Starlink: Game Changer in Communications for Remote Travellers
When planning a four-month caravanning trip from Melbourne to Cape York this year, one of the many things we had to consider was communications. I was working from the road so needed access to office systems and to colleagues via video calls. And we wanted to be able to communicate with family and friends, regardless of location.
Image credit: Allison Watt
Starlink, an internet offshoot of SpaceX, the rocket company started by Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk, has been the word on everyone’s lips since it was launched worldwide in 2021.
It’s a very simple system to provide users with satellite-based, high-speed internet connectivity. You purchase the hardware kit (currently $599) which includes everything you need to connect to the internet — the Starlink satellite dish, wi-fi router, power supply, cables and base.
One of the advantages of Starlink is its simplicity. The dish comes with a base which you can sit on the ground, on top of your vehicle, on a table or wherever — but it does need clear, unobstructed access to the sky. If you are camped in a treed area, this can be problematic, and it will affect Starlink’s performance. However, the cable is 15 metres long so you can move the dish to the most suitable location. If you have your dish sitting on the ground, you’ll have to be aware of nearby vehicles and, depending on where you’re camping, you might want to bring it inside while you’re away from camp for security reasons. My partner rigged up a stand for our dish with an extendable pool pole from Bunnings which is secured inside the front toolbox of our van, so it stays up the entire time we are camped.
In terms of power consumption, the router does need 240V power which is a consideration for those who like to get off-grid and free camp. It doesn’t draw much power though — about 50W — so even a small inverter will be enough to keep it going from your batteries. I’ve seen on social media some 12V conversions that people have rigged up, and there is a bit of pressure on manufacturers to make their vans ‘Starlink’ ready, so that may well happen down the track. Our router lives in our external entertainment hatch where there are both 12V and 240V fittings, which can be locked.
Starlink router in an external entertainment hatch (Image credit: Allison Watt)
Connecting to the network involves downloading the Starlink app which allows you to customise settings, receive updates, access support and see real-time performance data such as download speed, latency and uptime. It will also tell you how many devices are connected and whether there are any obstructions, among other things.
So, arrive at camp, set it up (it really only takes a few minutes) and you have immediate access to high-speed, low-latency internet on an as-needed basis at any destination where Starlink provides active coverage. And that coverage is pretty wide, even in the most remote areas of the country.
Image credit: Allison Watt
As of August 2023, there are more than 5000 Starlink satellites in low earth orbit (around 500km from earth) which communicate with designated ground receivers. Apparently, that’s more than 60 times closer than the distance of the NBN’s satellites. It means data has a shorter distance to travel which means quicker download speeds, so online services such as video conferencing should in theory feel less laggy and it’s true — I’ve experienced sharper Zoom calls from outback Queensland than suburban Melbourne on the NBN.
There are plans to deploy more than 12,000 small satellites with a possible later extension to 42,000 (according to Wikipedia) so it must be getting pretty crowded up there. In May 2023, there were 1.5 million subscribers.
Starlink offers various plans but for travellers, the roam or portable option at $174 per month on top of the hardware is a great option. Plans can be paused when not in use with billing in monthly increments.
For those who like to have the internet while they are travelling, the in-motion package is designed for a permanent installation on your vehicle and is resilient in harsh environments. With a wide field of view and enhanced GPS capabilities, the Flat High Performance Starlink can connect to more satellites, allowing for consistent connectivity on the go.
The mobile-on-vehicle hardware costs start at $399 per month with a one-time hardware fee of $3740. Installation on your vehicle is an additional cost. There are also Starlink packages for business and residential purposes.
Anyone who has travelled recently will attest to the increasing popularity of Starlink. Pull into any caravan park or campground and you will see a handful, if not more, of dishes pointed to the southern sky. On our way to Cape York, the campground at Moreton Telegraph Station was using Starlink to provide internet to campers at $5 for 24 hours.
At the Mundi Mundi Bash music festival held just out of Silverton, a couple of Starlink dishes were set up for paid wi-fi for festivalgoers; there were a couple outside the media tent for the journos and some vendors had them for EFTPOS transactions.
Starlink dishes outside the media tent at Mundi Mundi Bash (Image credit: Allison Watt)
Starlink is a game changer for digital nomads and those just wanting to stay connected to the outside world. There are support networks such as the Starlink Users Facebook group which provide information regarding use, coverage and problem-solving. More information can be found at starlink.com.
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