Starlink’s Potential vs. HughesNet

While SpaceX’s Starlink is still in beta, the company is poised to bring huge changes to the satellite internet industry. While conventional satellite internet like that offered by HughesNet relies on a small number of satellites that are far from Earth in geosynchronous orbits, Starlink will use a constellation of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO).

Number of satellites

HughesNet’s service relies primarily on two satellites.1 In contrast, Starlink has launched almost 1,000 satellites as of October 2020. In the long term, Starlink plans to have well over 10,000 satellites in its constellation.

Latency

Conventional satellite regularly involves latency of over 500ms (half a second). Latency that high can cause trouble for activities like video calls, voice conversations, and real-time gaming. Since Starlink’s satellites will be much closer to users than HughesNet’s satellites, Starlink service will have far lower latency than is typical for HughesNet.

Leaked speed tests from the earliest Starlink beta testers showed latency under 100ms. That level of latency is comparable to latency with conventional, wired internet service providers. Further, there’s reason to think latency might improve as Starlink matures. Two test results shared in an FCC filing from SpaceX showed sub-20ms latency. Additionally, an email invitation for Starlink’s newest beta program suggested subscribers should expect latency between 20ms and 40ms. The email also suggested Starlink hoped typical latency would fall below 20ms by the summer of 2021.

Speeds

Starlink’s speed potential has been overhyped in some media coverage. I don’t expect Starlink to offer speeds remotely close to the speeds conventional wired internet service providers offer. However, Starlink is likely to offer service that’s a good bit faster than conventional satellites internet.

Early tests Starlink shared showed speeds slightly over 100Mbps. Leaked speeds from early beta testers typically show speeds between 20Mbps and 100Mbps. In Starlink’s invitation for its latest beta program, the company suggested subscribers should anticipate speeds between 50Mbps and 150Mbps.

Coverage

HughesNet offers phenomenal coverage throughout almost the entire U.S. Starlink plans to offer the same kind of extensive coverage, but it does not yet.

Plans and pricing

Starlink’s current beta program only has one price structure. Service costs $100 per month and subscribers must pay a one-time cost of about $500 for a terminal and router. Unlike Hughes, Starlink does not offer a leasing program for subscribers that don’t want to purchase a hardware upfront.

Footnotes

  1. HughesNet’s parent company, EchoStar, is involved with five satellites that are currently in operation. Two of the satellites, JUPITER 1 and JUPITER 2 are used for HughesNet.

    I say EchoStar is “involved” with five satellites since the satellites aren’t all owned by Echo Star. Some satellites serve multiple purposes for more than one company.