Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its Starlink early access program to the public six months ago. In the first few months, the satellite Internet service grew to more than 10,000 users.
To get a first taste of the service, CNBC spoke to more than 50 people who have used Starlink. Respondents included households in Canada and 13 states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
The majority of these Starlink users are in rural or remote areas like farmland or wilderness with limited access to terrestrial broadband options – and a few have no access at all.
“I’m assuming the service will last over the long term,” a Montana user told CNBC. “The beta price for the service is more reasonable than any other option we have, and these are underperforming. I will keep Starlink as long as it is the only broadband option available to me.”
A Starlink dish in the wild.
Starlink is the company’s capital-intensive project Building an interconnected Internet network with thousands of satellites, known in the aerospace industry as a Constellation, designed to provide high speed Internet to consumers around the world.
SpaceX launched the Better than Nothing Beta program for the public in October, and the majority of users surveyed by CNBC received invitations to participate between November and February. The service costs $ 99 per month in the US as part of the beta. The upfront cost for the equipment customers need to connect to the satellites is $ 499, plus taxes, shipping, and accessories to mount the antenna.
The surveyed CNBC users asked the total cost, installation process, opinion of SpaceX devices, internet speed, service reliability, service alternatives, customer service experience, any concerns, and overall impressions. Here’s what users said.
SpaceX Founder and CEO Elon Musk attends a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 27, 2020. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley would be the first people to be launched into space from the United States since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. However, the start was postponed due to bad weather.
Saul Martinez | Getty Images
SpaceX award user equipment far below its real costThe company currently pays around two thirds of the cost of customer equipment.
User upfront costs ranged from $ 550 to $ 800 depending on taxes, shipping costs, and additional equipment such as roof mounts or third-party items for installation.
Most users found the $ 99 monthly service price to be fair and often a discount on other satellite broadband services and terrestrial options – especially given the average speed of the Starlink service. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last week The company has no plans to add “tier pricing” to consumers. stresses that it “wants to try to keep it as simple and transparent as possible”.
The contents of the Starlink customer kit, which includes the satellite dish, stand, power adapter, and wireless router.
The “Starlink Kit” that is sent to customers consists of four main parts: the user terminal (also known as an antenna), a tripod mount, a WLAN router and a power supply unit. SpaceX also offers roof mounting options for a surcharge.
Users were largely impressed with the quality of the devices, particularly the antenna nicknamed “Dishy McFlatface” in the SpaceX manual.
“Aside from a massive hailstorm, I don’t see much hurting this thing,” said one user.
A handful of users were disappointed with the quality of the WiFi router provided by SpaceX, and several opted for third-party router options. One Montana user described it as “building block with a WiFi signal” and found it was quick to set up but had no configuration options other than setting the network password.
“I went for my own router and plugged it right into the port the router would have been plugged into,” said the Montana-based user.
A Starlink user terminal installed on the roof of a building in Canada.
The installation process provided the most varied of opinions from users as some – mainly those who have previously performed rooftop installations – found it very easy, while others had to spend hours getting the antenna working.
“The hardest part was getting up on the roof, assembling the bowl, and running the wire inside the house,” said a Colorado user.
Obstructions to the antenna’s view of the sky, and hence connection to overhead satellites, have been the most common problem for dish installation users. A mobile application for Starlink users includes an augmented reality feature that will help you search for obstacles and find the right place to install the antenna.
“My trees are very tall and I underestimated the need for the Starlink Obstacle Detection app to really show 0 trees,” said an Oregon user.
Washington Emergency Management Division
SpaceX informed the Federal Communications Commission in February that Starlink’s Internet service “exceeded” download speeds of 100 megabits per second, upload speeds of 20 megabits per second, and latency “at or below 31 milliseconds.” Latency is the delay in an Internet network that defines how much time it takes for a signal to travel back and forth from a destination. Latency and download speed are important measures for an Internet service provider.
The company’s report to the FCC was in line with users’ reports to CNBC, which reported download speeds between 60Mbps and 150Mbps – some even reported peak speeds close to 200. Latency was also as expected, as most Users reported a latency of around 30 milliseconds, some in the low 20 milliseconds.
Musk promised earlier this year that Starlink’s performance will continue to improve as the company launches more satellites. Later this year, the speed should double to around 300 Mbit / s and the latency in the range of 20 milliseconds should be more constant.
SpaceX has warned that users would experience a dip in service during the beta as the entire satellite fleet is not yet in orbit. Within 24 hours, most users saw a handful of downtime between three and five minutes. Sometimes downtime was only 20 seconds, while some users reported downtime between 10 and 20 minutes. The Starlink application also gives users a countdown to when the next satellite should reconnect.
“The service is pretty reliable, with some outages occasionally,” said one Maine user. “We mainly use it to watch Netflix, Hulu and Youtube. We also play a bit on the system with no problems.”
Users who spoke to CNBC said they use multiple devices without sacrificing the quality or speed of the service.
“We are online all day, every day at meetings. It works without any problems. We also use streaming services. In combination with my in-laws, we have at least 25 devices (smartphones, laptops, desktops, iPads, smart TVs, smartphones) Home devices etc), “said a Minnesota user.
In addition to the reliability of the internet service itself, the Starlink devices have held up well in the elements. Users reported that the Starlink antenna continued to work in strong winds, rain, and blizzards. Since some users’ remote locations require that they pay close attention to power consumption, the device does not consume too much power. A user in California says that “it consumes roughly the same as the floodlight bulb that lights our driveway”.
Users reported a variety of previous services they had before Starlink, ranging from other satellite broadband companies to low-speed wired networks to cellular hotspots – and some with no prior service.
Starlink users most often switched for one of three reasons: price, speed, and data restrictions (also known as “caps”). A user in Ohio said they paid $ 180 a month to a local service provider that advertised faster speeds but Starlink rated it faster on average. A California user previously had a satellite service that he said was “slightly more reliable” in terms of outages, but the download speed was 1 Mbps with a latency of around 1000 milliseconds.
“I keep asking my local people [telecommunications technicians] If fiber is ever introduced in my city and they say “5 years to never” every time, “said one Montana user.
A user in Canada said his region has two local “high-speed” Internet service providers, but the cost is far too high by comparison.
“Both require significant investments in hardware (towers, dishes, etc.), have fairly restrictive data limits, and do not guarantee speed. In short, they are not sufficient,” said the Canadian user.
A Falcon 9 rocket will launch a Starlink mission on January 20, 2021.
The previous core business of SpaceX was the launch of rockets. Hence, the customer service aspect of becoming an Internet Service Provider is new to the company. Only a handful of users had looked at issues, but everyone was happy with the response from SpaceX.
One Oregon user said he “couldn’t connect initially” when setting up his Starlink service.
“I opened a support case and they answered within a few hours and then called me. They had to tweak something on their end and the problem was fixed that afternoon,” said the user.
Another user in Minnesota said “the support responses have been great” and noted that “someone usually gives me a response within 1-2 hours” on SpaceX.
The main concern of respondents was the possibility of SpaceX imposing data restrictions in the future. Some expect restrictions to be inevitable, and one user said that if there are data restrictions, they “will immediately cancel the service without hesitation”.
When asked what restrictions they would find acceptable, users said they were happy with data caps between 750 gigabytes and 1 terabyte per month.
The installation process and the apparent “lack of lightning grounding” in the devices were a concern for a California user.
“Routing the cable indoors is unlikely to be easy for the general public,” said the user.
Said user said he didn’t integrate the Starlink devices into his home network because of grounding concerns, he said, “I don’t want a bad strike to blow up all of my network devices and servers.”
“I’d like to believe that SpaceX thought about it, but it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere in the documentation. To minimize the risk, I’ll keep everything separate for now,” said the Californian user.
Sixty Starlink satellites will be launched after the company’s 17th mission.
Starlink users were pretty enthusiastic about their overall impression of the service, and almost all of them expected it to last over the long term.
“The experience was great, the support from Starlink was great, and updates keep rolling over to the Starlink app,” said one Maine user. “I am very happy with everything.”
Users also highlighted an important point that SpaceX itself said: the service is a boon for people living in rural areas, but not a replacement for people’s existing internet service in cities.
“This is a game changer for rural America,” said one Montana user. “I think there are many people who now have the opportunity to work remotely because of the pandemic that will be using this service.”
While SpaceX has started taking pre-orders for the service, and more southern parts of the US are expected to gain access in the coming year, the company still has no timeframe for Starlink to exit beta and begin full commercial service. SpaceX’s Shotwell said earlier this month that the company “has a lot of work to do to make the network reliable,” a fact emphasized by a user in Wyoming.
“Be prepared – it’s beta. Expect outages, technical support can be slow. This is not intended for consumers who want full production without interruption or delayed support,” said the Wyoming user.
Despite Starlink’s limitations, many users are excited about access to a new high-speed service for the time being.
“I’m downright dizzy having a real internet after living without it for 14 years,” said one Oregon user. “I can just watch a show without worrying about whether I’m going to hit my bandwidth limit. I can download a new game if I want instead of having to bring my laptop to a friend’s house. It’s a small change of lifestyle. “