The new marine service from Starlink changes the oceanic communications game.
Old timers have no problem recalling that once upon a time, after you passed beyond VHF range your only mode of communication was crying for help with an EPIRB. But in recent decades we’ve seen our ability to communicate via boat signaling gear advance by leaps and bounds – without having to spend absurd amounts of money. In the recent past those communications modes progressed to allow us to stay in touch with land even in times of non-emergencies. First with short pre-typed text messages we could send, then with complete real-time two-way messaging. In all of these cases satellites have made such possibilities a reality.
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As more and more satellites with ever advancing abilities went into space, our communications options expanded. Now, thanks to a little outfit called Starlink, there’s a slew of new orbital items floating around up there and a whole new way to chat it up with other boats or people on dry land, or for that matter watch a movie or join a video conference, even when you’re bobbing around in the middle of nowhere.
What is Starlink?
Just in case you’ve been living in a cave: Starlink is a constellation of thousands of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Unlike geostationary satellites which are perched above us at 35,000-plus kilometers (that’s around 22,000 miles for us real ‘Mericans), these LEO satellites are just about 550 kilometers, or a few hundred miles, up in the sky (and we promise not to taint this article with icky Euro-metrics again).
The electronic phased array fixed Flat High Performance antenna can be mounted just about anywhere there’s a clear view of the sky. Photo by Starlink.
Satellites in LEO have both advantages and drawbacks as compared to the geostationary type. Since they’re closer to home latency (delay) is less of a problem. They’re less exposed to space hazards like solar flares. And they’re less expensive to launch and operate. On the flip side of the coin, travelling at close to five miles per second they can only cover a given area for 15 or 20 minutes, they have a shorter lifespan, and a large number of satellites is required to serve any given region. The key factor to making the most of LEO is working with entire constellations of satellites, so communications with ground stations can be handed off from one to the next as they zip around through the exosphere. And this is where Starlink excels: as of midsummer 2023, they already have over 4,500 satellites overhead and eventually plan to develop a “megaconstellation” with tens of thousands of LEO satellites in orbit.
Starlink Maritime went live early last summer by covering the coastlines of the US, Australia, and Europe, and has rapidly expanded to global-scale coverage. Many of the larger sportfishing excursion boats, such as those leaving southern California for extended trips, are already using the service. Same goes for cruise ships and some high-end private sportfishing yachts, though to date cost has been a factor hampering growth among non-commercial operations. Whatever type of vessel you might be on, linking in with the system delivers high-speed internet in all its glory including VoIP, video conferencing, streaming, and of course plain old email. Expected download speeds are of 40 to 220 Mbps, uploads are eight to 25 Mbps, and there’s a mere 90 milliseconds of latency.
On commercial carriers, cruise ships, megayachts and the like, where cost isn’t a barrier, Starlink has already enjoyed a warm reception. Photo by Starlink.
So, just how can you take advantage of Starlink? First you’ll need the hardware, starting with the Flat High Performance Starlink electronic phased array fixed antenna, which is the only model designed and approved for mobile applications and extreme environments. The kit includes cabling and a WiFi 5 chipset dual-band, 3 x 3 MIMO, IP54 (not waterproof so for belowdecks installations only) router. Starlink puts the hardware cost at $2,500, which seems plenty reasonable for what the system stands to deliver. But — there’s always a but — the bigger cost will come over time. A 50GB mobile plan checks in at $250 per month. A 1TB plan costs $1,000 a month, and a 5TB plan goes for $5,000 a month.
So: will Starlink revolutionize the way we stay in touch when we’re dozens of miles from dry land? It’s a definite maybe, if and when costs come down. Sure, those long-range party boats will have it. And yes, the owners of multimillion dollar sportfishers are likely to sign up even if they already have complete sat systems aboard just because it’s another cool new thing they can adorn their yacht with. For the moment, however, staring at the minimum cost of $5,000 for hardware and service in year one and $2,500 for service every year thereafter, we’re not likely to see many twin-engine center consoles and pilot houses running around with Flat High Performance Starlink antennas perched atop the pipework.
That said, we need to note that the cost of tech tends to fall over time, and this has never been truer than with Starlink Maritime. Upon its initial introduction hardware costs were $10,000 and service plans were $5,000 a month. Less than a year later hardware cost was pulled back to $5,000 and a $1,000 per month data plan was announced. Today’s pricing seems like a bargain in comparison. And tomorrow, who knows? Soon you might be posting a pic of that giant bluefin to the BD forums mere moments after sinking the gaff.