18 May 2021

The Verge: “Starlink review: Broadband Dreams fall to Earth”

In my week of testing, Starlink was perfectly fine for anything that buffers — I was able to stream Netflix and Disney Plus in 4K and jump around YouTube videos without significant issues — but doing something faster-paced, like quickly scrolling through TikTok videos, would run into delays.

Services that require a sustained, real-time connection, like Slack, Zoom, or gaming, simply weren’t usable for me, even when I was seeing the fastest speeds. I had high hopes that I could spend several days working over Starlink, and after just a few lost Slack messages and Zoom calls where my video dropped to low resolution and then froze entirely, I gave up. Many Starlink beta testers similar report experiences — consistent dropouts of a few seconds, every few minutes.

Maybe this will change as the company launches more satellites. Maybe it will eventually work better in areas that are dominated by tall trees. Maybe one day it will not drop out in wind and heavy rain. I didn’t give Starlink a formal review score because the whole thing is openly in beta and the company isn’t making many promises about reliability. But even when it’s final, you’re still looking at a service whose near-term, best-case scenario is being competitive with a solid LTE connection. I am no fan of cable companies and wireless carriers, but it’s simply true that my cable broadband and 5G service are both faster and more reliable than Starlink, and they will almost certainly remain that way.

Nilay Patel

I look forward to the solutions tweeted out by Elon Musk: ‘Let’s launch MORE satellites!’. Or better yet: ‘Cut down those pesky trees! Who needs oxygen when you can have spotty satellite Internet?!’

The Starlink dish automatically orients itself to find satellites in orbit
The Starlink dish automatically orients itself to find satellites in orbit.

It seems to me that the real issue here is that Starlink is mostly a solution in search of a problem. Few people in developing countries will be able to afford these monthly prices, and the technical limitations such as an unobstructed horizon and shielded from wind and storms make the system impractical in many remote areas anyway. Developed countries already have faster and more affordable broadband access, so it all comes down to the US. I am frankly tired of having the deficient US political and regulatory system dictate bad solutions to world issues, from global warming to this case, polluting the night sky with thousands of satellites for the sole benefit of a handful of rural Americans.

Of course, the only thing a decades-long commitment to “facility-based competition” has brought to most Americans is… a total lack of competition. Reality, as I have said, is quite irritating.

(By contrast, in Europe, where the prevailing philosophy is called “service-based competition,” large incumbent providers are required to lease fiber access to competitors and there is a thriving market for internet access with much lower prices for much faster speeds. If the United States were in Europe, it would have the most expensive broadband in the region.)

Anyway, American broadband policy stinks, and we all pay too much money for slow speeds and terrible customer service. It is no wonder people are delirious with excitement about Starlink, which promises to provide access from a constellation of thousands of tiny satellites blanketing the Earth, using a cutting-edge phased array antenna in the dish to quickly track the satellites moving across the sky. When it is fully deployed, Starlink claims it will operate the world’s largest satellite constellation, managed by a new automated orbital guidance system and an automated collision avoidance system, which has already been involved in a controversial close call. (Starlink has also run into communications problems with other satellite operators.)

A related news item mentions that Starlink has signed a satellite connectivity deal with Google Cloud. From a business perspective it certainly makes sense – the network will be operational either way, but with a low number of potential private customers, it is a good strategy to pivot to corporate deals – but it puts into question the stated goal of providing connectivity to underserved communities around the globe. Then again, it would not be the first time when Elon Musk is hypocritically chasing profits at the expense of his stated principles.

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