Starlink vs. 5G: Which Could Be the Better Home Internet Service?

Starlink vs. 5G: Which Could Be the Better Home Internet Service?
Photo: Theo Wargo, Getty Images
To sign up for our daily newsletter covering the latest news, features and reviews, head HERE. For a running feed of all our stories, follow us on Twitter HERE. Or you can bookmark the Gizmodo Australia homepage to visit whenever you need a news fix.

Reports indicate that Americans are clearly interested in both SpaceX’s Starlink and 5G broadband as potential home internet services. But so far it’s unclear which option has more appeal compared to traditional cable broadband. Some reports show Americans are more interested in Starlink, while others indicate most people are unsure if they would use one over the other, or either at all. The demand for better internet is obviously there due to [gestures at everything], but clearly there’s some confusion as to which type of internet connection will be best. So let’s dive in to clear it up.

First, where you live will probably determine whether you get better internet from Starlink or via 5G. SpaceX’s Starlink is a satellite internet service, which means it works best with a clear view of the sky in wide open spaces. Storms, trees, buildings, snow, or any other natural or man-made obstruction can weaken the signal or drop the internet connection all together. Data packets and other virtual information literally get beamed down from space, so if any of that stuff gets in the way, your internet is probably going to get spotty.

Not only that, but there’s a finite amount of bandwidth that a satellite can provide to users, so too many users connecting to a terminal means slower internet speeds at home. Critics sceptical of Starlink have pointed out those challenges in the months following the FCC’s award of rural broadband funds to the as-yet-unproved service.

“My concern is not around the capacity of one or two users, but what happens when you get to 20 or 30 or 40 or 50,000 users. Obviously you have to share the same constellation across the entire country,” National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative CEO Tim Bryan said during a recent press conference. “I have no doubt that the Starlink constellation could be successful in some areas, particularly over things like the deep blue seas. I struggle to see how it’s going to reliably deliver 100 megabit service to the hundreds and thousands of customers in the census block groups it bid for.”

5G has an advantage over Starlink in terms of reliable service, because it’s built on top of existing cellular infrastructure. To get 5G service at home, you have to stick an antenna or a small receiver/transmitter on your house, which can then ping a 5G antenna on a nearby cell tower. The 5G signal beams into your home and then a wifi router blankets your space with wireless internet.

People living in rural towns and cities will have a better chance with Starlink, if they can afford it, than they will with 5G, unless telecoms invest in providing service to their areas. People living in rural towns and cities will have a better chance with Starlink, if they can afford it, than they will with 5G, unless telecoms invest in providing service to their areas. For mmWave 5G you need more towers because the higher-frequency speed travels at much shorter distances. For slower, mid- to low-band 5G, the existing towers will do. (Basically, don’t expect to get lightning-fast home internet in rural areas.)

T-Mobile has said it plans to have 9.5 million 5G Home subscribers by 2024. Verizon’s own 5G Home service is still incredibly limited — to specific parts of specific cities — and the carrier hasn’t indicated how many people it hopes to attract.

Starlink has just 10,000 customers at the moment, although that number might jump rapidly because SpaceX recently opened up preorders for its satellite internet service. Perhaps if or when the company announces its preorder numbers, we’ll have a better idea of demand for its satellite internet service. The company asked for the FCC’s permission to deploy up to 5 million user terminals in August last due to interest. But the question of whether SpaceX will launch enough satellites to cover the areas it needs to cover and provide reliable service remains.

Depending on where you live, either option might not be better than wired broadband or fibre. But for underserved and unserved areas that lack reliable internet service — a problem which effects 19 million Americans — large internet service providers are falling down on the job. It’s no wonder that Starlink sounds appealing — for those folks, satellite internet may seem like the only real option.

Are you a Starlink customer? Email me at [email protected] and let me know what your experience has been like.