Starlink vs ViaSat: a quick test in the woods!

slb   June 1, 2021   Comments Off on Starlink vs ViaSat: a quick test in the woods!
Off the Grid Internet: Starlink vs ViaSat

We’ve had a cabin in Northern Arizona for decades and it’s always been “off the grid” for connectivity. It originally didn’t have running water or electricity, but got both of those ~40 years ago. However, phone, TV, or Internet have never been offered there. It was actually pretty nice to get away.

Of course 2020 changed all that and it became very useful to have internet so that we could spend extended time at the cabin while working and doing online school remotely. This led me to setup ViaSat “Unlimited Silver 25” internet, and set it up around Summer 2020. It’s actually pretty great. There’s a single fixed dish (not unlike a DirecTV dish) that points to a geosynchronous satellite somewhat to the south. By placing the dish in the very front of the yard, I could get a solid signal.

Internet connectivity has been great! Packet loss is minimal, which means that the signal is very reliable for IT-work type stuff including opening a terminal or doing a Zoom/Webex call. The upstream bandwidth is pretty small (typically 3-4Mbps) so video isn’t the best idea, but voice works great.

On the down side, the round-trip time (the time it takes a packet to go from the cabin, to an internet server, and back) is pretty long. It is never less than 700ms, and sometimes closer to a second. This means that a voice call is very awkward: as you start to answer a question, after a few words you realize someone else was already talking because you’re effectively a couple seconds behind the meeting!

# ping -i 0.5 -c 100

--- ping statistics ---
100 packets transmitted, 100 packets received, 0.0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 540.160/697.440/1559.363/198.173 ms

As you can see here in this quick test, with 100 packets transmitted, zero were lost. The average time for each packet to come back was 7/10ths of a second, and in the worst case, 1.5 seconds. This is because the ViaSat satellite is very far away from Earth, about 25,000 miles away. Also, the dish is bolted in place and must be very precisely aimed. A few months after the installers (who have fancy tools to do this) left, an Elk or some large animal shoved the dish off course and we lost all internet. ViaSat dish re-aiming is common in my area as snow, ice, animals, tree branches all tend to perturb the dish. Even a centimeter to the left and there is no signal.

As much as I liked ViaSat, when I saw the Starlink Beta open up, I submitted my Email. Long story short, about 11 months later, I had the kit packed in my car and a few free hours to drive up north to try it out!

At first, I simply dropped the little tripod on the ground an pulled up the “obstruction” app on the phone to see what I needed to do. It turns out, at least in Arizona, the Starlink dish wants to look mostly north. So the dish is looking the opposite direction of ViaSat.

The dish is very impressive. It has all the electronics and motors built in, you just plunk it anywhere and it figures out how to be level and where to point. It’s not even a dish, it’s totally flat. And it is stark white, so much so that the glare makes it hard to look at or photograph!

With the obstructions however, things were not great.

With only a few hours to spare, I rigged the tripod up on the cabin roof (about 28ft up) by anchoring a rope in two spots along the roofline, and tying it to the tripod. It was pretty sketchy and I wasn’t able to run the obstruction app on that ladder while I was up there.

Believe it or not, the trees you see there don’t seem to obstruct. They are to the South, and the dish tends to point north. I think the top of the sycamore tree may still be in the way. But even so, the connectivity was much improved so that I could finish this comparison test. First, let’s show some hero numbers! Nearly 350Mbps!!!!

As you can see, while there are still some hiccups, once I got the dish stable (it slid around a bit) it was pretty reliable. Going back to our ping comparison you can see how much faster Starlink is to the comparable ViaSat service.

# ping -i 0.5 -c 100

--- ping statistics ---
100 packets transmitted, 100 packets received, 0.0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 65.084/90.620/230.516/35.768 ms

This ping result shows that ViaSat is nearly 8 times higher latency than Starlink. I was able to run “remote desktop” and SSH connections without any perceptible lag. This was very cool! That, combined with the potential for great file transfer rates greatly increases the usability of internet in such a remote location. I’m pretty excited to use it for more than a short time. I’ll get my chance in just a couple weeks! I’ve ordered the official Starlink pole mount adapter, and a pole-mount to attach to the roof eave, which will extend the dish about 4 feet above the roof line and hopefully hold it a lot more steady than a piece of rope.

Hopefully this comparison test gives you a better perspective on Starlink than some awful reviews out there that don’t seem to understand what it’s for. When you compare it to the absolute best internet option in a rural setting, it’s nearly an order of magnitude better.