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Starlink RV review: Changes the game for digital nomads

Is it perfect? Nope, but its no-fuss setup and respectable broadband speeds (at home and in the middle of nowhere) make it well worth the cost.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer on
Pros
  • Superfast setup
  • Respectable speed
  • Few interruptions
Cons
  • Occasional lag
  • Bulky dish
  • No carrying case

I started seeing them around the marina a few months ago: rectangular dishes gazing skyward in some common prayer. You hear the whispers around the dock: "Did you get it yet?" You can almost feel the excitement in the air.

Starlink has arrived, and Starlink RV has attracted the attention of the boating and adventure crowd. That's because it solves a host of problems unique to folks who live or recreate on boats or other vehicles for long weekends or months on end. 

Also: Starlink US residential customers are getting a limit on their high-speed internet

Marinas and campgrounds have notoriously shabby Wi-Fi, and cell coverage is often abysmal owing to a scarcity of towers and impeding multistory housing. Fewer marinas have wired broadband connections than in the past, and boats (like RVs) are designed to move. Most internet plans aren't.

A point of clarity here: There is a dedicated maritime version of Elon Musk's satellite internet venture, but with a $10,000 equipment fee and $5,000-per-month service plan the target market is high-end yachts and charter boats, and we're not that classy. 

The pricey maritime version covers users far offshore in a global beltway that extends north from the equator, and if you're an oligarch who managed to hang onto your megayacht, that's great news.

Also: I tested the Insta360 Go 2 action cam on my WWII-era sailboat. It blew me away

For the rest of us, Starlink RV has generous coverage of the coastline and inland portions of the US, Canada, and Mexico for a more reasonable $599 equipment fee and a pay-as-you-go $135-per-month service plan that allows you to travel anywhere in the service area.

In Marina del Rey, where our WWII-era sailboat Lindy is berthed, internet service has traditionally been cobbled together by boaters. LTE coverage is hit-or-miss due to the geography of the marina and the surrounding buildings. LTE boosters help some, but I've found those to be inconsistent. 

Our area is densely populated and networks seem constantly strained. Wi-Fi in our facility is available but it's slow and glitchy, and there's no hard line maintained at the dock. The only serviceable alternative is a mom-and-pop ISP that provides line-of-sight service via a tower on one of the tallest buildings in the area. For $130 per month we get download speeds that are often in the 6-10Mbps range and under 1Mbps uploads. 

Also: How to test your internet speed the quick and easy way

Does that make you wince? It makes me wince ... especially every time I pay the monthly bill. Starlink RV offers a faster alternative at a similar cost, so I acquired one of those dishes and tested the service myself.

Specifications

Service availability >99%
Expected download 50-200Mbps (5-100Mbps in congested areas during peak usage)
Expected upload 10-20Mbps (1-10Mbps in congested areas)
Latency 20-40 ms
Data caps None
In the box Starlink dish and base, router, antenna cable, power supply
Plan Pay as you go

How it works

SpaceX has launched and is continuing to add to a constellation of thousands of low-earth orbit satellites. Customers use ground transceivers to send and receive signals, and those are sent to a Starlink Wi-Fi router.

Also: Everything to know about Elon Musk's satellite internet service

Starlink released the RV version of its satellite-based internet service in May. Unlike residential Starlink orders, which have been hampered by wait times, Starlink RV has been available for immediate purchase since launch. As of this writing you can buy it now and it'll show up in a week or so. 

What's the rub? Starlink RV doesn't require a service address the way residential service does, but service is deprioritized compared with residential customers, meaning at peak usage RV users get lowest priority. There's also a $25-per-month portability fee, which brings the total monthly contract to $135. The equipment fee is $599 and shipping was around $50 to get the unit to Marina del Rey, California.

There are no long-term service contracts and the equipment fee is refundable within one month if you're not satisfied. Currently, customers receive a second-generation "Dishy" motorized dish. The more expensive maritime service is now shipping with a newer-generation flat dish, which sits horizontally and remains stationary (no motors).

Starlink dish on a boat with a harbor in the background.

The second-generation dish is bigger than you might expect, but it sits comfortably on Lindy's deckhouse roof.

Greg Nichols/ZDNET

Coverage

The coverage map below is current as of this writing (check here for updates). If you live and plan to travel in the US, Canada, or Mexico, coverage is superb. Coverage in South America is sparser, though service is available in Chile and southern Brazil, as well as Medellín, Colombia. Australia is also well covered, as well as much of Western Europe.

From a traveler's perspective (after all, this is the RV version) that's a lot of territory. Fortunately for me, since I'm on a boat, the coast of Southern California is well covered, including some of the offshore Channel Islands such as Santa Cruz and Catalina. That makes it a game-changer for boaters in my region, as many of those zones have no cell coverage.

Starlink RV coverage map

Starlink coverage map.

Starlink

Setup  

You experience one of the most impressive things about Starlink RV right out of the box: It's simple to set up. I mean dead simple.

Starlink app showing status Online
Screenshot by Greg Nichols/ZDNET

What you get is a metal X-shaped stand, the rectangular dish connected to a generous preinstalled cable, a Wi-Fi router, a power cord, and a card with simple illustrations of what to do for setup. Everything comes packed together snugly in the box with help from some molded plastic packing material. That's all: No big fat booklet, no bunch of mounting gear and bags of screws, and no random cords and adapters.  

To set up the hardware you clip the dish into the provided base and place it somewhere with clear sky. The cable has a nice integral gasket on the router end and plugs in securely. You plug the router in, and your hardware setup is complete. Your best bet is to find a permanent place for the router and a repeatable strategy for setting up the dish. A permanent dish pole would be a nice upgrade, though I haven't gotten there yet.

One item of note for mobile users: The dish requires a 100-240V AC outlet, which means RVers will need to use an inverter or generator if running off a battery bank. See the speed and reliability section below for power consumption data.

You control Starlink RV via an app. Pro tip: Get everything set up while you have LTE service. First step is to connect to the Starlink Wi-Fi network. The app takes you through setup and configuration, including mapping the sky with your smartphone and letting you know if there are obstructions. It took me about 10 minutes the first time I set up, and thereafter getting the dish up takes about 5 minutes if you have all your hardware in place. 

A pain point is that there's no carrying case. We can't store the bulky cardboard box onboard, and I imagine RVers and vanlife folks are in the same ... er, boat. Since this is designed with mobility in mind, it would be nice to have a dedicated carrying case offering a modicum of protection. For now a duffel will do, but I plan to hack together something more useful in the long term.  

Low perspective view of man placing the dish on top of the deckhouse.

Installation is a breeze, even on a boat.

Greg Nichols/ZDNET

Using Starlink

Using Starlink is basically like using any high-speed internet connection. The app is useful, with good basic controls and functionality. On setup, Starlink acquires a signal and the dish moves from its stow position to point in an appropriate direction. The app tells you if your Starlink is online via the homepage. From there you can check the dish's visibility and the router range (useful for mapping your house and finding dead zones), and acquire speed and latency statistics. A network tab tells you which devices are connected. 

Starlink has a snow-melt feature, which heats up the dish to get rid of snow accumulation. That's not an issue where we live but it's a nice automatic function you can toggle in the app. If you want to stow your unit you press a button in the settings page and the dish moves to the stow position. An advanced tab allows you to debug or reboot the Wi-Fi or the Starlink dish.

Starlink router on a wooden part of the boat, with someone standing holding a coiled cable.

The dish cable is a respectable 75 feet.

Greg Nichols/ZDNET

Speed and reliability

Generally speaking, I have found Starlink to be stable and plenty fast enough for general office use. Is it perfect? Nope, but it's good enough that we abandoned our existing internet service and plan to use it full-time, whether at dock or on the move.

For the previous 12 hours from the moment I'm writing this, my Starlink app reports three outages of 5 seconds or more. Those are pretty significant gaps, but to be honest I haven't noticed more than a second or two blip during high usage cases like videoconferencing, and those are very occasional. I'm also in Los Angeles, a zone with high coverage but (I can only surmise) very high demand. Being deprioritized is probably working against me.

Also: Starlink is now coming to your in-motion vehicle

Latency is higher than I would have expected, and for my use it's been higher than Starlink's stated 20ms latency average, averaging closer to 50ms. The lowest latency I've achieved in the last 12 hours was 21ms while the highest was 130ms. For my usage that's no big deal, but consider your own needs: Gaming and livestreamed content in particular may require better latency performance.

How's the speed? Starlink is crushing my old ISP. Right now, which is midmorning on a weekday, I'm getting 144Mbps down and 2.4Mbps up. That upload speed is still a little anemic, but for my usage it's plenty. I've more consistently seen speeds in the 80Mbps -to-100Mbps download and 1Mbps-to-2Mbps upload range.

Power consumption is also something to bear in mind if you're taking Starlink RV on the go. According to the company, the standard Starlink hardware uses 50 to 75 watts on average. This includes the antenna, router, power supply, and cables. When there is no network activity, the standard Starlink uses about 20 watts to remain connected to the satellite network. That's not insignificant for off-grid use, so it's important to determine whether and when your system can absorb that usage load.

Bottom line 

Look, it's pretty darned good. It's not perfect, there are some things you could poke and pick at (power consumption, lack of protective case, deprioritized service), but at the end of the day this a breath of fresh air for me and my family, essentially removing one of the big constraints on comfortably working and living aboard our boat. I've heard the same thing from others in the area.

One word of warning: Many good things (such as unlimited LTE data plans) come to an abrupt end. Elon Musk has made no secret about Starlink being an experimental technology and service. The lack of long-term contracts, while convenient to users, is also a sign that Starlink may evolve its equipment, service plans, or operating model. Or it may cease to exist altogether. The best bet against that is the astronomical (literally) investment SpaceX has made in the satellite constellation, but you never know.

For the time being, however, I'm a very happy customer.

Alternatives to consider 

If you're staying within LTE coverage areas, Verizon's Jetpack is a great mobile hotspot to consider for your next adventure.

Connects up to 20 devices and unlocked to accept all SIM cards.

If you're looking for low-speed satellite connectivity to let you download weather or place voice calls while sailing or driving, the IridiumGo has long been the go-to device for sailors and van lifers.

Editorial standards

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