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The Starlink internet beta has begun: Here's what to expect

For a lucky few users, Starlink is starting to bring them fast internet from the skies.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Numerous early Starlink testers have been notified that they'll soon be linking up to the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) internet in the "Better Than Nothing Beta" test.

Better than nothing actually sounds pretty darn good. In this early stage, Starlink tells its early users to "Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all."

Is that as good as you can get from your cable provider? No, but your cable ISP will never spend the cash needed to bring broadband to rural users. If you live in the country, you need to look elsewhere for broadband internet.  

SpaceX has applied for the Federal Communication Commission's up-to $16 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). This is a plan to bring broadband -- with download speeds of at least 25Mbps -- to six million homes and businesses, which currently have no broadband. As part of its presentation, Starlink showed internet performance tests with download speeds of between 102Mbps to 103Mbps, upload speeds of 40.5Mbps to not quite 42Mbps, and a latency of 18 milliseconds to 19 milliseconds. That's much better than conventional satellite internet, comparable to low-end cable internet, and far beyond what most rural internet users can get.

This is the first step to Starlink's public beta. Private beta sites had already been up and running in Canada and the US

Third-party tests are showing decent performance numbers. Users posting to TestMy.Net are showing an average download speed of 47.87 Mbps, with a top speed of 149.22 Mbps. Other tests show a top download number of 203.74 Mbps, a maximum upload speed of 42.58Mbps, and a latency of 18 milliseconds. These numbers are all much better since I first looked at these test results in mid-September 2020.

Starlink, in its letter, says users can expect better numbers soon. "As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations, and improve our networking software, data speed, latency, and uptime will improve dramatically. By the summer of 2021, Starlink claims it will achieve 16-19ms latency. 

Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch. To access Starlink, you'll need its "UFO on a stick" phased-array user terminal and its mounting tripod and Wi-Fi router.  This equipment package will cost $499. A monthly Starlink subscription will cost $99. 

Is it worth it? Well, let me just say, "SpaceX? Starlink? I've got my best test request already in and I'm ready to give you my credit card number."

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