Starlink speed competitiveness varies, as sign-ups surpass 500K

SpaceX this week undertook the latest satellite launch for its Starlink internet service, which now touts more than 500,000 sign-ups.

Starlink is a low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation, designed and manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, that aims to provide broadband connectivity to users around the world in remote and rural locations.

“To date over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink,” said SpaceX space operations engineer Siva Bharadvaj during Tuesday’s webcast of the launch bringing 60 more satellites into orbit.

In the beta phase, the company said Starlink users can expect to see speeds range from 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps in most locations but noted there will also be periods of no connectivity at all. Starlink costs $99 per month, as well as a one-time $499 fee for a satellite dish and Wi-Fi router, according to PCMag.

Signing up doesn’t necessarily mean getting access to the service.

However, in response to a CNBC reporter’s Tweet noting fine print disclosing the $99 deposit is fully refundable and doesn’t guarantee service, Musk said it's likely all of the initial users will get access.  

In a February petition (PDF) to the Federal Communications Commission requesting designation as an eligible telecommunications carrier, Starlink said it was serving over 10,000 users in the U.S. and abroad. The same filing stated that “hundreds of thousands” of people across all 50 U.S. states had signaled interest via the Starlink website without any formal advertising.

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Starlink is aiming for near global coverage, with promises of enhanced service as more satellites are launched.

Ookla on Wednesday released SpeedTest Intelligence analysis showing Starlink is delivering on the promise of connecting users to faster broadband in certain locations, but the comparative performance varies widely depending on location.

For example, on the very high end Starlink’s internet speeds were a whopping 545.6% faster than other fixed broadband providers in Tehama County, California. Starlink in Tehama County delivered 65.27 Mbps download and 14.54 Mbps upload, compared to just 10.11 Mbps download and 1.87 Mbps upload for other providers. In other areas, such as Clay County, Missouri, Starlink was nearly 68% slower than available fixed internet (Starlink provided 45.46 Mbps download/13.25 Mbps upload compared to other providers at 141.77 Mbps down/42.07 Mbps up). 

(Source: Ookla)

Overall, in Q1 median speeds were slower than the low and high-end range Starlink gives. According to Ookla, median download speeds ranged from 40.36 Mbps (Columbia County, Oregon) to 93.09 Mbps (Shasta County, California).

Meeting RDOF thresholds

Still, the initiative is making progress and Ookla noted Starlink is meeting the FCC’s minimum threshold for broadband speeds and latency (25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up/100 ms latency) more often than fixed service providers in the same areas.

According to Ookla, 86.7% of Starlink users met the benchmark, which is greater than the 83.2% of users with all other fixed broadband providers.

“Given this data, it’s safe to say Starlink could be a cost-effective solution that dramatically improves rural broadband access without having to lay thousands of miles of fiber,” wrote Ookla’s Isla Mcketta.

While there has been some debate about whether the FCC’s minimum speed should be upped, meeting it is important for SpaceX’s participation in the agency’s more than $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

In early December 2020 SpaceX was awarded $885 million in broadband subsidies during Phase 1 of the RDOF reverse auction. The funds are to deliver broadband to more than 640,000 rural homes and businesses across 35 states. Earlier this year, groups, including the Fiber Broadband Association and NTCA, voiced doubt that SpaceX would be able to live up to its RDOF commitments.

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Although Starlink is meeting the FCC minimum for latency (100 ms), Ookla’s data showed performance on that metric was worse than other providers in all but one of the counties surveyed. Starlink’s latency was up to 486% higher than other providers in the U.S. Its median latencies ranged from 31 ms up to 88 ms – so in some cases also higher than the 20-40ms Starlink says users can expect in most locations.

Comparatively, median latency from other providers combined ranged from 8 ms to 47 ms, according to Ookla.

Providing lower latency than traditional satellites is one of Starlink’s aims, with satellites positioned 60-times closer to Earth.

SpaceX is one of several companies working on satellite-based broadband; others include Amazon’s Kuiper and OneWeb.

Updated to include upload and download speeds in Tehama County and Clay County.