South Islanders among first to get Elon Musk’s Starlink

An artist’s impresion of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. Image / SpaceX

Kiwis will be among the first in the world to give Elon Musk’s Starlink a whirl.

A Wednesday update on Starlink’s official Reddit page, listing its next territories for launch, included “New Zealand: launching in parts of the South Island and expanding in the coming weeks”

And this morning it added, “Starlink is now available in limited supply in New Zealand! An initial beta service will be concentrated in the South Island and expand rapidly across the rest of the country.”

“Beta” means trial, and Starlink also warns that speed could vary and that there will be “brief periods of no connectivity” as it fills out its satellite network over the comming months.

Separately, Starlink applied to the US Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday to install its terminals on moving vehicles including trucks, RVs, boats and aircraft – although Musk tweeted that Tesla cars would not be part of the picture. The dish is too big.

Starlink – a subsidiary of the Musk-owned SpaceX – is in the process of creating a global satellite broadband network.

So far, SpaceX rockets have launched around 1000 Starlink satellites. As more are launched, coverage expands. Eventually, Musk wants a swarm of 12,000 satellites, which will provide fast internet to every corner of the planet. Musk has talked of a constellation of up to 30,000 birds. (For context, the 1000 Starlink satellites already in orbit account for about 25 per cent of all satellites).

Starlink originally said delivery for most places would be in the second half of this year, but it seems like South Islanders – or some of them – will have a chance to get a jump on the queue.

There’s an NZ$799 up-front payment (plus $114 shipping) for “Dishy” the large pizza-sized dish, a tripod mount, 30m of proprietary cable and a wi-fi router.

The ongoing service charge is $159 per month. That’s so-so by rural broadband standards. But where most satellite broadband comes with a stingy data cap, Starlink is offering unlimited data (though it’s also worth noting the service adds an “at this time” qualifier).

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And its promised speeds are more city landline-like than satellite-like. Starlink’s low-orbiting birds are capable of 150 megabit per second downloads and 30-50 Mbps uploads, with 20-40 milliseconds of lag. That’s faster than other satellite services already – certainly fine for Netflix, multiplayer online gaming or Zoom, if it does what it says on the tin – and Musk promises up 60 times that speed once Starlink’s constellation is fully in place.

It certainly seems tasty on paper, and early – if sketchy – accounts from trial users are promising. Results are enough, or should be enough, to make today’s rural broadband providers nervous – and even to give all landline and mobile internet providers a slight chill of fear.

But as with Version 1.0 of any product, some gremlins are guaranteed. My colleague Juha Saarinen, who lives in a remote corner of Northland, is angling to give Starlink a workout. You might want to wait to see how he goes wrestling with Dishy before you take it on.

South Islanders are promised the actual kit in a few weeks, but anyone, anywhere can place an order – although those who ordered one of Musk’s cars in the early days of Tesla will know he’s at times a tad prone to overly ambitious delivery projections, and those who’ve bought his solar products will know that local support has at times been slow and sub-optimal.

Starlink users get sent Starlink users get sent “Dishy” – a large pizza-sized dish that’s a DIY install. An app is supposed to help you to position it for the best reception. Still / YouTube, Ken Keiter

With Starlink, the DIY install looms as a possible pain-point.

The idea is that most punters will install the dish themselves, following instructions provided by an app. What happens if you need help? Will a local agent be appointed to help out?

The Herald emailed Starlink to inquire. A few days later, a reply came back from parent company SpaceX, saying it was too overloaded to field questions about local support. Hopefully, the company will be more responsive to customers.

If you want to jump straight in, Starlink says you can return your kit, and get a refund within 30 days if you don’t find service up to snuff.

Telco2 consultant Jonathan Brewer – a veteran of the satellite and wireless broadband industry – says he doesn’t necessarily see Starlink’s DIY model as a problem, even once it moves from tech-savvy early adopters to the likes of regular farmers.

De facto assistance is on hand.

“I see Sky and Freeview installers adding Starlink as a sideline pretty quick. Most homeowners don’t want the hassle of climbing on their roof and running cables,” Brewer says.

“It’s a good thing New Zealand has plenty of people who’re good at that kind of thing.”