does make for an attractive cabin that looks right at home in the redwood forest. And, almost a century later, the logs still retain their bark with no signs of rot or bugs.

[Photo from the book by Sheri Jansen-Olliges, “From Timber Barons to Tree Huggers: The Story of Middleton’s Redwood Community”]

black and white photograph from the 1920 showing four men building a log cabin

Redwood Sorrel

The coast redwood understory is a fascinating place. Next up in our review is the native redwood sorrel, botanical name Oxalis oregana.

It’s called redwood sorrel because it prefers to grow on the redwood forest floor and it’s extremely common there, sometimes forming great expansive green carpets. It ranges mostly where redwoods do, following the coast from central California up through Oregon and Washington, and just barely into British Colombia.

Redwood sorrel is native herbaceous evergreen perennial that spreads by rhizomes (which are sort of underground stems) and seeds. It grows in dense patches, mostly about 8 inches tall, in moist, quite shady areas. Its leaves are each made up of three heart-shaped leaflets.

The leaves are actually really cool. Because these plants live in the deep shade under the great redwoods, they’ve adapted with super-sensitive leaves to photosynthesize with very little light. That would be problematic during mid-day in summertime when the sun is high enough in the sky to deliver direct light to the plants but the redwood sorrel have also adapted to close their leaves, like an umbrella, when the sunlight is too direct. They also use this folding technique to conserve water during dry times and to protect themselves from heavy rains during the wet season.

The plant blooms early spring through the end of summer. The small flowers are white to pink with five petals with lavender veins.

[Photo credits: Deanna L. Pierce, me, Ed Miller via iNaturalist, and Nick Doty via iNaturalist]

close up of redwood sorrel flower

redwood sorrel showing leaves closed in the sunlight

closeup of redwood sorrel leaves

carpet of redwood sorrel in front of redwoods

One Quarter

The CZU Lightning Complex fire is the most significant event to happen to the forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains since the clearcut era.

A while back I attempted to estimate the extent of damage by measuring the area of the fire and the total forested areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains using Google Earth’s handy area measuring tool. I came up with 17% (about 1/6th) of the forest impacted by this fire.

The only problems with my approach are that 1) I used Google Earth’s default satellite view to estimate the forest area based on color and it’s actually kind of difficult to distinguish forests from not-forest by eyeballing it like that. And 2) I used Google Earth’s somewhat crude polygon tool to create an imprecise outline to measure the areas so there was probably some error there.

Today, I decided to make a more serious measurement and so I did a bit of research and found the USGS’s National Land Cover Database. The NLCD uses Landsat satellite imagery to classify land cover. Adding that data layer to Google Earth, I was able to get a much better picture of the boundaries of the forest and even to see the composition of the forest from evergreen to mixed to deciduous.

Then, rather than using Google Earth’s crude measuring tool, I took screenshots from Earth and opened them in Photoshop where I could select color ranges and count pixels (pixel counts are found in the Histogram dialog.) This should be a much more accurate reading.

And here’s what I found. My initial calculation was close, but underestimated the size of the CZU fire damage. My first estimate was about 16% of the forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the burn area. With the new, hopefully more accurate approach, that estimate grew to 19% or almost 1/5th.

And with the NLCD data I was able to go a step further and focus in on just the evergreen stands which are primarily made up of coast redwood and Douglas fir. When I analyzed those areas I got an even larger number, 25%. A full quarter of the pure evergreens stands in the Santa Cruz Mountain was impacted by this fire.

Google Earth's satellite view of the Santa Cruz Mountains

NLCD 2016 Land Cover for the Santa Cruz Mountains