Starlink: Two seasons in.

I still remember being docked in Nelson’s Dockyard two years ago when, for the first time, I saw a Starlink mobile antenna. A fellow Salty Dawg member had ordered a unit and had someone bring it down to Antigua where he set it up. He offered for me to use his password to see how well it worked. I fired up my computer and was hooked. I knew immediately that this would transform communications for the cruising set,. It was blazingly fast and I had to have one.

And I did, about two weeks later when a fellow Dawg agreed to take delivery and bring it down to Antigua from their home in Vermont.

After years of chasing dodgy wifi and slow cellular services while cruising, having speeds afloat of more than 100mbs was, and still is, astounding. To be fair, speeds over the last season winter did vary from 50mbs to a high of over 150mbs but it was always pretty fast. Fast is great and even the slowest speeds were faster than most cellular Wi-Fi plans. Here is is what my phone registered as speeds on the network when Pandora was on the hard in Trinidad before I flew home, leaving her for the summer and some big jobs. I won’t go into all that now but will cover the progress in future posts.

Speeds like that have never been possible afloat, especially for cruisers. To give context, our Comcast home cable service gave us speeds in the neighborhood of 90mbs and for that we paid nearly $100/month and it wasn’t all that stable. We now have T-mobile home internet service and while it is somewhat slower, at around 70mbs, is it more stable than Comcast, and a lot less expensive. For two cell plans, with unlimited international and domestic access, along with home wifi, costs about $130/month.

I wrote about the installation of Starlink in a post when I received my unit in Antigua. The setup was amazingly easy.

In those early months I just set the unit on deck and ran the cord down below. I was hesitant to install it permanently as I feared that Elon was going to do something to change the rules and make it unaffordable for the general cruising population. And true to his form, he did change the rules several times in the first year. Raising the price for mobile land use as well as instituting a mobile maritime plan at a much higher price and other destabilizing moves to make all of us think twice about how long this “great deal” would remain great. It is safe to say that “stable” isn’t something that may ever be the norm for Starlink but I hope that recent rumored changes won’t make the service uneconomical.

After a few months, feeling more confident that Elon was not going to cut us off from the service, or change his mind about the details of maritime use, I did a somewhat more permanent installation on the radar arch. But not without more than a bit of blood letting on my part. I wrote about the installation process. Two years in, I still haven’t run the antenna cable inside the arch as that would be a pretty big deal.

The verdict, 18 months later, two 1,500nm ocean passages, time at many different islands in the eastern Caribbean as well as use between islands, all the way south south to 10 degrees north, in Trinidad, my one word for how it works is “wow”.

The details of service in those early months was very confusing and it was particularly hard to understand what plan was needed to use the unit offshore. Until last spring, a year ago, you could use Starlink mobile anywhere without restriction, onshore or on passage.

As of last spring, they added a maritime plan for an additional $100/month, $250/month but that came with a catch as you only got 50gb/month and then had to pay $2/gb after that. That’s not a lot of data and the costs really add up. During those early months I needed clarity on all that and when I put in a number of service tickets with questions about what do to on the open ocean, I was told that the unit, my RV mobile dish, was designed to be used on land, as well as “lakes and rivers”. Unclear or not, it was clearly working in the harbors but it was unclear what would happen when I left the harbor. And, was a harbor in the Caribbean, a “lake or river?”

When I asked customer support for clarity on this point, for example, “when does the Hudson River become the ocean?” The answer, time and time again, was that my unit could be used “on lakes and rivers”. Huh?

On that first run north to CT in 2023, the dish seemed to take forever to connect to a satellite when we were moving, and while it still works better when we are sitting still, the connection seems to happen a lot faster now, although slower than at anchor. On that first run north last spring, we went for about 36 hours without being able to connect to the network. The wife of one of my crew members freaked out, wondering what had happened to us when we “went dark”. Were we dead, and would Brenda call Chris Parker to see if he’d heard from us?

Fortunately, Chris Parker, who we had talked to via SSB, said that we were alive and well. Eventually, we were able to long on, but it was challenging but at least we weren’t dead.

At that time, Starlink was releasing a new “high performance” dish, and offered to reimburse me for nearly the full cost of our first dish if we upgraded. It was tempting but the power consumption for the new dish was fully double that of our RV dish, and that’s bad enough, using as much or more power than our refrigeration. In spite of having over 1,000 watts of solar and a wind generator, the loads from Starlink, in addition to everything else, is nearly too much. To use the high performance dish you really have to have a house generator, which I don’t. I know others, like me, that have had to add more solar just because of Starlink.

For years now, there has been a sort of “arms race” of adding solar as electrical loads grow. It wasn’t that long ago when 500-600 watts of solar was adequate for most modest cruising boats. No more, in large part, as a result of Starlink. Nowadays, I’d say that upwards of 1,000 watts is probably needed to support a typical cruising boat. And that amount of solar is tough to cram onto a monohull and nearly impossible on a ketch.

I was back and forth about upgrading to the high performance dish, in spite of the large power requirements. However, I decided to keep using the old one, connectivity issues and all, with the hope that the service would improve as more satellites were launched. That decision turned out to be correct, as the service was much better on the way south last fall and was great for the runs between islands over the winter. Do I fully trust it now? No, but it is good enough and for the foreseeable future, I will be backing up Starlink with the Iridium Go, on long passages as that unit is much less energy intensive and works well, albeit at very slow data speeds.

In retrospect, I am very glad that I did not opt for the maritime dish. I am told that it works really well but at upwards of 200AH/in 24 hours, that is not sustainable without heavy reliance on a house generator. Even with 1,050 watts of solar, we turn Starlink off when we are not aboard and always overnight.

Another issue for all Starlink models is that they run on 110v. And that doesn’t take into account the draw of a house inverter, even without a load, which can be sizable. For use on a boat, Starlink recommends a small 500w portable inverter as adequate. In my case, I opted for 600w as that would give me additional support to plug in a laptop at the same time. I detailed that arrangement in this post, along with a discussion about upgrading our solar. Note that you will probably need to upgrade the wiring to that portable inverter as the draw will likely be more than your current wiring is capable of sustaining.

There is an option of converting Starlink to 12v but that involves purchasing some sort of converter setup from a third party and I haven’t done that yet. I understand that a 12v conversion will save about 25% of the energy needed to run the unit, a savings of about 1.5A at 12v. Not a lot but every little bit helps.

So, back to the question of “how far offshore does Starlink consider land becoming ocean?” answer to that question appears to be somewhere between 10-12 miles out and I have tested that thesis between a number of islands this winter. While Starlink will remain on-line, I get a message in the app saying that the unit being in an “unexpected location” and with the exception of the, you will be blocked.

So, once you are too far from land you have to use “mobile priority” data which you can purchase for $2GB. At first, it seemed that the only way to get offshore data was to subscribe to the $250/month maritime mobile plan which includes 50GB and then you pay $2GB for usage after that. However, that’s not true as I learned that you can be on their “mobile regional” plan, the one I am on, at $150/month, which covers North America as well as the Caribbean. Go farther afield, but I am not clear on exactly what that means, and the cost goes up to $200/month. Once I go to the Med, I expect that I will have to change service areas, or go to the worldwide plan, but that’s not clear to me at this time. It may also be possible to change regions and still pay the $150/month, but that’s not clear to me.

When you are more than 10 miles offshore and must opt-in to maritime “priority data”. I found it difficult to find the “button” to get the offshore data but finally stumbled on it in my profile.

First you go to the home page in the app and click on the profile section in the upper right.

Then, adjust the slider to turn on mobile priority when you loose coverage and the app says “unexpected location”. Keep that toggled on until you are back within about 10 miles from shore and toggle it to the off position again. It takes about 15 minutes to activate “priority data” or turn it off.

Beware though, that if you have drop box or another cloud storage program on any of your devices the syncing of those devices while offshore can get pricy.

But, don’t worry if you use a ton of data while the priority data is turned off and you are “near shore” as you are allowed at least a terabyte each month, or unlimited data for practical purposes. Supposedly, a home with lots of online use and gaming is unlikely to use more than 3/4 of a terabyte in a month anyway.

This is where you can see how much you have used on both “mobile data”, the primary unlimited date that the plan allows, as well as the $2GB mobile priority plan. In this case, the prior month and my two offshore single night runs when I was heading to Trinidad.

I know a few crusiers that have opted for the high performance dish but from my perspective, the double digit power draw is just too much to sustain so I have stuck with my RV articulating antenna. Starlink no longer offers the articulating antennas and have transitioned to a fixed mount flat version. I am told that they will be introducing a “factory refurbished” option for older hardware but I have not seen a formal announcement. As of now, almost all of the units that I saw deployed in the Caribbean were the older version, RV one just like mine, even on many larger boats as they now work so well and draw half the power of the high performance dish.

I understand that they will be coming out with a new mini dish, ostensibly a smaller high performance dish, that will be perhaps a bit smaller than mine but that’s not official. I am not clear about how that will compare with their new smaller fixed dish and perhaps that one will be worth upgrading to.

So, how do we like Starlink? We love it even if it is a bit pricey. However, given the blazing speeds and the fact that it is so much better than anything else out there, I have to day that I LOVE it.

What will the future hold? It’s hard to say but with other competing services coming online in the next few years, I expect that Starlink monthly fees will drop, but only time will tell. Having said that, there are rumblings of price increases and with Elon, anything is possible and he does have a monopoly for the moment.

The uptake curve for Starlink in the cruising community has been breathtaking and I expect that it will be a rare cruiser, even those that mostly go out on weekends, that do not have this service aboard. The fact that only two boats in the Salty Dawg Caribbean rally fleet, 120 strong, in 2022, had Starlink and nearly all had it in 2023, speaks to how rapidly this is being adopted by the cruising community.

What will the future hold? Who knows but I’d say that you should not miss an opportunity to upgrade that solar. You will need it.

Of course, I am sure that there are some of you out there that know more than I do so fire away…

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