Editor’s Note: As of June 30, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission authorized SpaceX to provide Starlink internet service to vehicles in motion, including boats, cars and RVs. This will open up the service to cruisers and yachts in North America as the coverage areas continue to grow.
Thanks to a new Starlink satellite system geared toward recreational vehicles, boaters are inching ever closer to affordable at-sea internet service with unlimited data. Starlink sits under the SpaceX umbrella and provides high-speed, low latency internet access via a growing web of low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites.
When the system first debuted in 2020, the company targeted
residential use, and coverage was limited as SpaceX expanded the
network by sending up more satellites. Each user needed to set a fixed address, and the service only worked within a few miles of that address. Well, SpaceX has been launching 100 to 150 satellites into orbit each month, and the Starlink constellation is now 2,000 satellites strong. SpaceX ultimately plans to launch more than 30,000 satellites in total to provide high-speed internet around the globe. That will make obtaining service in all corners of the world, no matter how remote, possible. But for boaters, it comes with some caveats that still need to be figured out.
In early 2022, Starlink announced a portability option for an extra $25 a month to access the satellite internet when away from the service address. This portability option was great for folks like Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard, who split their time between an RV and their Bayliner 4788 pilothouse cruiser. They’ve been full-time “nomads” since 2006 and purchased their current boat five years ago. They set off on the Great Loop and discovered the St. Johns River in Florida. They decided to linger on the river a while and have been stationed on Lake Monroe for the last couple of years. Together they operate a website throughout the travels called rvmobileinternet.com to help other folks stay connected while living out of RVs and boats.
Dunphy and Ve Ard received a Starlink unit in January and mounted it to the radar arch on their boat. The antenna resembles a small solar panel that’s about the size of a laptop computer. They said the unit was easy to install and set up; you basically set it outside and plug it in. From there, you can connect to the internet via the Starlink Wi-Fi signal or use a router. And as long as there are no major obstructions like tall buildings, trees or bridges you should be good to go.
“It’s a complete game changer,” Dunphy says. “Starlink plus cellular is the combo we’re seeing a lot of people drawn to.”
Set up on their Bayliner, they have seen download speeds of 50 to 200 Mbps, which is comparable to a cable provider’s high-speed internet. Upload speeds, however, haven’t been as stellar. Starlink advertises upload speeds of 10 to 20 Mbps, but Ve Ard says the speeds they’ve experienced have been closer to 5 to 10 Mbps. “Video conferencing and running a YouTube channel at those speeds is not ideal,” she says.
There are some other boating-specific issues to contend with as well. Dunphy says when they turn their radar on, the Starlink shuts down, which may just be a glitch of some sort that could be solved by moving the antenna. The larger issue is using the system while under way.
Starlink rolled out a new service for RVs in May, but the system is not regulated to support in-motion usage at this time. To get the RV service you must purchase the hardware for $599 and then subscribe to the service for $135 per month. The main benefit of the RV program over the residential one is that RV users can pause the monthly fee for any months when they’re not traveling. To use Starlink, however, the unit must be stationary. Any in-motion usage could void the warranty and even be grounds for cancellation.
“At a dock you are most likely okay, but any movement could make it kind of a legal grey area because we’re not sure how Starlink defines ‘in motion’ and detects it,” Ve Ard says. “Is a boat at the dock that’s rocking in a storm considered in motion? Or swinging on an anchor; is that in motion?”
Then there is the issue of coverage. The service works throughout most of North America including the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and much of the Caribbean and Bahamas are expected to come online later this year. But don’t expect a connection offshore—the service currently cuts off at 12 nm, though this too will most likely change over time.
Right now, a ground station provides the internet connection and sends it to a satellite, which relays it to the receiver on the boat. If there is no ground station within range, the satellite has nothing to talk to. SpaceX is launching new satellites that will solve this problem by using lasers to connect the satellites together so they can act like relays and extend the range. “That’s an essential ingredient for cross-ocean coverage,” Dunphy says.
This second phase is under construction now and should be live by the end of 2022. Once this is enabled, Starlink will have the technical ability to provide global coverage, but it will still have to contend with regulatory hoops before that service rolls out to consumers.
While Starlink appears to be getting the most attention right now, it’s definitely not the only player in the global satellite game. A company called One Web currently has a constellation of more than 600 LEO satellites and signed a deal with Intellian last year to provide terminals and antennas. Then there is Amazon’s Project Kuiper which aims to put more than 1,500 LEO satellites into orbit over the next five years. With so much investment and technology coming downstream, boaters will soon have plenty of options for surfing, downloading and binging no matter where they roam.