While we tend to focus our attention on LTE/5G, wireless connectivity isn’t limited to cellular networks. Besides terrestrial, satellites are attracting WAN Managers' attention and becoming a common topic in our daily conversations with customers, – more specifically, Starlink.
Starlink is a constellation of LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites providing internet access to a growing part of the world, including underserved regions like rural Africa. There are approximately 5,000 of them currently circling the globe, with plans for an eventual 42,000: a peek at Starlink's satellite coverage will show how busy it’s been. And while it’s still developing, we cannot deny its potential to offer businesses and individuals some serious advantages.
But where will it work best, how will it interoperate with other connectivity options, and is there anything it’s not suitable for? In this article, we’ll answer your questions – as we go where few wireless connectivity providers have gone before.
An evolving technology: ready for business?
Satellite internet was invented some time back – not quite a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but close, with Hughesnet and Viasat offering plans to both homes and businesses, and old hands Inmarsat serving ships and airlines for years. However, there are several types of satellite broadband.
For these three, the “birds in the air” are GEO satellites: Geostationary Earth Orbit, 35,785km above the equator. (The number’s important: at that height, the satellite stays in the same place relative to our planet’s surface, meaning a single satellite can cover a large area with no need for earthbound dishes to track a moving target.)
Starlink’s birds occupy a lower orbit, 550km – and move around, meaning customers’ antennas must cover more of the sky to effectively “see” them. Although, there are so many satellites that coverage is (mostly) assured, and getting better with time. Also, as they are positioned closer to the earth, they offer lower latency than traditional satellites, making them a more attractive alternative for modern enterprise use.
That said, bandwidth can differ dramatically depending on your location, environment, and time of day – which is why it’s important to understand your own situation and the performance and limitations of the services you’re incorporating into your network – whether these are cellular, satellite or wired broadband.
The cost case: optimism about affordability
Satellite operators don’t experience the intense competition you see with terrestrial cellular networks: inventory is limited and often oversubscribed, and with fewer players in the sector, there’s not as much pressure to slash prices. And there isn’t yet a vast customer base to amortise costs, unlike LTE/5G.
So, business-class broadband from satellite providers, including Starlink, can look expensive compared to the average terrestrial plan - now. And while this may change eventually, it is recommended to evaluate your budgets, use case, and broadband technologies at your location. In many parts of the world, 4G and 5G are so good there’s little need for a satellite option. For other use cases, the cost/performance balance is worth the investment.
Broadband speeds: comparable to 5G … or not?
While LEO is notably faster, and with much lower latency than traditional satellite broadband, in good conditions, Starlink offers between 50 and 250Mbps. No slouch – but remember that wireless “pipe” is shared between a growing volume of users, creating speedbumps in the sky at busy times. And while Starlink performs well in bad weather – in the rain – there’s still potential for noticeable degradation (rain fade) to be expected in a downpour.
LTE/5G can hit a blistering 2Gbps, in theory. While that max is rarely seen in practice, in pure performance, terrestrial wireless beats orbital across lots of deployments. Again, this may change – but as above, it’ll likely depend on market adoption, not just technology.