Imagine for a moment: High-speed, low-ping internet costing the same or less than the lowest-tier options provided by your current ISP, regardless of your location. Sounds like an impossible dream, doesn’t it? Must we forever be stuck with a ping of 400 ms? Must the frugal among us always face download speeds that require waiting days before being able to play a newly bought game?
Well, that dream may become a reality in the not-too-distant future, as high speeds, low ping, and reasonable costs are the attributes promised by the upcoming ‘alternative’ internet service Starlink. But what exactly is promised, and does it seem likely that it can live up to its own hype?
An Overview of Starlink
Starlink is a project undertaken by SpaceX aiming to provide an alternative to traditional internet service providers. Instead of having to connect to your local ISP’s infrastructure (where possible), you would instead set up a Starlink antenna connected to a router, pay a monthly subscription, and be on your way! A global array of low-orbit geo-stationary satellites would ensure that there’s always a node above your area. So, you could sit back and enjoy gigabit download speeds with latency below 10ms.
…well, that’s what’s planned, at least. But the current reality of what they’ve tested so far doesn’t disappoint as much you might think!
Before I tell you more, let’s do a quick rundown of internet speed metrics and how they apply to gaming specifically.
Important Internet Speed Specifications
- Download Speed: This is how much data you can download per second, usually measured in Mbps or Gbps; the higher this is, the lower the amount of time you can expect to wait for a game or map to download.
- Latency / Ping: This is the delay that exists between doing an action and it registering for all players in an online multiplayer game. In this case, the latency is caused by the round-trip data takes to and from game servers when playing online. Low latency is vital when playing competitively, and can severely impact one’s experience. Anything below 100 is generally considered fair, but to be as competitive as possible one should aim for below 20.
- Upload Speed: This is measured in the same way as the download speed, but for how fast you can upload data from your computer to elsewhere on the web. This is particularly important when streaming, or if frequently uploading videos to a site like YouTube. The higher this value is, the higher the resolution, frame rate, and bitrate that can be uploaded or streamed without stuttering.
Starlink Beta Performance
Starlink is currently available in beta access for a limited maximum number of customers in each of the certain test locations around the US, Canada, UK, and (recently) Australia. Nevertheless, current speeds and benchmarks are impressive. A collaboration between PCMag and speed test website Ookla shows recent median speeds (up to March 28, 2021) of around 85 Mbps, after a slight slouch in speeds across the first couple months of the year.
Latency-wise, reported numbers and official sources state it to be around the 20-40 ms mark, but it’s aiming to be as low as 10 ms or lower eventually:
Although these benchmarks are a far cry from the promised speeds and ultra-low ping described in the intro above, they aren’t really that bad when compared with alternative offers in less-populated places. And this is only what’s available through beta so far.
Furthermore, there have been multiple reports of speeds above 200 Mbps and even above 500 Mbps. Not bad, but it should be noted that many users have also reported frequent cutouts. So both in terms of available speeds and consistent uptime, there’s a lot of problematic inconsistency. As such, it’s hard to say if something like online gaming is a possible or advisable use of the service right now. Although latency numbers are generally pretty good, moments of downtime can easily be a deal breaker for competitive players. That could (and probably will) change when coverage is increased and made more stable, but that doesn’t change the current reality.
For some users, another big selling factor here may be the fact that you can literally plop your satellite wherever (within the service area, of course) and get a connection (most of the time) that is miles ahead of what a good chunk of the world has. For many internet users in regions that have historically had very poor access to high-speed internet service, this independence from terrestrial infrastructure is probably going to be one of the most exciting elements of the new service.
Now that we have the numbers, it’s time to look at the other numbers: the price, to be specific. Like many pieces of cutting-edge tech, the price might be a bit steep for what you’re getting. Especially if you already have a few service options around you.
What’s in the Box? And How Much Does it Cost?
A single ‘Starlink kit’ comes with the Starlink dish, a Wi-Fi router, power supply, cables, and a mounting tripod. Everything that’s needed to set it up. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the included cat6 ethernet cable cannot be swapped out and is 100 ft. in length. As such, installation might be an issue if you need to place the dish some ways away. Furthermore, a clear view of the sky is required for the dish to work.
Now, the price of the kit is a bit hard to swallow. It’s about $499 upfront. Then the monthly cost is $99. The speeds and connection stability currently available make this a fairly unattractive offer for those who have other options around them. Then again, Starlink also has no data cap, which may sweeten the deal for those currently restricted to greedy ISPs who enforce maximums. But with the service being in beta, it’s unclear whether uncapped data will be the case in Starlink forever.
If you’re looking to upgrade your internet speeds, you don’t have any decent fiber offer(s) nearby, and you live in a supported area, then it’s probably worth considering Starlink as an option. Most web browsing and content consumption should work great, and offline, single-player, or local multiplayer gamers probably won’t face any significant drawbacks from its inconsistencies.
On the other hand, anyone that would require a stable connection (for purposes like online gaming, streaming, or video calling) might want to exclude Starlink from their internet service options for the time being. Moreover, while the monthly cost is not too far off from other high-speed internet plans, the upfront cost of the hardware is a different story entirely, costing more than even some of the highest-tier routers on the market.
Unlike services like Google Fiber and others (which previously made similarly huge promises, only to fall very short in terms of total rollout), the satellite-based nature of this service makes it a somewhat more plausible and exciting concept. Yet, what do you think of Starlink? Is it worth in its current form, or should you wait? Tell us in the comments!