Reality Check for Starlink Boaters, And What Not To Disclose
Buyer Beware, Says Loose Cannon's Favorite Analyst
Sean Welsh is a retired telecom/satcom professional. Welsh says he has no inside information. He says this explainer, reprinted with permission, represents his best understanding based on available information. Welsh cruises the East Coast with his wife Louise aboard a 52-foot steel trawler yacht named Vector.
Update: About 12 hours after this story was published, Starlink announced a new $250 maritime service plan. The story was updated to reflect that.
By Sean Welsh
More and more of us are putting Starlink terminals on our boats in order to get high-bandwidth, low-latency Internet access in some pretty remote places, or even in marinas where the WiFi seems progressively overbooked on every visit. For many of us, it's working great. BUT, there's an elephant in this room, and I thought I'd say a few words about this, for those who are contemplating making the jump.
It was suggested to me to keep this brief, and lord, I tried. It's a complicated subject.
So, TL DR1: the relatively inexpensive consumer terminals on the non-maritime consumer plans that are working so well right now may stop working at any moment, and, in fact, could easily become not only disconnected, but a very expensive paperweight. So buy at your own risk. Read on if you care about the details.
Starlink now offers several service plans and three different physical terminals. Many seem to confuse service plan type with terminal type, but in reality they are separate, except for the fact that certain terminals can not be used, or can only be used, with specific service plans. I can't go into all the plans, but here are the relevant ones for boaters:
Residential, with the portability add-on. No longer available in the US but available elsewhere.
Regional Roam, formerly called "RV." Available everywhere.
Maritime, with several different service levels.
The three terminals are as follows:
"Standard." Rectangular antenna on an az/el (tilting and swiveling) mount.
High Performance. A larger rectangular antenna also on an az/el mount.
Flat High Performance (HP). Same size as the High Performance, but without the az/el motors and intended to be mounted nearly flat on a vehicle roof or vessel mast. Supposedly also more weather resistant.
The standard terminal is what comes by default with either residential or roam service and costs $600 for U.S. customers, but discounted to varying degrees in other countries (to increase the subscriber base there). The (non-flat) high performance terminal is of no interest to this discussion. The Flat HP terminal, which has also been referred to as the "in-motion terminal" or ESIM terminal, is available as a $2,500 upgrade on Regional or Global Roam plans, and is the standard terminal (in single or dual configurations) for the maritime plans. Confused yet?
Here's the important part: The ONLY terminal approved by regulatory agencies and supported by Starlink for use in motion is the Flat High Performance terminal. The only service plans approved for use and supported by Starlink for use anywhere other than on dry land are the maritime service plans. (And, yes, technically that includes at anchor or even at a dock.) Using any other combination of plan and terminal on a boat is against the Starlink Terms of Service (TOS) and may well also be unlawful in many places.
Big deal, I hear you say. The regular $600 terminal on the least-expensive $150/month regional roam plan works fine on the water It seems to be working great under way, and even works mid-ocean and in other countries, including where Starlink is not even available yet. And indeed, this has been said, many times by many people, and that appears to have persuaded even more people to take the plunge and add a standard terminal to their boat. Many have even spent lots of time and money modifying that standard terminal so that it rides flat, in sort of a poor-man's version of the Flat HP terminal (the pros and cons of that could be the subject of a whole different article).
But this is what you need to know: every one of those terminals is violating the TOS. Yes, many of us have gotten away with it thus far. But in this writer's opinion, the days for that to continue are numbered. At a minimum, the service will stop working, either while underway, or when away from land (more on that later) or both. But it can also result in your equipment being flagged as no longer under warranty. And it could result in account cancellation and black-listing the terminal so that it can't be re-activated, making it an expensive yard decoration.
There is no way around this. Starlink has the ability, which it has both tested and demonstrated, to restrict the terminal to as small an operating footprint as they desire, and to as little motion as they desire. The terminal knows exactly where you are and how fast, if at all, you are moving. There is no way to defeat this, because without that information, the terminal could not find and talk to the satellites, which are whizzing across the sky. If the terminal did not also send that information to the satellite network, the satellites could not find your terminal to talk back to it. You might be able to fool Netflix, but you can't fool Starlink and have the terminal still work.
Many of us have decided that $600 is a small enough number that we are willing to take the risk. We'll use it offshore, or underway, or both, for as long as they will let us, and hope that when the restrictions come, it will at least still work at anchor, or at a dock. And further hope that if they restrict it so much that it is no longer worth the monthly cost, that we can at least sell the terminal to someone else who can use it. With the understanding that a hope is just that. Having said all that, here are my recommendations:
If you absolutely, positively have to have working Starlink underway and offshore, and you don't want your terminal to one day stop working in the middle of an ocean passage, buy the Maritime plan with the Flat HP terminal. These plans start at $250/mo on top of the $2,500 terminal cost, but they are advertised to work worldwide, at sea and in motion.
If you want to risk the least amount and get whatever you can out of the service, buy the Regional Roam service with the standard terminal. DO NOT tell Starlink you are using the terminal on a boat, or in motion. See the screen shot below to understand why. If you have to submit a support ticket, say you are using it with your RV. No need to explain you meant "vessel" not "vehicle."
If you want to be able to submit support tickets that might eventually end in a warranty exchange of your terminal, do not cut it open or otherwise modify it to mount it flat, disable the az/el motors, or anything else. You won't really gain anything (again, the subject of a different article).
Do not spend an extra $1,900 on the Flat HP terminal to use on a Roam plan. It won't protect you when Starlink decides to start geofencing, and it won't really give you any better service level on a Roam plan. It might let you continue to have in-motion service on inland waterways if that's important to you, but again see below.
Okay, with both the actual facts and the recommendations out of the way, let me move into sheer speculation. Based on my own experience with geofencing, the testing done to date, and what I can decipher from regulatory filings, I am guessing that this is what will actually happen whenever Starlink gets around to it. Which could be in three years, or could be tomorrow at noon:
Geofencing. Land terminals (residential, business, regional and global roam) will be limited to "cells" that show as covered on the Starlink official availability map, and in any cell that is shown as solid black on that map the terminal will be offline and show only as "Searching." The cells are hexagons and thus will not exactly correspond to coastline, and most inland waterways and bays will fall entirely within a covered cell. The cells, which Starlink did not create but instead borrowed from Uber, which made them freely available (Google "H3 cell") are strictly administrative, they are not the result of any technical constraint such as satellite antenna aiming. But it is very easy for the terminal and the satellites to calculate these cells, whereas geographic features like coastline require a lot more complexity.
In-motion. When within the available cells described above, the terminal will likely work and remain connected so long as the motion remains below a specific speed (likely the SOG as determined by the terminal). Past testing of this restriction had the speed set at 10mph (8.7 knots). So traveling, say, the ICW, in a 7-knot trawler, you will likely remain on-line in motion, although they may set an even lower limit. You will also likely remain on-line while swinging at anchor, so long as your anchor circle is entirely within a covered hexagon.
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There's a lot I have left out of this article, for brevity (yes, really!). I have not gone into residential with portability or business service or the higher-price maritime plans, for example, or why flat terminals are not always better than az/el terminals, or what "best effort" service means and why it matters. I will try to answer questions as best I can.
Disclaimer: I do not work for Starlink. No one really knows what will happen or when, possibly even most Starlink employees. I did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. But I have worked professionally with, and been a consumer of satellite Internet technology for two decades, and Internet technology more generally for twice that long, and running Internet infrastructure used to be my day job. I also know how to read, and do read, regulatory filings and technical white papers. Please verify the facts, but be aware that there are a lot of Starlink "experts" out there with little to back them up.
Starlink Responds To a Boater’s Service Request
Internet slang: Too Long, Didn’t Read.