Starlink Internet Review: Low Satellites, High Pricing
Starlink’s fleet of low-orbiting satellites promises decent speeds, low latency and unlimited data, but the service comes at a sky-high price.
Updated Feb. 25, 2024 9:56 a.m. PT
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Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
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OK, so it’s satellite internet? Well, yes, but the number of satellites and the distance at which they orbit the earth make for a vastly different product than the satellite internet you may be familiar with from Hughesnet and Viasat.
Locating local internet providers
Starlink has the potential to offer moderately faster speeds than Hughesnet and Viasat (not to mention other common rural internet services) and significantly lower latency. That’s nice, but the real kicker is the unlimited data. Hughesnet and Viasat promote “no hard data caps,” but anyone who has had either service knows that data is far from unlimited.
Such advantages come at a high price. Starlink’s 5TB mobile tier costs up to $5,000 per month, but that’s for roaming service and the highest amount of priority data. If you’re interested in home internet with standard data, the service comes at a much more reasonable monthly rate of $120.
Locating local internet providers
Considering the expected speeds, 25 to 220Mbps, that’s still high compared to most top internet providers, but it’s not a bad deal for rural internet. Hughesnet and Viasat can easily cost as much or more per month and come with potentially slower speeds, plus the pains of high latency and low data allowances.
Is Starlink worth the cost? Here's everything you should know about Starlink before signing up.
According to Federal Communication Commission data from June 2023, Starlink is available to 99.6% of US households. That's the highest coverage percentage of any internet provider, including Hughesnet and Viasat.
As shown in the map above, there are a few pockets, specifically in southern California, West Virginia and New Mexico, where service is "coming soon." Still, Starlink's coverage is impressive. I ran serviceability checks using addresses from California to Connecticut and down south in Alabama and rural Texas and received a response indicating that "Starlink is immediately available" every time.
Service isn't limited to just the US. Per Musk, the list of countries currently served by the growing network of low-orbit satellites includes the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand and others.
There's still a way to go -- Starlink will likely need at least 10,000 satellites in orbit before it can claim to offer full service to most of the globe (and SpaceX has shown signs that it wants as many as 42,000 satellites in the constellation). It's still less than half of the way there, with coverage focused on regions between 45 and 53 degrees north latitude.
Starlink internet plans and pricing
40GB-2TB, standard unlimited thereafter
50GB-5TB, standard unlimited thereafter
$120 per month is a lot for home internet service, especially one that isn't nearly as fast as a cable or fiber connection. There's also the hefty upfront equipment fee, which is higher than equipment purchase costs from Hughesnet and Viasat, both of which also come with the option to rent your equipment.
Still, Musk is betting that the cost will be worth it for people who have thus far lived without access to a reliable connection. That said, Starlink does offer a $90 monthly plan for folks in "high-availability locations." But the vast majority -- or "most locations," as it says on the website -- will face a monthly charge of $120.
As for expected speeds, Starlink's website states "Starlink users typically experience download speeds between 25 and 220Mbps, with a majority of users experiencing speeds over 100Mbps." That said, the internet speed-tracking site Ookla, reported that Starlink offered average download speeds of nearly 67Mbps in the US during the first quarter of 2023.
That's down significantly from the end of 2021 when Starlink had median download speeds of just over 100Mbps. The drop may be the result of growing subscriptions and increased network congestion. Hopefully, average speeds will jump back up to around 100Mbps or higher soon as groups of new satellites are added to the fleet.
The benefits help justify the cost
While I'd like to see a bit more speed and consistency for the price, Starlink adds value in areas where other satellite services cannot.
The Standard home internet plan comes with unlimited data while the Priority plan comes with 40GB, 1TB or 2TB of "priority" data depending on the tier you choose. Once your priority data pool is exhausted, the service switches over to standard data.
When that happens, your bandwidth is prioritized the same as everyone else on the network at any given time. That can result in slower speeds for the remainder of the billing cycle, but it's far less of a penalty compared to the substantial and intentional speed throttling Hughesnet and Viasat can enforce once customers surpass their monthly data allotment.
Starlink is also contract-free, whereas signing up with Hughesnet and Viasat typically involves agreeing to a two-year contract and the early termination fees that come with it. That said, I'd imagine the high initial costs are reason enough for Starlink customers to keep their service for a while, regardless of any contractual obligations. Undamaged equipment is refundable to customers who cancel in the first 30 days of service but not after.
Finally, there's the low latency. Sometimes called "ping," latency measures the time it takes for information to travel to and from your internet provider. Geostationary satellites, like those employed by Hughesnet and Viasat, orbit some 22,000 miles above the Earth, resulting in the highest latency of any modern internet connection.
Starlink satellites zip around the planet at an altitude of around 350 miles -- 60 times closer to the Earth's surface than traditional satellites, per the company's claims -- so it takes far less time to transfer information back and forth. As a result, Starlink's latency is comparable to cable internet and other terrestrial connection types and low enough to support online gaming and avoid excessively lagging video calls.
Watch this: Testing Out SpaceX Starlink Satellite Internet
Setup seems surprisingly simple
All you need to do to connect is set up a small satellite dish at your home to receive the signal and pass the bandwidth on to your router. The company offers several mounting options for rooftops, yards and the exterior of your home. There's even a Starlink app for Android and iOS that uses augmented reality to help customers pick the best location and position for their receivers.
In 2021, CNET's John Kim signed up for Starlink at his home in California and began testing it at various locations. At home, he averaged download speeds of around 78Mbps and latency of around 36ms. You can see more of his first impressions in the video above.
How does Starlink compare?
Starlink isn't replacing your fiber, cable or even fixed wireless connections like Verizon 5G Home Internet and T-Mobile Home Internet just yet, or possibly ever. That doesn't seem to be the intent behind the service. Starlink is best suited to provide a practical solution for broadband in underserved areas or in a mobile sense, where traditional wired or fixed wireless services are unavailable.
Such areas have previously had two internet options: Hughesnet or Viasat. Starlink has emerged as a third option, so how does it compare to its satellite internet rivals?
You may pay more per month with Starlink than Hughesnet and Viasat, and you'll pay more upfront. Hughesnet is a bit cheaper, with standard rates of $75 to $110 monthly for maximum download speeds of 50 or 100Mbps. Viasat's standard rates range from $100 to $400 per month depending on your plan, so Starlink may be a cheaper option than Viasat despite the faster speed potential, unlimited data and lower latency.
Both Hughesnet and Viasat have lower equipment fees than Starlink. Purchasing equipment from Hughesnet or Viasat can cost around $300, while Starlink charges double that at $599. There's also the option to skip the upfront fee and rent equipment from Hughesnet or Viasat for an additional $13 to $15 per month. No such option is available with Starlink; customers purchase the equipment and after 30 days, it's theirs to keep.
While more expensive, Starlink equipment is apparently simple to set up (as seen in the video above) and does not require professional installation. Hughesnet and Viasat, on the other hand, require professional installation, which can add $100 or more to your upfront costs.
So, pricing and the equipment situation can be a toss-up between all three satellite providers depending on the provider or plan you choose and the route you go with the equipment. Starlink holds the advantage in basically every other category, including speeds, latency, data allowances and contract requirements.
What's the final word on Starlink?
Starlink is an exciting and much-needed addition to rural internet's long-limited landscape. Although service is slower and more expensive than many other providers and connection types, the relatively high speed potential, low latency, unlimited data and no contract requirements boost its value as a rural internet provider.
Starlink internet FAQs
Does bad weather affect Starlink?
Struggles with inclement weather are definitely a downside to satellite internet. Per Starlink's FAQ, the receiver can melt snow that lands on it, but it can't do anything about surrounding snow build-up and other obstructions that might block its line of sight to the satellite.
"We recommend installing Starlink in a location that avoids snow build-up and other obstructions from blocking the field of view," the FAQ reads. "Heavy rain or wind can also affect your satellite internet connection, potentially leading to slower speeds or a rare outage."
Can you see Starlink satellites in the sky?
Concern about the proliferation of privately owned satellites in space and controversy in astronomical circles about the impact of low-orbiting satellites on the night sky is not uncommon.
"We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten both," the statement reads.
Since then, Starlink has begun testing various designs intended to reduce the brightness and visibility of its satellites. At the start of 2020, the company tested a "DarkSat" satellite with a special, non-reflective coating. Later, in June 2020, the company launched a "VisorSat" satellite that features a special sunshade visor. In August, Starlink launched another batch of satellites -- this time, they all were equipped with visors.
"We want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure little kids can look through their telescope," Shotwell said. "It's cool for them to see a Starlink. But they should be looking at Saturn, at the moon ... and not want to be interrupted."
"The Starlink teams have worked closely with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the specifics of their observations and engineering changes we can make to reduce satellite brightness," the company website reads.
Where can I learn more about Starlink?
We'll continue to cover Starlink's progress from various angles here on CNET, so stay tuned. You should also keep track of Eric Mack's excellent work covering Starlink. Among other issues, he closely examines the project's goals and challenges and the implications for underserved internet consumers and astronomers concerned with light pollution obstructing views in the night sky.
Beyond that, we expect to continue testing Starlink's network for ourselves as it expands. When we know more about how the satellite service stacks up as an internet provider, we'll tell you all about it.