Summary List Placement
When I stumbled across my dream house in the hills of southern Vermont during a bout of pandemic-induced online house shopping, I knew I wouldn’t get great internet there. The home had no good cell phone service, no fiber optic cables, and no wired internet available besides a 3 megabits-per-second (Mbps) DSL connection from a local phone company.
But the property had a waterfall. I figured I could either have a waterfall or reliable internet and decided to go with the waterfall.
Therefore, I found myself reliant on satellite internet to work from home, communicate with friends and family, and stay connected in emergencies. In mid-January, right after we moved, we signed a two-year contract with Hughes Net, the biggest satellite internet legacy provider in the US.
There are two major pain points with satellite internet from legacy providers: latency and data caps. Hughes Net relies on satellites 22,000 miles away in geostationary orbit, and transmitting data there and back, even at the speed of light, creates a lag of about a second. Trust me, that second-long delay will make you terribly annoying on Zoom calls.
And unlike wired internet, satellite internet plans don’t charge based on data speeds, but how much data you send and receive. Once you hit your monthly data cap (which can definitely sneak up on you) the connection collapses down to 3 Mbps, just enough to crawl back to Hughes Net’s website and buy more “data tokens.”
Basically, it sucks. So when I had the chance to try Starlink, Elon Musk’s play to win the intra-billionaire space race and revolutionize the internet in the process, I went for it.
Starlink’s “Better than Nothing” beta program uses about 1,000 small satellites skimming just 700 or so miles above our atmosphere at 17,000 mph. Having the satellites closer to the Earth’s surface cuts the lag to about 30 milliseconds, which is a bit slower than wired internet but lightning-quick compared to Hughes Net’s 700 to 900 milliseconds. With just 10,000 Starlink users sharing 1,000 satellites, there’s never been any talk of data caps. Starlink’s negligible latency and data cap-free service promises to cure America’s rural broadband crisis with satellite internet that doesn’t suck.
After a few weeks of using Hughes Net and then three weeks of Starlink as my sole internet source, I’m ready to declare a verdict.
Starlink has done it.
The rapidly growing satellite communications industry has a new gold standard. I’ve never seen a product or service so thoroughly disrupted or outclassed as Hughes Net’s legacy satellite internet service has been by Starlink.
That said, I’d still dump Starlink for a high-speed wired internet connection in a heartbeat. As good as satellite internet is, and it’s pretty great now that Starlink is an option, it’s still not up to the level of terrestrial connections.
Here’s my account of switching internet service from Hughes Net to Starlink and how it changed my life.
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First, a look at how Starlink compares to Hughes Net.
Anyone with a view of the southern sky can get internet from satellite providers, and yet there are 21 million Americans without broadband access and only an estimated 1.7 million satellite internet customers. I started out with Hughes Net because it was the only real option where I live in southern Vermont.
How many dishes does it take to live in the country?
The lowest dish gets me internet from Hughes Net. The one above that, used by the previous owners, gets satellite TV. Above that, a directional antenna points at the nearest cell tower to boost the signal at my house.
To my surprise, Hughes Net turned out to be pretty good — annoying, but workable.
My fiancée and I worked off Hughes Net for nearly a month. We could stream videos, surf the internet, and complete our work tasks comfortably until it came time for video calls, when we switched to the lag-free landline. Hughes Net also made set-up easy by sending a technician out to fully install the dish just three days after my call. By the time the technician left, I was on the internet.
These numbers are typical of Hughes Net.
Hughes Net consistently over-performed the advertised 25 Mbps download speeds, as shown in this screengrabbed speed test from when I first started using the service. But note the massive latency (the “ping” number shows that it takes 637 milliseconds for my device to respond to a request from the hosting server).
But the speed at Hughes Net isn’t the issue, it’s the data caps.
This is the incomprehensible graph Hughes Net displays to help you monitor your data usage. We found it inconsistent and very hard to understand. How did I download 10.9 GB of data on January 20 on a 30 GB/month plan and still have 28.1 GB left?
On the third week of service, the data just completely crashed.
I had to purchase additional data “tokens,” marked in yellow on the graph, for $9. (I called Hughes Net three times seeking an explanation of this graph and they never even tried to explain it.)
But just around the time Hughes Net stopped making sense, I got lucky — Starlink became an option.
Starlink isn’t widely available yet, as its satellites are now mostly clustered around the far north. From what I know, only residents of rural areas of northern US states and parts of Canada have been invited to join the beta-test program. I live just south of the advertised boundaries, but surprisingly, I got this email about a month after inquiring.
As excited as I was, I did hesitate somewhat to join Starlink.
Hughes Net, at $89.99 a month — and supplemented with a landline and careful Zoom call scheduling — was basically working fine. The $500 price tag on the Starlink dish and the $50 for shipping meant I was betting big on an unproven service. Plus, Hughes Net only offers two-year contracts, and I’d have to pay $400 to cancel my current plan. Ultimately, I dared to be great and shelled out for Starlink.
Starlink first said its hardware could take four weeks to arrive.
But within a few days of ordering, the company emailed to say my devices had shipped and would arrive about two weeks ahead of schedule. The box actually arrived from California just days after that email, way ahead of schedule. I opened it and found a hilariously minimal set of instructions.
Here’s a look at the hardware as it ships.
The dish ships flat and off its base. A giant spool of wire connects everything already. You just put the dish on the base and plug in the power cable.
Here’s the sleek router (on the right).
Overall, the industrial design of the Starlink product is exquisite. Look at it next to the clunkier Hughes Net router.
Here’s the power supply.
Once I got Starlink’s ‘Dishy McFlatface’ out of the box, I placed it outside and plugged it into an outlet inside.
That was it! All the dish needs is a view of nothing but the sky.
Once powered on, the dish automatically comes alive as an internal motor finds the Starlink dishes in the sky.
A few seconds after the dish angles itself, a WiFi network becomes discoverable on your devices. You’re prompted to log in and set the router’s security key, and after that, you’re online — with strong, fast internet that won’t annoy your boss on Zoom calls.
Here’s a pretty standard speed test on Starlink.
It’s tested as high as 220 Mbps and as low as 40 for me so far.
Here’s Starlink on a crystal clear night.
When it comes to the dishes, the three-foot Hughes Net dish is big and ugly by comparison.
I paid a $50 installation fee for a technician to bolt it onto the side of my house, and the monster power cord snakes around my home to another hole in the wall drilled by the tech. All this drilling can’t be good for my house.
However, with Starlink, there’s a big ugly cable that has to snake in through my front door.
The Starlink cable is wider, making it too big to fit through the existing holes drilled by the Hughes Net technician. I’m left with a big spool of wire that I have to close my front door on every day — at least, without the courtesy of a professional install (which the company didn’t offer).
With Hughes Net in the winter, the dish was constantly covered in snow and would stop working because of it.
Dish owners know that a few times a year they have to go brush off the dish.
Starlink has mentioned ‘snow melt mode,’ but I wasn’t expecting it to work so well.
In contrast to the Hughes Net dish, the Starlink dish has withstood some pretty extreme weather, including feet of snow and sleet. Somehow, the dish warms itself and sheds any ice or snow as little water droplets.
Still, the dish isn’t perfect.
I worry about a car hitting it or my dog chewing the cable. While Starlink works fantastically to provide fast internet to my home, it still feels rinky-dink for something that’s so essential to my livelihood and communications infrastructure.
And ultimately, Starlink is still satellite internet. (I still see this screen more than I’d like to.)
Starlink is vulnerable to weather and wind interrupting the signal. If someone stands in front of the dish, they’ll block the internet and cause an outage.
And speaking of outages, Starlink cuts out for one to 10 seconds dozens of times a day. It’s common for a call to drop briefly before the connection being restored. Without any hard data, I’d estimate that Starlink cuts out a little bit more than Hughes Net, but the outages are less severe.
But those are my only two criticisms for Starlink. Overall, it’s an absolute game changer.
Ever tried to play an online shooter with a satellite internet lag? It’s unwinnable. On Starlink, on the other hand, I’m winning games of “Apex Legends” while my fiancée streams videos in the other room.
Plus, Starlink’s slick little router gives a super strong signal.
In my barn, about 70 feet away from the router and in a different building entirely, I still get good enough signal to stream music and get notifications on my phone. Hughes Net also had good coverage, but not this good.
In the end, I discontinued my service with Hughes Net.
I canceled on day 29 of my two-year plan, so they waived the $400 cancellation fee in what I thought was a classy move. I’ll ship them back the transmitter hardware and the modem they lent me, but they don’t even want the big grey metal dish back.
I’m optimistic that Starlink will get even better.
As Starlink grows, Musk expects download/upload speeds to double and latency to drop as its coverage area gradually moves towards the equator. Eventually, Musk hopes to have tens of thousands of satellites at multiple altitudes blanketing the earth, at which point the speed of communication via his own, extraterrestrial internet may exceed that of wired connections on the land. No wonder Starlink is raking in investments. Hughes Net here is just totally outclassed.
In 2021, internet connectivity represents an essential service that allows me to do my job and earn an income.
I live in a beautiful place — down a mile and a half of dirt roads in a town of 1,700 — that I wouldn’t like to see excavated for fiber optic cables.
From the end-user standpoint, Starlink comes close to delivering on the high standard of fast broadband internet that even rural Americans have come to demand and expect in a world where connection means everything.
Alex Lockie is a writer and editor documenting his transition from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to a remote geodesic dome home in the hills of Southern Vermont.