Any RVer who has ever struggled with getting sufficient internet service while traveling is about to benefit from a big change in Internet technology. It’s all due to the work of a company called SpaceX. So what’s the big deal?
Its called the Starlink Internet system.
It’s the brainchild of Elon Musk, the guy who revolutionized the automotive industry with the Tesla, and whose SpaceX rocket company has been selected by NASA to get humans on Mars.
Starlink, which recently went operational for fixed locations, will soon be the solution to the congested Wi-Fi and horribly slow or nonexistent Internet that so often plagues RV owners on the road and in campgrounds.
In March, Musk tweeted that he plans to beta test the Starlink internet system for RVs by year’s end (2021).
I can’t think of a single piece of RV industry news as significant as that.
Starlink will be the most dramatic improvement mobile Internet consumers have ever seen, as remarkable as when the Internet switched from dial-up to cable.
Once it fully gets off the ground – literally and figuratively – mobile Internet speeds will rocket. Cellular boosters won’t be needed. Shared Wi-Fi will be as out of date as a telephone party line.
When will Starlink Internet for RVers be available?
There’s no firm answer yet, but sooner, rather than later.
Actually, a lot of it is already off the ground and orbiting overhead right now, a virtual constellation of hundreds of low orbiting satellites that have been launched by SpaceX over the past two years. The satellites are connected together and beaming Internet signals to stationary users in many places.
But don’t dump your cell phone booster anytime soon. Starlink is in “Beta,” which means testing. The ground system for fixed locations is being widely tested as you read this. But it is not yet available everywhere and there are still some bugs to work out.
Full implementation for houses and some businesses will likely be in many places by the end of the year. Starlink for RVers and large trucks will follow soon behind.
Mobile Starlink for RVers still has some hurdles
While Musk has publicly targeted the end of 2021 for a limited beta program for select mobile users, he has said the big challenge has been the antenna needed by an RV to connect with his constellation of satellites.
Starlink’s low orbiting satellites are only a couple of hundred miles high as compared to the 22,000-mile high geostationary satellites we’re used to with traditional Internet and TV services. That means they are moving very fast.
So, instead of just pointing a satellite dish antenna in one spot (that’s what geostationary means), Starlink’s low earth orbits wiz past from horizon to horizon. They also cover narrower swaths of the globe.
The challenge Musk’s company faces is in developing an antenna that will track the satellites as they travel across the sky at those fast speeds. As you travel on earth in an RV or vehicle, you will go in and out of those coverage swaths, thus making it necessary for the Starlink antenna to be able to find the next Starlink satellite that covers another swath of the earth.
Sound complicated? It is.
In truth, Musk is not the only visionary working on such an antenna. In fact, much of the antenna technology for Starlink Internet for RVers has been developed
The key is the antenna
I had the chance to actually use and test a prototype system for almost a year from a company called Kymeta.
Kymeta Corp. is the Redmond, Wash.-based connectivity venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. A few years ago they installed and let me test out one of their hybrid satellite-cellular mobile antennas for voice and data. It wasn’t hooked up to Starlink (SpaceX hadn’t even launched its first satellite back then), but Kymeta was clearly looking at that eventually when they hooked us up.
Starlink Internet for RVers becomes available, It will be a variation of this style that RVers will have installed on their rigs.
In fact, eventually – a few years down the line – you’ll see these flat antennas built right into the roof of your RV or even passenger vehicles. When I tested the Kymeta dish, it mounted on the rear of my Class B van. It kind of looked like an extra-extra-large pizza box on top of my roof.
Kymeta is currently working with a whole bunch of satellite companies and has not officially announced any deal with SpaceX or Starlink. But you can read between the lines. In a news release, the company says “We’re agnostic, so we will support all of the different platforms that are out there.” Obviously, that means they want to work with Starlink, besides the various high altitude satellite systems it’s currently operating on across the globe.
Our system on our RV used geostationary satellites. And the service was spotty and slow. But it did work and more importantly, it worked as we drove. The flat panel antenna is electronically and computer-controlled to automatically acquire satellites as the RV moved.
The problem we had with the Kymeta satellite system was latency. Latency is how long it takes to send data from a laptop in an RV, like a travel trailer, up through the antenna to the satellite, and for the satellite to in turn send whatever the user wants back down. Those satellites were very high – about 22,000 miles. Therefore, the latency was high, too, meaning it took seemingly forever. Technically, the poor performance and slow speeds were caused by that high latency.
I ended up with Internet speeds of about 2Mbps. Yawn.
Regular Satellite Internet has improved
The satellite Internet system used by some RVers today is from Hughes and is vastly improved. It uses a satellite called Echostar and although it is still way up there in height above the earth, instead of shooting down one wide-angle beam that covers half the continent, it uses spot beam technology to send narrower more efficient signals to various parts of the earth. Some users report up to 25 Mbps speeds.
The problem is it is not widely available for mobile use and you need lots of equipment, including a big dish that must precisely be pointed in the right direction. Finding room to carry it and then setting it up and taking it down at each stop is cumbersome. – if you can find someone to set you up with a mobile coverage system, which typically does not cover the entire country.
Starlink will be the gold standard for mobile Internet
When it does become available for mobile use among RVers, it will be screaming fast. Based on its private beta test results, it appears that under the right conditions it can deliver a satellite internet connection of 100 Mbps or more (some beta uses have reported maximum speeds of 200 Mbps at times). That is as fast – or sometimes faster – than your home cable connection. And while 5G cellular technology is technically capable of such speeds if you are right under the cell tower, it is very unreliable for on-the-move connectivity and is many years away from providing seamless nationwide coverage.
Starlink promises to be a much better solution for RVers who must have solid Internet reliability.
Remember that latency issue involving the time it takes for a signal to go up to the satellite and back again? Latency is not a problem with Starlink. That’s because Starlink satellites are 60 times closer to the earth than traditional Internet satellites. Starlink’s beta testing reports an extremely low latency of 20 milliseconds.
How much will Starlink Internet for Rvers cost?
Because it is not yet available for mobile use, we don’t know the answer to that. But the beta program Starlink has recently launched for stationary users has an equipment package price of $499. That covers the antenna, mounting kit, Wi-Fi router, and the receiver and transmitter that will connect your devices to the system. And, that’s exactly what the best RV Cell booster costs today. Thereafter, the beta users will have to pay $99 a month for service.
Expensive? A bit, yes. But certainly, well worth it for those of us who need fast, solid connections, like remote workers.
What does SpaceX say about Starlink Internet for RVers?
Officially, other than Musk’s tweet in March saying he wants RV testing this year, the company says very little about when and how much it will cost and what equipment we will need for mobile Starlink.
But in some online conversations analyzed and tabulated by our friend Chris Dunphy from Mobile Internet Resource Center, the SpaceX/Starling people made it clear that it is coming.
Here’s their statement:
“Mobility options – including moving your Starlink to different service addresses (or places that don’t even have addresses!) – is coming once we can increase our coverage by launching more satellites & rolling out new software.”
Did you catch the “places that don’t even have addresses” part? That’s us. RVers. We are on the move and all they need to do is launch some more satellites to provide better coverage and to coordinate them all through some software. The challenge is pretty amazing. In one of the online conversations the company had with fans, I was struck by this explanation of how complicated it all is:
“You should think about communication between the Starlink dish and the satellite in space as a ‘skinny beam’ between the dish and the satellite. So, as the satellite passes quickly overhead, if there is a branch or pole between the dish and satellite, you’ll usually lose connection. We’re working on some software features that are going to make this much better and long term, the clearance you’ll need is going to shrink as the constellation grows. So this will get much better!”
Constellations and Ground Stations
There is another element that must be built out beside the satellites. Ground stations will also be needed for Starlink Internet for RVers. There needs to be a very robust network of ground stations. In fact, you and your RV must be within the range of a ground station to make a communications connection with the satellite. The ground station “talks” to the satellite and then patches you through.
Eventually, the goal is to have thousands of Starlink satellites up there, communicating with each other by laser beams, providing high-speed Internet connectivity to the entire planet.
What is the Starlink system like right now?
Big and growing. Starlink calls their system of satellites a constellation. Since May 2019, SpaceX has been launching them in batches of 60, with the goal of creating a “megaconstellation.” Those launches have been coming closer and closer together. The company has even figured out how to reuse its booster rockets.
As of May 1, 2021 there are some 1,500 Starlink Internet satellites up there.
SpaceX is now launching them pretty much weekly. Between March and April alone, they put more than 300 new ones up, with an even bigger rampup coming later in the year. When the system is fully developed, Starlink hopes to have 30,000 of them orbiting the earth in perfectly synchronized orbits about 250 miles high, covering precise areas of geography, 24 x7, 365 days a year. When will that be?
We should see some beta tests for mobile connectivity happening by year-end or early next year.
I am going to try as hard as I can to be one of those RV beta testers when it becomes available! Widespread implementation, with that “megaconstellation” up and running, won’t probably be till 2023. Maybe we’ll see full implementation in the U.S. a bit earlier, Starlink observers speculate. Bottomline, though–it’s coming.