For a $99 refundable deposit, eligible users who want to give SpaceX’s satellite internet a shot can reserve their spot in line to get a Starlink kit mailed to them. The kit, which costs $499, includes a mountable dish antenna, wifi router, and power supply.
For my area, a sprawling suburb in Southern California, Starlink is planning to start rolling out coverage sometime mid- to late 2021, but it could be different for folks who live elsewhere. Anyone who receives a kit will be notified via email and will have to pay a one-time $499 fee for the kit, plus applicable taxes, shipping and handling. The deposit will go toward the first month of service, but it’s also refundable.
According to the preorder page, eligible users will receive their kit on a first-come, first-served basis. But depending on location, some orders may take six months or more to fulfill. Placing a deposit does not guarantee service, which is an important caveat to anyone considering signing up for Starlink.
It’s not clear if Starlink means everyone who places a pre-order won’t get a kit to access the network, or if they’re not guaranteeing the same bandwidth speeds for all users. Both seem equally likely, as Starlink will need to have enough kits to go around, and Starlink is not free from the same constraints as other satellite internet services. Basically, you’re just reserving a spot in line.
Customers will need a clear line of sight from their user terminal to Starlink’s satellites, as “users who live in areas with lots of tall trees, buildings, etc. may not be good candidates for early use of Starlink,” says the ISP on its FAQ page. Customers who live in areas with heavy rain, snow, or wind might also experience slower speeds or outages.
Starlink says these things will improve over time as it launches more satellites and installs more ground stations, but those living in wooded, rural areas or areas with extreme weather conditions might not be able to get better satellite internet service from Starlink for the time being.
Broadband capacity is also an issue as SpaceX grows its satellite constellation. Currently, Starlink has over 10,000 users, and many report getting speeds of 100 Mbps or higher. But the more subscribers it adds to its customer base, the less bandwidth there will be to go around unless it can keep enough satellites in orbit. Starlink currently has more than 1,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Additionally, low-income households in rural areas may not be able to afford a $499 kit fee, plus $99 a month for service that may or may not be reliable in their area. For suburban and urban residents with wired broadband service, there may not be an incentive for them to switch to Starlink if they can get better speeds at a lower cost. Spectrum, for instance, offers gigabit broadband for $110 a month.
All those issues combined are making rural ISPs skeptical if Starlink will be able to deliver on its promises in the coming years.
And on Monday a tweet from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at least appeared to acknowledge the struggles of past satellite broadband services.
“Every new satellite constellation in history has gone bankrupt,” he said. “We hope to be the first that does not.”
I guess we’ll find out.