This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.
Last year we had terrible DSL from Consolidated Communications and much better, although not always consistent, service from wireless ISP GlobalNet. I signed up for fiber service from Stowe Cable for installation this year and also was accepted early as a Beta tester for Starlink. Now we have both Starlink and fiber and can compare the two. I was very happy to cancel my Consolidated service but felt bad about canceling GlobalNet, which was essential to me for many years.
Most of the time there are only two of us in the house. We are pretty heavy Zoomers for retired people and we have cut the cord so all of our entertainment and news either comes over the air or streaming over the internet. Note that Starlink does not position itself as better than fiber; the Beta is called the “better than nothing Beta”; but cost or availability may force you to make a choice — at least for now– between the two.
The fiber service I ordered is 100Mbps download and 100Mbps upload. By my measurement over the last couple of months, I’m getting exactly that. Starlink delivers download speeds between 75 Mbps and 200 Mbps most of the time although it can go as low as 40 or (once) as high as 325. Average is probably around 125Mbps. The upload speed varies between 8 and 15Mbps. In practice for us the speeds might as well be the same. Like most residential users, we don’t need as much upload capacity as download (that’s just a feature of fiber). If I had a choice of how to use 200Mbps of total capacity, I’d probably divide it 175Mbps down for occasional huge downloads – recovering from backup, for example – and 25Mbps upload; but I don’t have a choice.
Latency is the time between when you send a packet off into the internet and the time when you get a response. Actual latency depends on how fast the server is which is responding to your request, but minimum latency is a property of your internet connection. For example, geocentric satellite service like HughesNet have unacceptably long latency because the satellites are so far from earth that, even at the speed of light, it takes a long time for a packet to get to or from them. Traditionally we measure minimum latency by sending pings (test packets) to known fast servers like Google or Cloudflare. My fiber connection has a normal latency of 15-20 milliseconds (ms, thousandths of a second) while Starlink’s latency runs from 45-60 ms. In practice, this is a distinction without a difference except to high frequency stock traders and some gamers. If latency is greater than 150ms, it begins to degrade both VoIP and video conferencing.
Latency as defined above is measured when you are using your connection for nothing but measuring its performance. In the real world we only care about latency when there is actually stuff going on, videoconferencing for example. Latency under load is called, logically enough, loaded latency. It’s not as much a function of distance as how buffers are handled in the network (don’t worry if you don’t know what this means). Starlink latency degrades quickly under load and easily gets as bad as 300ms – past the redline as far as video conferencing is concerned. This has the practical result of making you freeze on Zoom which can be annoying to other participants. I think this can be cured by better network software from Starlink and it will be helped when there are laser connections between satellites. But today Starlink gets poor marks for loaded latency compared to my fiber connection. Note that a fiber ISP might also have poor loaded latency but mine is good.
Total outages are rare both on Starlink and on my fiber connection. However, Starlink has frequent periods (currently about 10 per hour) where latency spikes up to 5 seconds or more. These spikes cause freezing on Zoom (although they rarely cause a disconnect) and can cause gaming and other cloud apps to disconnect from your PC. In the seven months when we had Starlink and not cable, we were able to participate from home in videoconferencing much, much better than if we had to rely on DSL. We could’ve studied at home or worked from home. But there is no question that our fiber connection is more reliable currently. Starlink is still in Beta so interruptions are to be expected – but for how long?
Note that these short interruptions do not interfere with video streaming. You can watch West Wing equally well with either connection.
The Stowe Cable fiber connection costs $130.95/month; Starlink is $99/month. Note that fiber may be much cheaper where you are, especially if there’s competition. The Starlink kit cost almost $600 with taxes and shipping and pretty much installed itself. Installation of the fiber connection was much, much more expensive; but that’s because we live on a private road and have a long driveway so had to pay for trenching and a conduit for the fiber. If you are on public road with fiber already running past your house, installation would be cheaper than Starlink.
By paying much more, I could increase my fiber speed up to a gigabyte up and down – 10x what I have now. I could also pay less and get less. Currently there are no other tiers of Starlink service. Elon Musk says it will get faster but seeing will be believing. Elon also says that Starlink will become portable and even mobile – which fiber certainly isn’t. But you don’t get that today.
There’s the rub. It may be many years before fiber comes down a road near you. You can’t do much about that. The huge amounts of federal money recently allocated for broadband expansion have created enormous competition both for supplies – like fiber itself – and for skilled people to install it. On the other hand, there is a backlog of orders for Starlink and the company has not forecast when availability will get better nor has it given a firm date for exiting Beta and standing behind reliability. The 100,000 installations worldwide to date is a pretty paltry number. If you don’t know when fiber is coming to your neighborhood, however, you have little to lose by making a $99 refundable deposit to get on the Starlink waiting list.