Once it fully gets off the ground – literally and figuratively – mobile Internet speeds will rocket.
Actually, a lot of it is already off the ground and has been rocketed into orbit right now, a virtual constellation of hundreds of low orbiting satellites that have been launched by SpaceX over the past two years, all connected together and being tested for stationary users in many places.
Sooner, rather than later. Maybe even by the end of the year for a limited beta program for select mobile users to go along with the current one for stationary setups.
The challenge for mobile and RV Starlink Internet is considerably more than for residential Starlink Internet customers.
It has to do with the antenna.
Here's a video I just recorded going into some depth about this:
As the video explains, those low orbiting satellites are only a couple of hundred miles high as compared to the 22,000-mile high geostationary satellites we're used to with traditional Internet and TV services. That means they are moving fast. Instead of just pointing an antenna in one spot (that's what geostationary means), Starlink's low earth orbits move fast from horizon to horizon. They also cover narrower swaths of the globe.
So the challenge is developing an antenna that will track them as they travel across the sky and then seamlessly lock into and track the next satellite. And as you travel on earth in an RV or vehicle, you will go in and out of those coverage swaths, thus making it necessary for the Starlink antenna to be also able to acquire the next Starling satellite that covers another swath of the earth.
Sound complicated? It is.
In fact, I had the chance to actually use and test it for almost a year.
And while several different firms are working hard to make it a reality, faithful followers of this blog may remember us testing out a unique satellite system from a company called Kymeta.
Kymeta Corp. is the Redmond, Wash.-based connectivity venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. A few years ago they installed and let us test out one of their hybrid satellite-cellular mobile antennas for voice and data. It wasn't hooked up to Starlink (SpaceX hadn't launched the satellites back then), but Kymeta was clearly looking at that eventuality when they hooked us up.
Our system used geostationary satellites. And the service was spotty and slow. But it did work and more importantly, it worked as we drove.
The flat panel antenna is electronically and computer-controlled to automatically acquire and track the satellites as they move across the sky, making use of a technology known as metamaterials. In essence, this locks onto satellites electronically, with no moving parts.
It will be a variation of this style that RVers will have installed when Starlink Internet for RVers becomes available.
In fact, eventually – a few years down the line – you'll see these flat antennas built right into the roof of your RV or even passenger vehicles. In the Class B van I had when I tested it, it mounted on the rear.
Kymeta is currently working with a whole bunch of satellite companies and has not officially announced any deal with SpaceX or Starlink. But in a news release, the company says “We’re agnostic, so we will support all of the different platforms that are out there.”
Obviously, that means they want to work witn Starlink, besides the various high altitude satellite systems it's currently operating on across the globe.
The problem we had with the Kymeta satellite system was latency. Latency is how long it takes to send my data from my laptop in my RV up through the antenna to the satellite, and for the satellite to in turn send whatever I want back down. Those satellites were very high – about 22,000 miles. Therefore the latency was high, too, meaning it took seemingly forever.
Technically, the poor performance and slow speeds were caused by that high latency.
I ended up with Internet speeds of about 2Mbps. Yawn.
Satellite Internet has improved!
The satellite Internet system used by some RVers today is from Hughes and is vastly improved. It uses a satellite called Echostar and although it was way up there in height above the earth, too, instead of shooting down one wide-angle beam that covers half the continent, it used spot beam technology to send narrower more efficient signals to various parts of the earth.
Some users report up to 25 Mbps speeds.
The problem is it is not widely available for mobile use and you need lots of equipment, including a big dish that must precisely be pointed in the right direction.
Finding room to carry it and then setting it up and taking it down at each stop is cumbersome. – if you can find someone to set you up with a mobile coverage system, which typically does not cover the entire country.
When it does become available for mobile use among RVers, it will be screaming fast.
Based on its private beta test results, it appears that under the right conditions it can deliver a satellite internet connection of 100 Mbps or more (some beta uses have reported maximum speeds of 200 Mbps at times).
And remember that latency issue involving the time it takes for a signal to go up to the satellite and back again? Latency is no longer a problem. That's because Starlink's satellites are 60 times closer to the earth than traditional Internet satellites. Starlink's beta testing reports an extremely low latency of 20 milliseconds.
Because it is not yet available for mobile use, we don't know the answer to that.
But the beta program Starlink has recently launched for stationary users has an equipment package price of $499. That covers the antenna, mounting kit, Wi-Fi router, and the receiver and transmitter that will connect your devices to the system.
Thereafter, the beta users will have to pay $99 a month for service.
Remember, those are for people who set it up at their house. It's likely that mobile systems will be more.
What does the company say about Starling Internet for RVers?
Officially, the company says very little about when and how much it will cost.
But in some online conversations analyzed and tabulated by our friend Chris Dunphy from Mobile Internet Resource Center, the SpaceX/Starling people made it clear that it is coming.
Here's their statement:
“Mobility options – including moving your Starlink to different service addresses (or places that don’t even have addresses!) – is coming once we can increase our coverage by launching more satellites & rolling out new software.”
Did you catch the “places that don't even have addresses” part?
That's us. RVers. We are on the move and all they need t do is launch some more satellites to provide better coverage and to coordinate them all through some software.
The challenge is pretty amazing. In one of the online conversations the company had with fans, I was struck by this explanation of how complicated it all is:
“You should think about communication between the Starlink dish and the satellite in space as a ‘skinny beam’ between the dish and the satellite. So, as the satellite passes quickly overhead, if there is a branch or pole between the dish and satellite, you’ll usually lose connection. We’re working on some software features that are going to make this much better and long term, the clearance you’ll need is going to shrink as the constellation grows. So this will get much better!”
There is another element that has to be built out beside the satellites.
There has to be a very robust network of ground stations. In fact, you and your RV must be within the range of a ground station to make a communications connection with the satellite. The ground station “talks” to the satellite and then patches you through.
Eventually, the goal is to have thousands of Starling satellites up there, communicating with each other by laser beams, providing high-speed Internet connectivity to the entire planet.,
Big and growing. Starlink calls their system of satellites a constellation.
Since May 2019, SpaceX has been launching them in batches of 60, with the goal of creating a “megaconstellation.”
Those launches have been coming closer and closer together, The company has even figured out how to reuse its booster rockets.
Today (February 13, 2021) there have been 18 launches. That means there are 1,080 satellites up there.
When the system is fully developed. Starlink hopes to have 30,000 of them, orbiting the earth in perfectly synchronized orbits about 250 miles high, covering precise areas of geography, 24 x7, 365 days a year.
When will that be? We should see some beta tests for mobile connectivity happening by year-end or early next year.
Full implementation, alas, won't probably be till 2023.
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