Starlink’s high internet speeds to remote areas have quickly made it an easy decision for anyone that cannot get wired high-speed internet to their home. This wireless nature and soon-to-be worldwide coverage of Starlink would seemingly make it the perfect companion for an RV or yacht; but for the time being, Geofencing makes that impossible.
This post was originally published on October 1, 2021. A section was added to the end to reflect updates to the Starlink FAQ.
Starlink is SpaceX’s satellite internet service. SpaceX makes use of a constellation of over 1,600 satellites in low Earth orbit that connect to a pizza box sized user terminal to provide internet. By using so many satellites in a lower orbit, they can achieve higher speeds and lower latency than geostationary satellites are capable of. Each satellite covers a much smaller area, and the move in position relative to the surface of the Earth, so many more are needed in order to provide global coverage.
Currently, most Starlink satellites rely on ground stations. So the satellite connects to a user terminal and sends that data directly down to a large station on the ground in order to connect the users to the wider internet. The satellites launching now have laser-based interconnects. These interconnects allow the satellites to communicate with each other, rather than requiring a direct connection with a ground station. Using these interconnects, Starlink can provide internet even long distances from any connection to the ground. These could be used to help combat government-controlled internet shutdowns or to provide reliable high-speed internet service to spacecraft in orbit.
Currently, Starlink users are still seeing internet cutouts from time to time, but these will continue to decrease, especially as the service exits beta later this month.
Starlink: (almost) Perfect for RVs, boats, and more
Starlink is an almost perfect solution for internet on RVs. Currently, the “best” option for most RVs is to use a mobile hotspot device. These can certainly work but are of course limited to use only when within range of a cell phone tower. Most of these devices also aren’t terribly fast. Starlink seems perfect by comparison. Starlink satellites cover just about everywhere. They need a clear line of sight to the satellites, so a tall pole mount would seemingly make a perfect solution to get high-speed internet in the middle of nowhere. Some Starlink customers have even tried to mount Starlink dishes to their own vehicles… not that it has gone well for them.
With the laser interconnects that should soon be active making internet available long distances from ground stations, Starlink could theoretically work on boats out in the middle of the ocean. There is just one problem with this as of now, and that’s the Starlink Geofencing. If you bring your Starlink user terminal too far from the address it is registered it will not work.
Starlink user terminal Geofencing
Geofencing is designating a specific physical area within which an event happens. It can be extremely useful with home-automation tools, but with Starlink, your Starlink user terminal is limited to work when within a specific physical location.
SpaceX addresses this geofencing on the Starlink FAQ page.
Starlink satellites are scheduled to send internet down to all users within a designated area on the ground. This designated area is referred to as a cell.
Your Starlink is assigned to a single cell. If you move your Starlink outside of its assigned cell, a satellite will not be scheduled to serve your Starlink and you will not receive internet. This is constrained by geometry and is not arbitrary geofencing.
SpaceX doesn’t provide a very clear explanation of the geofencing on the FAQ page. We reached out for more information but SpaceX has not responded to our request for comment. They describe the location limitation as “constrained by geometry” and “not arbitrary” but there is certainly a lot more to it than that.
Why are Starlink user terminals geo-fenced?
Starlink divides the world into a grid of cells. Starlink can only support a certain number of user terminals per satellite, and thus per call. SpaceX doesn’t want people purchasing Starlink with an address in an unpopulated area then going to a populated one and exceeding the capacity Starlink is able to support in that region. That would result in a degraded experience for all users.
SpaceX specifically refers to the scheduling of Starlink satellites. While it is possible that this scheduling is one of the reasons, it is also something that SpaceX engineers could certainly overcome with an adjustable scheduling system based on user location. SpaceX plans on offering Starlink on airplanes, which will not be staying in a small cell. These limitations could, at least partially, be based on the physical limitations of the current Starlink user terminals. SpaceX has struggled to keep costs down on the terminals. Even with the current $500 cost for hardware, SpaceX is losing significant amounts of money with each sale which it hopes to make back through the monthly service cost. It is possible that SpaceX will offer a different user terminal, eventually, that is more tailored for road-tripping.
Back in April of this year, Elon said on Twitter that Starlink “should be mobile” later this year with key software upgrades and more satellite launches. Whether this still remains the case remains to be seen, as there have been no updates from him or the company on the matter since.
How large is a Starlink cell?
User reports suggest that these cells are roughly 10 miles by 10 miles. Some users claim to be able to receive acceptable internet service as far as 10 miles outside of their cell. Even so, that’s not much of a road trip. So long as these regional limitations of Starlink are in place, it simply can’t be used for travel… and as much as it would be nice… I think that’s okay.
Space Explored’s Take
I would really like the geographic limitations of Starlink to be removed. I *really* would. It would immediately become a great tool for live streaming launches; whether from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia, or Starbase in Texas. It really would be a supremely useful tool once I can travel with it. I have to admit, I understand why they would limit traveling.
They are still in Beta (until later this month) and still have a lot of work to do in maturing the network. I truly appreciate that SpaceX is focusing on getting Starlink service to areas and addresses with limited to no current internet connectivity before they worry about stuff like Starlink for Yachts. As shocking as it is to think about, there are still 19 million Americans who lack access to proper broadband. With the number of users the network is capable of supporting in any given area being limited, I’m glad that it is first going where it is most useful.
Despite this, I also think SpaceX’s FAQ should be a bit more clear. They seem to blame it entirely on geometry. I think being open about the scheduling and explaining the size of the cells and why they’re needed could help put many customers and future customers at ease. Even just stating that teams will be implementing the feature in the future would be a nice addition.
In our request to SpaceX, we asked the following questions. We will update the article if we receive any response.
- Why are Starlink user terminals limited to a single cell?
- When could we expect Starlink terminals to not be geographically limited?
- If a user orders Starlink for a specific address, then moves to a different cell, is their cell able to be updated to enable connectivity at their new address?
- What sort of geometry limits the connectivity? Why could the satellite scheduling not be adjusted based on User location?
- Does SpaceX have any specific plans to begin offering in countries, such as Afghanistan, where local governments may not approve of such uses?
Update Nov 3: Changes to Starlink FAQ page
It is unclear exactly when SpaceX updated the FAQ page for Starlink, but the section addressing the moving of a Starlink terminal to a new address or on a moving vehicle has been changed. The new FAQ is as follows:
Service is only guaranteed at the Service Address on your order. If you move Starlink outside of its assigned area, a satellite may not be scheduled to serve Starlink and you may not receive internet or may receive degraded service. At this time, we are not able to support moves to a different country.
Please note – by changing your Service Address, you may not be able to return to your original address. Once updated, service at your previous address will be disconnected.
Our teams are actively working to make it possible to use Starlink on a moving vehicle (e.g. automobiles, RVs, boats), but for now we can only guarantee service at the Service Address on your Account.
This change is certainly promising and makes it clear that teams are actively working on this as a possibility. While it may not be supported yet, I certainly find this greater degree of transparency positive, definitely better than blaming restriction solely on geometry.
Once it’s possible to move Starlink between cells, it truly could become the RVers dream internet solution.