A lot of those who have transitioned to remote work over the last year are finding ways to work from their RV. Finding good internet on the road has many RVers looking at SpaceX Starlink. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s $74 billion dollar company has had some pretty big ambitions. They created the world’s first reusable rocket that can autonomously land itself. It’s a feat that made launching rockets into space millions of dollars cheaper. It is estimated that SpaceX can do a commercial launch with a payload of 22 tons for about $36 million. Pound for pound, that’s the cheapest in the world.
Reusable rockets are only part of the company’s endeavors. Over the last several years, they have been launching small satellites into low earth orbit. The purpose of these satellites is to create a global satellite internet service called Starlink. At the time of writing this, SpaceX has over 1,000 Starlink satellites in low earth orbit.
Beyond knowing that it is a type of internet, many RVers are curious about the SpaceX Starlink service and want to know what it is. To start with, Starlink differs from the internet you get from RV park WiFi or cell phone service. RV park WiFi relies on a router system located in the park, and the internet that your smartphone provides comes from ground-based cell towers.
SpaceX Starlink is a satellite internet service, so it is not limited by ground-based infrastructure. People commonly take their motorhome, fifth-wheel, or other RV to remote campsites with little to no cell service. A global satellite system means those out-of-way places don’t have to wait for a cell tower to arrive in the area.
If you frequently find yourself RVing outside of cell range, there are satellite internet options available, but they are slow and costly. Starlink promises cheaper service, faster speeds, better bandwidth, and lower latency than many ground-based options in remote areas.
Latency is a measurement of the time it takes for your computer to send a signal out to the internet and then get a response. A recently published RV Life article explains how SpaceX Starlink gets incredibly low latency.
“In traditional satellite internet, your receiver sends a signal 23,000 miles to the satellite. The satellite sends that signal 23,000 miles to the physical location on the ground that provides your internet. Once that site gets the data you need, it is sent on another 46,000-mile trip back to you. It takes time for all of those waves of light to travel 90,000 miles plus. On average, that time is about 550 to 650 milliseconds.”RV Life
Six hundred milliseconds may not sound like a long time for a response, but those kinds of speeds can make things like streaming, video calling, and gaming suffer. You may not be a gamer yourself, but many new RVers are, and even the latency offered by many cell phone companies is over 200ms. First-person shooters can be unplayable on anything over 100ms.
The RV Life article goes on to explain how SpaceX Starlink differs. “Since Starlink internet satellites are only about 340 miles above the Earth, they have much lower latency. In addition to being closer, each satellite is equipped with lasers to send information to neighboring Starlink satellites, resulting in quicker response times.”
Elon Musk recently tweeted that response times for Starlink will get down to 20ms in 2021. That is huge for those that rely on low latency for their internet activities.
Traditional satellite internet has a bus-sized satellite in geostationary orbit responsible for a vast area. That one satellite handles a lot of different connections. It’s not uncommon for these satellites to get backed up. When that happens, users must wait for their data to be processed and sent, resulting in even slower connections. Starlink will have thousands of satellites capable of transferring data. So not only is SpaceX Starlink fast, but it can also handle many users and more traffic (bandwidth).
According to this article from Camper Report, “Starlink internet boasts speeds of up to 300Mbps at the moment, with an ultimate goal of reaching 1Gbps speeds. However, Starlink recently announced that it has a new goal, to reach speeds of 10Gbps eventually. Gbps stands for gigabits per second. 10Gbps would be more than enough speed for an entire small RV park to stream a movie at once. For digital nomads who camp where service is less than ideal, those speeds could be a game-changer.”
According to the same Camper Report article, “Before you start making room in your compartments to accommodate the hardware, Starlink is not quite ready for the RV life. At this time, you have to register it at a specific address, and it can only be accessed there. They mention that it may be possible to use it in locations nearby, but the performance may suffer.” There is hope for RVers, though. The SpaceX Starlink team has long stated that they intend the system to be more versatile.
Reddit had an AMA session in late 2020 with Starlink engineers. The team said, “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.”
Since the SpaceX Starlink team made that comment, their coverage has increased quite a bit. We know we are getting close to Starlink for RVers because the company just filed with the FCC to approve a new mobile version of their ground hardware called Earth Stations in Motion (ESIM).
The RV Life article explained, “Unlike their current offering intended to be stationary, the ESIMs, though electrically identical to its current earth systems, will be mounted to moving vehicles such as boats, planes, trucks, and yes, RVs too.
Starlink internet will allow their vehicle-mounted dishes to be moved from one cell to another and maintain connectivity while traveling. That means you will have the internet in your RV at the campsite and while traveling as well.”
These new SpaceX Starlink dishes will have to be professionally installed according to the filing. Though it’s identical electrically, the mountings and some other design aspects will most likely be a little different from the UFO on a stick look their dishes currently have.
If you already have Starlink for your home, you may wonder if you can pack the dish in your RV storage compartment and go on a camping trip. Some people have had success in locations within 20 miles from their home, but that’s about it. It may not stay that way with ESIMs on the way, though. The video below is a review of the starlink service from Love Your RV on YouTube. They tested it in locations around their home address to see how far they could take it.
Though you can’t travel with the current version, a post on Do It Yourself RV speculates that the non-mountable versions may become movable as well.
“Remember, there are only a certain number of Starlink satellites in the sky. Starlink must schedule a set number of satellites to fly over your area consistently when you sign up…”
“That problem gets solved once there are enough satellites in the sky to serve all areas. Once that happens, Starlink has to update the software to be able to figure out where it is, what Starlink satellites are in view, and where to look for them. If they are ready to start manufacturing ESIMs, that means they most likely have both of those issues solved. It’s a bit of speculation that they might update the current dishes to be set up anywhere.”Do It Yourself RV
For many RVers, being able to pack the regular dish in their travel trailer, motorhome, fifth wheel, or camper van and set it up once reaching camp will be all they need. If Starlink allows its ground-based system to be movable beyond its current cells, it will undoubtedly be the cheapest option, which brings us to our next question.
How much does it cost?
So it’s a super-fast internet connection that you can theoretically use anywhere there is a view of the sky and utilizes thousands of satellites. How much is it? At the moment, the hardware costs $499, and the service is $99 a month. That’s not too bad considering a new smartphone will run you between $400 and $1000, and an unlimited plan costs about $50 a month per line.
As far as satellite internet goes, it’s the cheapest and fastest available. SpaceX Starlink has not released any information on the price of their new mountable system yet. Considering you have to have it professionally mounted, it will most likely cost a little more than $499. There is no reason to assume the monthly cost of service will go up, however.
Even if the new system costs $1000 for hardware, it will still be cheaper than current satellite internet options for RVers. There are very few mobile satellite internet companies, and they run about $400 a month just for the service. Their speeds don’t come close to Starlink as well.
One advantage that RV park WiFi or cell phone plans have over SpaceX Starlink is the ability to get service under trees. Many RVers travel from their suburbs or urban jungles to relax in the woods. Just like satellite TV, Starlink dishes require a clear view of the sky. Since SpaceX Starlink satellites are closer to Earth, their beam has a relatively narrow cone.
If this is your ideal RV spot, you may have a little trouble getting a Starlink connection.
The Starlink team has some positive news to say about the issue, “You should think about communication between the Starlink dish and the satellite in space as a ‘skinny beam’ between dishy 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!”Reddit AMA with Starlink engineers
Even though it will get better, you will probably never be able to set up your Starlink under a dense canopy of trees.
Another drawback of Starlink is its power usage. While it may be easy to keep your cell phone charged with a solar panel while boondocking, the SpaceX Starlink setup will require a bit more than that.
The Do It Yourself RV article mentioned above states, “The Starlink satellite dish uses about 100W by itself. Still, you will also need enough watts to keep your devices like laptops and phones running. If your close camping spot has power hookups, you are home-free. If on the other hand, you are boondocking, you may have to bring your own.”
You can easily accomplish one hundred watts with a small inverter generator or a good solar setup, so it is certainly in the realm of boondocker possibilities but still more power-hungry than using your cellular plan internet.
I like my current RVing internet. Should I switch when it’s available?
Whether or not you make the switch when it becomes available is up to you. It depends mostly on your RV style. If you mostly camp and travel in places with ample cellular coverage, an unlimited plan may be more than enough to do some streaming and take care of your internet needs.
According to Camper Report, “Many campsites are in out-of-the-way places like the mountains, the desert, and other unpopulated areas. It is possible to get cell signals in many of these places, but getting good 5G, 4G, or even 3G speeds in these areas can be challenging. Other times you will have plenty of bars, but there will be only one tower in the area, and everyone must share it. That’s every camper and everyone in the nearby towns trying to stream Netflix off the same tower at once. The result is poor performance.”
On a personal note, my wife and I depend on our internet connection for a living. We live in our RV full time and have been in many situations where our Verizon plan didn’t have the coverage. Most of the time, that was when we were in our ideal RV camping location too. It would benefit me to drop my cellular plan to a cheaper one with less data and spring for Starlink when it becomes available for RVers. If you are happy with your current internet plan at the end of the day, then there is probably no real need to switch.
However, as the Camper Report article stated, “But, for those that travel full time or spend a lot of time boondocking, having an internet connection that only relies on a view of the sky rather than cell tower infrastructure can be the difference between having internet or not.”
Where can I learn more?
You can learn more from Starlink’s website and the following articles:
- Starlink Internet: What Is It And How RVers Benefit
- Starlink Satellite Internet Coming Soon For RVers
- 5 Things RVers Need To Know About Starlink Internet
Also, in the video below, Chris Dunphy from Mobile Internet Resource Center discusses the recent FCC filing from SpaceX Starlink and talks about what the future of Starlink might hold for RVers.