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Starlink: The lowdown on Elon Musk's satellite internet system

22 February 2023 • Written by Steve May

Starlink Maritime is rewriting the rulebook when it comes to connectivity at sea – but how does it compare?

It’s not just Tom Cruise who feels the need for speed. For guests and crew alike, fast, ubiquitous internet access at sea is now seen as a must-have provision. Everyone wants to surf on the surf.

“Connectivity is no longer regarded as a luxury,” says Nick Maynard, marketing director for communications company OneWeb. “It’s now right up there with reasons why a superyacht might not go to sea, such is the expectation from principals.”

This rise in demand goes way beyond Netflix and TikTok users on board. From audiovisual systems to artificial intelligence, fast, reliable data connections have become de rigueur and in demand – and there’s a revolution afoot.

The transformative technology everyone’s talking about is Elon Musk’s Starlink Maritime. A SpaceX offshoot, Starlink currently comprises a constellation of 3,300 low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites circling the planet at an altitude of 550 kilometres, give or take. In time, this is expected to increase to 12,000 satellites. It’s a radically different approach to the traditional VSAT system yacht owners will be familiar with: geostationary (GEO) networks that rely on satellites parked at some 36,000 kilometres and MEO (medium-earth orbit) satellites hovering around 20,000 kilometres.

OneWeb can take up to 36 satellites at a time into space.
Credit: Roscosmos and Space Center Vostochny, TsENKi

The system is exciting to those in the connectivity business because LEO satellites can outperform GEO and MEO satellites by offering faster internet speeds. They’re also far cheaper to make and deploy, mainly due to their size. GEO satellites are physically bigger (around the size of a large van) and can only be launched one at a time, whereas Starlink’s LEO satellites weigh just 260 kilograms and 64 can be launched at once.

Why the need for so many? Simply put, fewer GEO and MEO satellites are required for coverage as they see so much more of the planet, given their distance from earth, whereas LEO satellites only see a fraction of the planet at any one time. GEO satellite coverage is planetary (barring the poles) but latency – the delay in data transmission – is high; LEO satellites can deliver much quicker speeds, but lots of them are needed to guarantee coverage. Imagine a torch shining on a globe – move it in and the beam gets tighter and brighter; move it out and it gets broader and dimmer.

Currently providing internet service to around 40 countries, Starlink is proving to be quite the disruptor. Compared to more conventional satcom systems, it also promises lower running costs and simpler installation, as there’s no requirement for a satellite dome. Instead, a flat antenna can be unobtrusively accommodated on deck. The only requirement is a clear line of sight with the sky overhead.

Starlink’s antennas can be flat because LEO satellites fly so low; the “look angle” of the receiver, therefore, is always close to vertical, so it doesn’t need a wide range of movement. The panels can also be smaller, given the strength of the signal. At the time of writing, Starlink was not yet offering global coverage, with internet provision restricted to the Mediterranean and coastal areas of the US, Europe and parts of South America and Australia. The company is expecting to achieve global coverage by around March this year.

Credit: Courtesy of KVH Industries

One of the first yachts to install Starlink Maritime was the 54.9-metre Loon. Captain Paul Clarke reports the installation was easier than previous VSAT systems. “Almost six months after installing Starlink, we’re still in love with it,” he tells us. “We were able to turn off our satellite TV dishes and we now stream everything on all the TVs throughout. There’s no need to be locked into expensive, high-maintenance sat TV provider contracts, so it saves us $20,000 (£16,200) a year.”

Starlink Maritime’s pricing is also appealingly straightforward: $10,000 for two flat-panel antennas (only one is needed to provide internet, but two are supplied for redundancy in case of an output failure), and a monthly charge of $5,000 for unlimited data. Resellers, meanwhile, have recently started making the pricing even more attractive; connectivity company Anuvu is now selling single a Starlink Maritime antenna for as little as $2,500.

The upfront cost of the equipment is well below the tens of thousands you’d expect to pay for a sat dome on a superyacht, but the monthly subscription cost is similar or higher – but then again, so are the speeds.

The satellite setup on motoryacht Loon
Credit: @motoryachtloon

Under optimal conditions, Starlink can offer a maximum upload speed of 40Mbps, and 350Mbps download per installation, which is considerably faster than most home broadband users experience. Of course, it won’t deliver this level of performance consistently in real-world conditions, particularly when coverage is patchy, or when you’re in port, competing for bandwidth.

Clarke notes that the system’s growing popularity does appear to be slowing things down. “We are definitely noticing congestion as more and more people make the change to Starlink,” he says. “We’ve also noticed that when in the same ports as cruise ships, we have a massive reduction in bandwidth. There is nothing official from Starlink about this, but it seems that they get priority.”

Still, Clarke remains enthusiastic. “You’ve got to understand that Starlink is still in its infancy and will continue to grow and get better over time as it launches more satellites.” He’s also a fan of the design: “Starlink dishes are flat, so no more need for the big sat domes. I think we will see some more sleek yachts coming out of the yards in the near future as a result.”

Credit: Roscosmos and Space Center Vostochny, TsENKi

What are the alternatives to Starlink?

Of course, Starlink isn’t the only LEO game in town. Its sole competition – for now – is OneWeb, which has been steadily building up its own network of LEO satellites since 2019, with the aim of offering global coverage during 2023. Amazon, meanwhile, is about to muscle in with Project Kuiper, its proposed constellation of 3,000 LEO satellites. The company’s first prototype satellites will be launched this year.

Further providers are coming, too. If all the proposed constellations make it into space, it would increase the current number of satellites orbiting the earth 40-fold to around 200,000.

OneWeb’s Maynard says that the creation of a global constellation has been “a monumental, even Herculean” challenge for the company. “Each day our team has grappled with some big questions and decisions, for example how to efficiently manage a fleet of spacecraft from down here on earth, devising space-based connectivity service propositions that are relevant and easy to use, preventing orbital debris and cleaning up what’s already up there.”

Excelerate Z, showcases its satcom offerings. A new product combines feeds from LEO and higher orbiting satellites for redundancy and speed.

Each OneWeb satellite is about the size of a washing machine and orbits the earth at 26,000km/h, at an altitude of 1,200 kilometres, which is described by Maynard as the “sweet spot” for delivering high-speed, low-latency connectivity globally.

A key differentiator between OneWeb and Starlink is that OneWeb’s constellation operates further away from earth, with a smaller fleet of satellites that each have a wider beam width. “We’re delivering global coverage with an agile, efficient and responsible fleet of just 648 satellites, far fewer than some other planned constellations,” says Maynard.

While OneWeb won’t be drawn on pricing  (“We are an indirect business, we can’t really comment on pricing as this would be determined by our distribution partners,” says Maynard), the company says it’s more cost-effective than the traditional VSAT hardware.

Using a dual parabolic antenna (more like a traditional satellite dish), yacht owners can expect up to 125Mbps download and 25Mbps upload speeds. OneWeb’s antennas are also smaller than those picking up higher-earth-orbit satellites, so they don’t need so much space on the radar mast.

A OneWeb satellite. Its constellation comprises 648 of them orbiting the earth.
Credit: OneWeb

It is offering a flat-panel version called OW1 for land-based installations, teaming up with Intellian to make it, but a marine version is not yet available, although market watchers don’t expect it to be too long before one is announced. Third-party flat-panel antenna company Kymeta, meanwhile, has been around the yachting scene for some time and offers a flat-panel antenna for superyachts that can integrate with OneWeb’s constellation.

Cardiff-based Excelerate has been in the satcom business for more than 20 years and is a OneWeb partner. “I’ve often said that in a technology business, I spend half my time being totally excited and enthused and half being terrified. Things never stand still, and the pace of change seems to be getting faster,” says David Savage, the group’s executive chairman.

The complexities of LEO are staggering compared to a GEO network, he says, which is why the technology has taken so long to realise and has led to several high-profile failures. The concept of LEO connectivity was first proposed 30 years ago, but the high costs scuppered the first companies through the door, including Iridium, which was forced into bankruptcy.

“LEO satellites are travelling at 25,000km/h, so when a yacht connects to just one it can only ‘see’ it for about 10 minutes and then it’s gone, so during that process, the yacht has to be handed over to the next one and so on and so on. LEO satellites have to work with each other as well as the ground – all at 25,000km/h – and there might be thousands of them, or at least hundreds, depending on which network,” says Savage.

A Starlink satellite.
Credit: SpaceX

Does this mean the end of satellite domes?

So is the writing on the wall for traditional VSAT linking to high-orbiting satellites? According to the owner of the 38.8-metre sailing yacht Atalante, an early adopter of Starlink Maritime, LEO is a serious contender. He describes Starlink’s tech as “transformational”, adding: “When the Atlantic and Pacific coverages are complete in March 2023 it will be revolutionary.”

Atalante had one of the first Starlink Maritime systems fitted in October 2022. “We have trialled it in port and on the recent transatlantic crossing from Palma to St Martin. In Palma, we would regularly see speeds of 35 to 50Mbps and sometimes even 80 to 90Mbps. There was not a noticeable difference between Palma and on passage to the Canaries.” He says the crew lost Starlink coverage about 430 nautical miles southwest of the Canaries and picked it up again about 175 nautical miles off St Martin.

“Class rules and insurance will mean we have to maintain our FleetBroadband service for safety communication, but if the reliability of the Starlink service continues to be good, I cannot see the point of paying for two parallel services when Starlink appears to be superior.”

As to whether Starlink is the future, Savage is sceptical. “For sure, I am in the ‘how cool is this’ camp, but I am also in the ‘where’s the catch’ camp, too. The Starlink Maritime option has  a lower contention rate, which means that  the service is shared by fewer users than the recreational vehicle or consumer offering, but  as far as I am aware, unlike the current GEO offerings, there is no way to guarantee a minimum level of service.”

Echoing the view of Loon’s Captain Clarke, Savage adds, “The jury is out on what will happen when a large group of yachts are all trying to use Starlink in a crowded port or bay simultaneously. When it comes to guaranteed connectivity, a yacht needs as many plan Bs as possible. To rely on a single public or private network is courting disaster.”

Credit: Adobe Stock

A number of satcom equipment companies are now starting to offer solutions with as many of these plan Bs integrated as possible – taking advantage of the high speeds of LEO satellites, but with the ability to switch to higher-earth-orbit satellites if required. Whereas Starlink receivers can only see Starlink satellites, these companies have spread their bets.

Launched in January, Intellian’s latest offering, the XEO Series, automatically switches between GEO, MEO and LEO satellites – depending on which is offering the best coverage and speed. The XEO series requires the installation of a dual-band antenna, but its ability to operate across multiple frequencies means fewer domes are required.

Fort Lauderdale-based FMC GlobalSat, meanwhile, also offers a solution that packs in as much redundancy as possible, able to pick up GEO, MEO, LEO satellites across 210 countries, as well as 5G and 4G wireless networks. Emmanuel Cotrel, CEO and founder, says the best option for yacht owners is a hybrid solution.

Connection and navigation specialist KVH recently launched TracNet H90, a hybrid system that marries VSAT with 5G and Wi-Fi. Of Starlink and other LEO and MEO services in development, KVH’s Chris Watson says: “People are eager to learn about what they’ll offer. LEO services may be enough for some customers, and if they’re willing to accept the occasional outages, lack of live support and additional services and more.

SpaceX lifts off with a batch of Starlink satellites. Up to 64 can be launched at the same time.
Credit: SpaceX

“However, we’ve always believed that ‘good enough’ is never good enough when you’re on the water. That’s why we see the new LEO services as part of a genuinely robust connectivity solution for yachts. We designed our TracNet systems to offer that hybrid concept by seamlessly combining VSAT, 5G and Wi-Fi into a single antenna, while integrating and managing additional services, like Starlink, through intelligent, automatic switching for the best connections all the time.”

Savage’s company Excelerate, meanwhile, has launched a product called Hybrid Edge, which can pull in feeds from OneWeb, Starlink, 4/5G and higher-earth orbit satellites to offer the ultimate in redundancy and speed, since the device is able to combine bandwidths. It should be noted, however, that users will still need the relevant receivers on their radar masts for each connection to work.

“Starlink is grabbing the headlines now because it is the first LEO service to hit the mass market,” says Savage. “And while it isn’t the  only LEO service out there, it is enjoying a  period of very little competition, particularly because of the low capital outlay required by users to enjoy the service and the relatively low monthly connectivity costs compared to anything else out there.”

But competition for Starlink is growing as space gets more and more crowded with LEO constellations. Astronomers aren’t happy, but your teenager will be when they’re streaming the latest Netflix release in the middle of the Pacific.

First published in the March 2023 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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