First launching in 2018, Starlink has already raised the standards of what satellite internet can achieve. Despite this success and continuously growing rollout, however, the technology is marred by growing concerns over viability and access. Though a powerful tool in certain situations, the challenges of Starlink have led many to question its long-term success, and whether it’s worth investigating.
What is Starlink?
The basic idea behind Starlink is that it acts as a next-generation satellite internet provider. The first generation of this technology has been around for over a decade but experienced major caveats that rendered it unusable in many applications. These are tied into bandwidth and latency, and while bandwidth has increasingly been addressed with older systems, latency is a much more unsurmountable issue.
The problem of latency is an inevitable result of the distance that geostationary satellites need to sit at above the earth. At around 22,000 miles high, even signals traveling at the speed of light take a long time to make a round trip. On average, this means latency averaging 638 milliseconds on older generation tech.
Starlink, by utilizing a network of non-geostationary low Earth orbit satellites, significantly reduces delay by placing their satellites much closer to the planet. This has resulted in latencies towards the 50 milliseconds mark, which approaches that of cabled DSL connections. While an ingenious solution, this approach also acts as a double-edged sword.
Holding the Tech Back
Still in beta, it’s no surprise that Starlink has seen some challenges, many of which could be addressed with tech and infrastructure upgrades. The most obvious and common problem that users have had ties into unreliable connectivity, which is a reflection of how the satellite network operates.
Using a net of thousands of moving satellites means that dishes don’t have any one point to lock onto, and instead need to constantly search for new connection points once one moves out of range. For this to work, a dish needs access to a completely clear skyline, which most people simply won’t have. Whether you’re in a city surrounded by tall buildings, or in a rural environment among trees, broken sightlines can lead to unpredictable and frustrating periods of disconnection. Though the addition of further satellites to the net will mitigate this issue, short of flooding the sky completely, there is no totally viable solution.
Less worrying to the consumer is the negative effect that the technology could have on observatories and other space organizations. Optical astronomy, at least for those stations based on earth, has already had problems with Starlink interfering with data recording. Though not designed to be reflective, the Starlink satellites demonstrate this problem at certain times, which is costly and frustrating for observatories to deal with. There have also been reports of the systems encroaching into radio astronomy, which alongside visual astronomy will only get worse as more satellites are put into orbit.
Potentially much more dangerous is what is called Kessler syndrome. This is a theoretical scenario in which the accumulation of space junk in low-earth orbit becomes so profound that escaping earth’s gravity well could become near impossible. Since only tiny fragments of materials from space junk can move at incredibly high speed, the fear is that the enormous network of Starlink satellites could create a domino effect. If this happens, it’s not just Starlink that would fail, it could also damage any human attempt to put additional objects in space.
Starlink for Access and Gaming
Taking a broader look at Starlink’s potential, the big standout uses for the technology are found in improved access for outlying areas, and the strong potential for better gaming. Consider those who need higher bandwidth and lower latency, but live outside of the range of decent connection infrastructure. In this case, Starlink could not only be a godsend, but it could also be the only viable option to bring the internet up to a modern standard. It might not be perfect, but Starlink in this situation could represent the best possible choice.
For those already operating on some form of satellite connection, the lower latency of Starlink would open up an entirely new range of options, most notedly in gaming. Simply put, with older connections with latency measuring upwards of half a second, practically no online games will be playable, as even 56k was rarely this bad. In fast-paced titles like Overwatch, COD, Starcraft 2, and even slightly slower games like MMOs, the lower ping of Starlink would make the games not just playable, but competitively viable.
On the other hand, we could also look at somebody who has a slower existing satellite connection, but only utilizes their internet for low-demand uses like online casinos in the US. Whether first comparing ratings, free spins and bonuses, browsing websites, or even playing the games themselves, low bandwidth and high latency are never going to be much of an issue on these sites. For this reason, jumping out and paying for a more expensive Starlink connection won’t likely be worth the change.
Ultimately, if you don’t need an upgrade right now, we’d caution waiting for more data on Starlink before making the jump. As strong as the tech looks, programs helmed by Elon Musk are often overpromised and underdelivered. While we hope we eat our words, it’s best to look before you leap.