So... Starlink!

So... Starlink!

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If you hang out at all in the various geek-leaning circles of the internet, you’re probably heard of Starlink. It’s SpaceX’s satellite internet service, based around the concept of lobbing a ton of satellites, on cheap space launch capacity with the Falcons, into a range of low earth orbits. They hang out up there, you get a station down below, and via the magic of beamforming, get super fast space-based internet. High bandwidth, low latency, anywhere you want!

All through the magic of (I’m not kidding here) Dishy McFlatface.

How does it work? How am I liking the beta? Am I going to kick my existing ISPs to the curb? All this, and more, in this post! But first…

(TODO: Insert string of screaming advertisements here that try to get you to buy crap you don’t need with money you don’t have)

Syonyk’s Internet Situation

Those of you who read my blog regularly likely have a clue that I’m a bit rural out here, going on about large solar arrays on the hill, owning an old farm tractor, and being able to use 2.4GHz wireless entirely reasonably. If you don’t read regularly, well, I’m pretty rural. Out in farm country - it’s not “absolute middle of nowhere,” but we do have a good view of it from here. Wired internet simply isn’t an option.

For years, we ran with a pair of rural WISPs (Wireless ISPs) - one on the house, one on my office. The office connection is the primary, and it’s a 25/3 that usually manages at least 20/2, though the evening hours drop, sometimes significantly (I’ve occasionally seen low single digit Mbit down) The house connection was a 5/1 that served as a backup connection and a “bulk transfer” connection for my server (synchronizing files around between different systems on the internet, maintaining the local Ubuntu repo, etc). And this worked just fine. I work remotely, and while I don’t deal with insane amounts of data, I certainly send large files around. It works, it takes a while, and I make heavy use of rsync.

I tend to watch, with mild entertainment, the assorted “what counts as broadband” comment threads on random tech sites. Everyone seems to get in this weird pissing match over who needs the most internet, and how anything less is literally unlivable. If you’ve seen the threads, you know the refrain: “Every evening all 18 of us are watching our own separate 4k streams on both our devices, Timmy is playing online games, Sally is taking online ed live learning courses, and, why, we just couldn’t even live with less than 2 gigabit!” It’s entirely true that you couldn’t do that on one of our connections, and it’s also entirely true that we don’t live that way. If we’re watching something, either we’re all watching it, or some of us are watching it and others are doing things that don’t involve separate streams. I keep our DVDs on a local Plex server that serves them out nicely, though Netflix works when we try it. I don’t do anything resembling online gaming, and I certainly intend to route my kids away from it as they get older.

So, while I don’t really need Starlink for any value of “need,” I’m interested in seeing what it offers, because I’ve considered building a cabin in a yet-more-rural location and some sort of connectivity well past the range of WISPs would be interesting. Plus, I can beat up a connection decently if you tell me to.

Starlink is somewhat expensive (I think it was $600 up front, and service is $99/mo), but it’s actually not at all unreasonable for what it is. My 25/3 is $75/mo, and the 5/1 was $50/mo. The up front costs are certainly higher than the local WISPs, but if you’re comparing Starlink to some in town gigabit fiber cost… you’re simply not the target market. It delivers radically more transfer for the money than the best other alternatives out here.

Starlink comes in a rather large, somewhat subtle box. It’s clearly a Starlink terminal based on the box, and it’s on the big side, but nothing larger than what a normal 27” monitor might come in. Of note here, the box doesn’t use glossy clay inks on the cardboard to make it shiny (these can cause problems for recycling cardboard). Just a good, solid cardboard box.

Inside, there’s a set of setup directions. Point dish at space. Add router. Connect with phone. That’s actually about right for setup - it is one of the easier setups I’ve ever dealt with for internet, though the cable is a bit stupid (I’ll touch on that later).

Remove that, and… ooh! 100% recycled HDPE! Nice. Something actually made out of recycled plastic (plastic recycling is another issue, and if you think it’s anything beyond lies by oil companies to sell more plastic, The Guardian has a great series digging into what actually happens to your plastics after you get rid of them).

Ah. Right. Satellite stuff. This is an interesting way to pack stuff - if you look closely, everything is already plugged in. The black cable going to the dish is connected to the POE brick at the top, and the white, angular Starlink router cable coils around a pillar and is also connected. In case you’re wondering, yes, the cables are color coded. On top is the large tripod for mounting the dish.

Pulling stuff out, the back of the POE injector already has some interesting data - output is a 56V POE, with a rather surprising amount of power behind it (up to 180W). Early reviews believed Dishy had a heater to melt snow, and I can confirm that it runs hot. Unfortunately, there’s no heater involved. It just runs hot. I’ll talk about this more in the power consumption section, but the power consumption is quite obscene.

The Starlink router is an awkward, angular thing. I’m sure if you’re interested, you can find more details on it somewhere else, but after initial setup, I unplugged it, plugged in my normal networking gear, and routed it into that. If you don’t have a router, this works well enough. If you do, I’m not sure why you’d use it. As I’ve got a property area network with Mikrotik gear scattered around, this router is currently sitting in the tech storage cupboard.

For the initial setup, I set Dishy out in the field by my office. It’s got clear line of sight to most places, no real trees to deal with, and, importantly, lets me mess with the dish over in my office where I have more equipment than over at the house.

  • Step 1: Put tripod on ground.
  • Step 2: Put upright metal post on Dishy in tripod.
  • Step 3: Go figure out how to get the network cable into my office.

The network cable is permanently attached to the dish, which makes replacing it if something happens to it an issue. So far, I’ve not damaged mine, and I can re-terminate network cable quite easily, but… try not to damage it.

Getting it into my office proved a challenge. My hands are not freakishly small - this is just a gigantic ethernet cable. Over on the end you plug into the POE brick, there’s a huge choke. Can you remove it? No. Can you snake the cable through a hole the other way? No. You seriously need a hole big enough for this choke, which is a real problem for a lot of places. Punching a small hole for a CAT5e or CAT6 cable is easy, and a little drop of silicone seals up the penetration. This? You have to drill about a 3/4” hole that then passes a much smaller cable. You can’t just goop it up like you can most network cables (having worked for a WISP before, I’ve helped with plenty of installs, and this is, by far, the worst I’ve seen for an external connection).

I’d really, really like to see this changed somehow. I don’t know if there’s an easy way to do it, but having to pass a huge choke through a wall is absurd. Having to pass the network cable end is bad enough, but having the choke be a separate segment of cable would help a lot. Or just put it in the POE injector? No idea what they were thinking here, and I’ll mutter something about “beta” and leave it at that.

I did manage to sneak the cable through one of my existing cable ports, though it was tight. Hook stuff back up, apply power, and go watch the magic!

The first thing the Starlink dish does is to use the internal motors to go horizontal. I’ve not checked to see what it does if the post is at an angle (if it’s perpendicular to the post, or will actually seek horizontal). You can see the cable connection into the dish post here - again, no way to undo that or replace the cable, short of doing it yourself or replacing the whole dish. Keep the cable safe and definitely don’t mow over it.

After a while, the dish will work things out and, at least for me, tilt and angle towards the north. I had expected it to point south, towards the equator, but Starlink isn’t working in the equatorial geosynchronous orbits. It points to the north.

This is not a Starlink satellite. This is a Kitfox.

Once it finds some satellites, it connects, and you find yourself with an internet connection through space! Prepare for takeoff!

Power Consumption: You what?

Before my dish showed up, I’d heard a comment or two about power use, and how I’d need some serious power to run the dish. Sure, I thought, it could use 180W while melting snow or something, but how bad can it be?

Well… it’s bad. It’s really bad. Dishy averages right about 90W, 24/7/365. That’s 2.15 kWh/day, and about 785 kWh/yr. Yeah… are you willing to spend most of a megawatt-hour a year on internet? Or, if you’re off-grid, can you? That’s a lot of power. Peaks are comfortably north of 100W.

Dishy lived on my office power system for a week before it got demoted to the house. This is partly because my office really isn’t set up to run loads like that overnight. The other half is that it was simply unusable for some of my VPN tunnels I use for work. But, mostly, I can’t run an extra 100W out there, 24/7, without some changes. In the summer, fine, it works well enough. But in the winter, that’s more than doubling my base load, and there are plenty of days I can’t pull even a base 2-3kWh out of the sky. Adding another 2.5kWh to that would mean a lot of generator days in the winter I currently don’t have, and I’m not sure it’s worth doing that. So, on the house system it goes.

I moved Dishy over to the corner of our shipping container, where it can guzzle electrons from the grid while it fires radio waves back and forth to space. The bags of gravel are anchoring it in place - the wind this spring has been impressively strong, and I’d rather it not go flying off. The tripod is quite stable, and it’s in a turbulent little corner of airflow, but… still. With the gravel, if it flies off, many other things have lifted off first.

Bandwidth and Use

If you poke around the Starlinky corners of the internet, you’ll see tons and tons of speedtest results with really big download numbers - 200, 300, 400Mbit. Normally, seeing something like this on an internet connection would imply that the connection was capable of doing this constantly, and that one could reasonably expect those numbers on an otherwise idle connection at any point in time.

This is not the case with Starlink. These are brief peak values that some people see, some of the time, and absolutely do not reflect anything resembling what you’re likely to see in daily use. On average, downloads seem to wander around between about 40-50Mbit and 100Mbit, with the occasional peak higher, but those are brief. It’s very good, and certainly faster than my WISPs, but it’s nowhere near the really high speed test values you see plastered around the internet.

The real weirdness (in terms of internet connections) is that the speed varies wildly, and all over the place. I loaded up a box with a ton of Ubuntu ISO torrents (the best thing I could think of for “There is literally unlimited bandwidth to seed this”), and charted bandwidth. The results kind of speak for themselves - it’s a constant up/down, and while peak is about 160Mbit (properly good for out here), the actual download speed is just a random walk. Yes, you see some nice peaks, but the actual delivered bandwidth is far from consistent.

Finally, it’s worth explaining the IP arrangement. You’re behind a CGNAT - Carrier Grade Network Address Translation. You and just about everyone around you share a single public IP, and it’s like you’re on a gigantic, space based Linksys router. You don’t get your own public IP, and the NAT is really forgetful. If you have a connection open, and it doesn’t send traffic, it forgets about you. This is brutal on things like VPNs, SSH connections, and any other long running connection. They just… stop working if traffic doesn’t flow over them to remind the NAT about them.

I spend a lot of time working over SSH connections and such. They kept timing out. This is annoying. Let me help you. In your ~/.ssh/config, you want the following:

Host *
    ServerAliveInterval 60
    ServerAliveCountMax 2

This will shove packets over an otherwise idle connection, and hopefully keep things working.

Will they? Well… I’m going to mutter something about microglitches. I’ve left a ping to running while I haven’t been messing with anything else, and here’s the result:

--- ping statistics ---
64194 packets tx, 63963 rx, 0.359847% packet loss
rtt min/avg/max/mdev = 17.281/45.716/886.593/17.537 ms

Again, it’s not bad - but neither is it “remotely as good as wired.” It’s still our secondary because if you SSH out over it, things will randomly glitch, hang, and you twiddle your thumbs for 10 seconds until either it resumes, or it doesn’t and you have to restart the connection. Use of screen is not optional on Starlink.

I can’t help you with your VPN. I’m sure they’ve got a similar setting, but I’ve not found it on the ones I use, and they keep dying.

Another thing you can’t easily do is host anything on Starlink. You have no public IP for people to reach. You’d have to tunnel a public IP from a cloud VM or something in, which I might talk about in the future. I’ve tried some reverse SSH tunnels and they work, at least for a while until something gets weird. The right solution is probably a WireGuard VPN or something and proper reverse routing.

Now, in the land of “Interesting things to ponder,” one might be able to host on IPv6. I think you do get a unique IPv6 address, and if you were OK with IPv6 only hosting (a good way to “not have people access your content”), then it might work. I played with IPv6 very briefly, and while it seemed to work (my machine could access the IPv6 internet, the IPv6 internet could access my machine), I simply don’t know enough about it either evaluate it properly or to really trust my network with IPv6 enabled for any long periods of time.

Quirks and Gotchas

It would be super nice if this thing came with any sort of manual, or even had more than just a FAQ section on the website. In no particular order, weird things I’ve come across so far:

  • If you need to relocate the dish, you need to access the web interface first and tell it to “stow.” This moves the dish back to the vertical position, and it will proceed to repeat the initial “Find satellites and point north” process to find them again. If you don’t do this, it will happily remain pointing in a weird direction, not finding satellites. I’ve no idea if it will eventually figure this out or not.
  • To answer the next obvious question, no, it does not move the dish around to track satellites. The terminal uses a phased array antenna to handle tracking the (rather fast moving) satellites instead of moving the entire dish.
  • If you want to access the Starlink debug interface, you need to have a way to route packets to on your router’s external interface. Just having a default route out won’t do it (on most routers). If you use the Starlink router, this isn’t a problem. Any web browser can access the debug interface, and the Starlink phone app is doing nothing special - it just needs to hit that IP as well.
  • For a while, rebooting the dish (which it does regularly for firmware updates) would leave a non-Starlink router “stuck” on - the temporary IP. It wouldn’t then kick the router off that IP if it made a normal DHCP renewal request, and you’d have to manually thwap the DHCP. I believe this has been fixed, but I’ve not verified it.
  • Have you ever browsed from a Tor exit node, where everyone just decides your IP is bad and blocks everything? It’s not that bad (yet), but I’ve run into plenty of places that go “Oh, something bad came from this IP, you need to solve a captcha.”

Community Networking?

One of my major complaints with Starlink, so far, is that the customer support, sales support, etc… is entirely missing. There is nobody to contact about questions, short of filing a “My stuff no longer works!” support ticket.

Why do I want to have such things? I’d like to work out some of the details of using a Starlink terminal (or several?) as the base for a community area network. Instead of every house in a rural region needing their own Starlink terminal, it would be incredibly useful to be able to have a community dish (perhaps getting more of the bandwidth slice in exchange for more money) that is then distributed to a few households or even a small neighborhood with terrestrial wireless. If you’re in a rural region, the 5GHz spectrum is quite clear (my property access point is reporting -118dBm as the noise floor with a good sized omni attached), and so doing something with 100-150Mbit links from a central access point out to homes in the area is rather simple. WISPs do this thing all the time, and I would happily set up a half dozen homes in our area on a single Dishy if I could figure out who to talk to in order to arrange this sort of thing.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s literally unthinkable for a few houses to share a 150Mbit connection. I guarantee it’s an improvement over what an awful lot of them have.

If you know anyone who would be interested in talking about this, let them know how to find me. I’d love to have the conversation about it. There’s really no need for every household in a rural neighborhood to have their own Starlink connection when it can be shared! Unless, of course, the only goal is maximum profit. At which point, well… sell hardware all you want, I suppose.

So, as of June 2021, should YOU get Starlink?

It really depends. Right now, there’s a long backlog on the beta, so it’s not something you can get immediately, but it really depends on what you have and what you want.

If you’re on a good connection (50+Mbit) and like it… keep it. A wired, in town connection is going to be far better and far more consistent than Starlink right now. Will it improve as they lob more satellites? Probably. Is Starlink ever going to replace wired? Probably not, and there’s no good reason to. Wires are really, really nice, and wireless (by comparison) really, really sucks.

If you’re out in the country, on a good rural WISP, and are looking for something as a backup, or something as faster bulk transfer connection? Yeah. If you have the room in your budget, get yourself on the list. It’s a bit like a worked Supra: Fast, unless it’s broken. And it’s broken often enough that you might want something reliable, like an RX-7, as a daily driver. I’m entirely happy with ours as a secondary connection, but I also have something slower and more reliable for when I just need to get something done.

And if you’re on something like a LTE connection, with a booster to find some signal? Great. You want Starlink if you can afford it. Sign up now. I promise, it’s an improvement.

Unless, of course, you’re just not in need of “Yet More Internet.” If you’re on a slow connection, happy with it, and don’t see more internet improving your life? Keep what you’ve got. I’m a bit conflicted here, because what I had worked perfectly. But, I do want to build some cabins out further in the sticks and build out some community area networks, so beta testing it is!

Final Thoughts

Having said something not “This is literally the most amazing thing ever to exist!” about Starlink, I’ll just deflect some of the standard criticisms here.

  • No, I’ve not said at any point that it’s a steaming turd that doesn’t work. It works, and it works fairly well. I have said it’s not wired quality, and I have said the random glitches and drops are quite disruptive to actually doing work over it. It’s disruptive enough to be really annoying, which is why it remains a secondary connection for me at the moment. Your uses might be less stressful.
  • The power use is just obscene. I understand the newer model dishes use less, and I’m hoping the “About half as much power use” numbers hold up long term. For perspective, there have been days that the dish is 10% of our home power use, and I don’t have our house deeply optimized for power consumption. More typically, it’s 5% - for just internet.
  • As far as I can tell based on the stats, I have literally no obstructions, even intermittent, that might explain the glitches. The dish has a clear view of the sky and has literally never reported obstructions.
  • Yup. This is being posted Sunday. We had guests over on Saturday, and my blog just isn’t that important!

I’m going to keep the dish around - it really is improving, and it’s very nice to have a large bulk transfer connection, even if I mostly use it to sync the various local repos I keep around and shove blog files around…

But if you’ve got solid, wired, functional internet connections? Starlink really is going to be a step down for you. Eventually, it might be a replacement. Right now, June 2021? It’s not. And you’ll be really disappointed if you expect it to be super fast, wired quality, 24/7.


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