NZ internet shakeup: First wave of Kiwis connect to Elon Musk’s Starlink – how it’s working out

The first Kiwis are connecting to Starlink – the service founded by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has launched thousands of low-Earth orbit satellites in a bid to provide worldwide broadband.

For some New Zealanders living in rural areas starved of good internet options, it provides a relatively low-cost (for satellite service) option, with the unique sell-point in satellite-based service of unlimited data.

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A network of six ground stations around New Zealand, built for Starlink by Vocus, upload data to the satellites, keeping them connected to the internet as a whole (and while our mobile network operators like Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees pay hundreds of millions for land-lubbing spectrum, an MBIE spokeswoman confirmed Musk’s Starlink pays just $150 per licence per location – which is simply the Crown’s book rate for the airwaves it utilises. There can be a number of licences per location with a number of dishes at each – but it’s still a pittance next to the cost of the spectrum used for 4G).

Frampton comes alive

One is Hawke’s Bay mobile game developer Dave Frampton – the man behind global hits Chopper, Sapiens and The Blockheads – who lives between Napier and Hastings.

Frampton ordered a DIY-install Starlink kit when pre-orders first opened to North Islanders in February, and his dish arrived on Monday.

You pay a $799 up-front payment (plus $114 shipping) for “Dishy” the large pizza-sized dish, a tripod mount, 30m of proprietary cable and a Wi-Fi router, then $159 a month – which, at least in the beta phase, gives you unlimited data at 150 megabits per second with as little as 20 to 40-millisecond lag. That’s all the speed you need for Netflix, Spark Sport or Zoom – or in Frampton’s case, uploading large files to promote his games to YouTube, among other bandwidth-intensive activities as a game developer.

The most popular UFB fibre plans are 100Mbps, though many now choose 1000Mbps (1 gigabit per second or faster plan). But in Frampton’s case, the UFB rollout has come nowhere near his property “and none is coming any time soon”. And while 4G fixed-wireless was on tap, Frampton said it was not suitable for his data-intensive business. So he had been making do with a copper line connection.

After you receive your Starlink kit everything is up to you. At this point, there are no local installers or any official contractors on the ground.

You unpack, download a smartphone app that helps you orientate the satellite dish correctly, then get to work. In Frampton’s case, there were no problems.

“I screwed the mount it came with on to the roof. There are other mount options you can buy from SpaceX, but it seems to have worked out fine. Also, we’re lucky there are not any tall trees around, so no obstructions which can be an issue for some locations,” Frampton told the Herald.

“The setup was very easy, although cables are currently snaking through the kitchen, so I might get an electrician in to tidy it up after lockdown.”

Like other Starlink users Frampton has a 30-day return option.

“But I’m happy so far. We’ve had a couple of short outages, but performance is noticeably better than before,” Frampton said.

“Previously we had VDSL [the fastest form of copper connection]. The upload speeds were the main issue, especially with wanting to ship game builds and publish YouTube videos. And 4G was not an option given our high usage.”

He’s seen a startling increase in bandwidth.

Frampton posted a screen-grab of a speed test with his old copper line, which clocked 13.9mpbs for download and a miserable 0.3Mbps for upload.

Over Wi-Fi, Starlink saw him achieve a handy 80Mbps for down and 30Mpbs for up.

Over ethernet cable, Starlink gave him a whopping 259Mbps down and 41Mbps up.

The unlimited data really tops it off, though Frampton said there had been no indication how long the offer would last (Starlink did not immediately reply to a Herald question on that topic, or others. The service has never responded to queries over the past year, bar one reply saying its team was “too busy” for interviews.)

Frampton has seen latency (or lag) times of 53ms to 93ms, which will disappoint some power users. It’s laggier than fibre, 4G or 5G or even copper, but could improve closer to the promised 20ms to 40ms as Starlink completes its ground station and satellite network.

SpaceX has already launched 1600 Starlink satellites, but those who complain about them playing havoc with astronomical observations should brace for worse; Musk plans 42,000 all-up.

For now, Starlink seems to be using backhaul supplied by Google – which offers enterprise clients dedicated bandwidth on submarine cables running between NZ and Australia, but is also opening a local point-of-presence.

In the meantime, the latency, although much-mulled by the geek-set, hasn’t translated into any real-life concerns for Frampton.

“I haven’t noticed any difference, but don’t play any multiplayer games at the moment where it might be a problem,” he said.

Filling the broadband gap

Some Kiwis are keeping a watching brief.

Ex- HP NZ executive Robin Paterson lives in Clevedon and is one of those living in a broadband gap – slightly too far from Auckland city to get UFB fibre, yet not country enough to be covered by the other major public-private faster internet rollout Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI).

Paterson told the Herald he’ll likely opt for Starlink, but he’s keeping his powder dry for now to see how other early adopters fare.

Waiting for Elon

Others are all-in. But while Frampton is a happy camper, a number of Kiwis who have paid their deposit say they are still waiting.

Coromandel man Simon Richie said he registered his interest with Starlink on November 20 last year and paid his $159 deposit on February 14.

But so far he’s only had a brief update from the satellite operator saying “Starlink will begin offering service in your area beginning mid to late 2021”.

Once his DIY-install, $799 Starlink dish arrives, Richie should get unlimited data satellite broadband at up to 150Mbps for $159 per month. The price is sharp for satellite broadband, and the unlimited data (for however long that open-ended promotion lasts) is unique at that price-point.

Despite the toe-tapping, Richie told the Herald, “roll on Starlink”.

He said others have failed to cater to his area, despite it being just 75km from Auckland as the crow flies.

“We can’t get any fibre at our address and are never going to according to Chorus. We’re stuck with slow, flakey copper and no prospect of any network upgrade,” he said.

“There’s no Wisp [wireless internet service provider] and we have no cellular coverage of any sort.”

He added “Would that the telcos and network operators spend a little time and effort doing something for rural New Zealand rather than providing better and better services for the townies.

“And the Government doesn’t really understand the word ‘rural’. Their Rural Broadband Initiative is aimed just at areas near state highways and places where tourists congregate.”

Help at hand for DIY installers?

Not everyone will be happy with Starlink’s you’re-on-your-own approach to setup and installation.

But Telco2 consultant Jonathan Brewer – a veteran of the satellite and wireless broadband industry – says he doesn’t necessarily see Starlink’s DIY model as a problem, even once it moves from tech-savvy early adopters to the likes of regular farmers and lifestyle block owners.

De facto assistance is on hand, he thinks.

“I see Sky and Freeview installers adding Starlink as a sideline pretty quick. Most homeowners don’t want the hassle of climbing on their roof and running cables,” Brewer told the Herald.

“It’s a good thing New Zealand has plenty of people who’re good at that kind of thing.”

Jeff's on the way, too

Starlink isn’t the only new contender that the likes of Vodafone, Spark, 2degrees and provincial rural internet service providers face.

Amazon is planning Project Kuiper, which will involve a constellation of 3236 satellites. Like Elon Musk, the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is a space buff. And, again like Musk, he wants to make a global broadband service part of his plan for world domination.

For some Kiwis living in rural areas, the billionaire’s latest arms race will be a boon.

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