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New satellite breed could upset rural comms

This week Starlink, a low earth orbit satellite internet service began taking orders. It is the first of a new wave of satellite broadband services heading this way.

Satellites won’t make much difference for New Zealanders who can connect to fibre. By the end of next year that will be 87 percent of us. The technology is slow, harder to use, has terrible latency and is expensive.

They change everything for the other 13 percent of the population.

To get Starlink customers must buy a satellite dish. A post on the Geekzone website suggests the dish costs around $800. Plan prices are around $160 a month for unlimited data at speeds between 50 and 150Mbps.

Latency the challenge

During the start up stage the service will have a latency of between 20 and 40ms. Starlink says this will improve over time.

While performance is poor compared with fibre, it is on a par with the best RBI fixed wireless connections.

At $160, the monthly price is higher. You need to buy an expensive dish. Which means it will tempt few RBI customers with a decent connection. Fixed Wireless is less bother and latency means applications like Zoom can be a problem.

Yet there is a waiting list for fixed wireless in parts of New Zealand. Carriers may be able to accomodate more customers when they have more bandwidth to play with.

Beat the fixed wireless queue

Starlink is unlikely to start operating until later this year. You may need to wait until 2022 for a connection. By then it will be a viable alternative for people who don’t want to wait for Spark or Vodafone.

There are, in effect, two classes of rural fixed wireless broadband in New Zealand. People with line-of-sight to a tower get frequencies used for urban mobile networks. This offers decent speeds, more than enough for most applications. Up to a point, line-of-sight fixed wireless is reliable.

More distant fixed wireless customers can have experiences ranging from acceptable all the way down to abysmal. This would be in the region of five or six percent of the population.

Another group can’t even get fixed wireless broadband. Over time more carriers will connect remote areas to terrestrial broadband networks. They will upgrade weak spots. This could take years.

Addressing the missing 10 percent

In round numbers, satellite broadband’s addressable New Zealand market is a shade under 10 percent of homes. That will fall as more and better terrestrial options come online.

The lack of data caps will be a drawcard. While the price is high by urban standards, $160 a month isn’t bad when you consider the alternatives.

Satellite promises better than that seen by more remote RBI fixed wireless customers.

No guarantees

Starlink says it will process orders on a first-come, first-served basis. Charges for pre-ordering are refundable. Small print warns customers there are no guarantees they will be able to get service.

According to Starlink, the satellite dish is self-configuring. It needs a clear line of sight to the existing satellites’ orbit. For now that’s restrictive, this will open up as Starlink launches more satellites. A mobile phone app can help prospective customers determine if they are able to use the service.

Starlink is the first LEO satellite network to start taking orders. Others are on the way including an ambitious 4,400 satellite project promised by Amazon.

One overlooked satellite broadband application is as an inexpensive back-up. Fibre is reliable, but not failsafe. Having a satellite ready to go makes a lot of sense for businesses where the internet is critical. These days that’s almost everyone.