Starlink RV review: Changing the game for digital nomads
- Super fast setup
- Respectable speed
- Few interruptions
- Occasionally lagging
- Lumpy barrels
- No carrying case
I started seeing them around the marina a few months ago: rectangular dishes staring skyward in a simple prayer. You hear the whispers around the dock: “Did you get it yet?” You can almost feel the tension in the air.
Starlink has arrived and the Starlink RV has caught the attention of the boating and adventure crowd. That’s because it solves a number of problems unique to people who live or recreate on boats or other vehicles for long weekends or months at a time.
Marinas and campgrounds have notoriously poor Wi-Fi, and cell coverage is often spotty due to a lack of towers and hindering multi-story housing. Fewer marinas have wired broadband connections than in the past, and boats (like RVs) are designed to move. Most internet plans are not.
A point of clarity here: It’s a dedicated marine version of Elon Musk’s satellite internet venture, but with a $10,000 equipment fee and a $5,000 per month service plan, the target market is high-end yachts and charter boats, and we’re not the fancy ones.
The expensive maritime version covers users far offshore in a global ring road that stretches north from the equator, and if you’re an oligarch who managed to hang onto your megayacht, that’s good news.
Also: I tested the Insta360 Go 2 action camera on my WWII sailboat. It blew me away
For the rest of us, Starlink RV has generous coverage of the coastline and inland parts of the US, Canada and Mexico for an affordable $599 equipment fee and a $135 per month pay-as-you-go service plan that lets you travel anywhere in the service area.
In Marina del Rey, where our World War II sailboat Lindy is docked, internet service has traditionally been cobbled together by boaters. LTE coverage is hit-or-miss due to the geography of the marina and surrounding buildings. LTE boosters help some, but I’ve found them to be inconsistent.
Our area is densely populated and the network seems constantly strained. Wi-Fi in our facility is available, but it is slow and erratic, and there is no hard line at the dock. The only viable option is a mom-and-pop ISP that provides line-of-sight service via a tower on one of the tallest buildings in the area. For $130 per month we get download speeds that are often in the 6-10Mbps range and under 1Mbps uploads.
Also: This is how you test your internet speed in a quick and easy way
Does it make you cringe? It makes me cringe…especially every time I pay the monthly bill. Starlink RV offers a faster option at a similar price, so I purchased one of these dishes and tested the service myself.
|Expected download||50-200 Mbps (5-100 Mbps in congested areas during peak use)|
|Expected upload||10-20 Mbps (1-10 Mbps in busy areas)|
|Waiting time||20-40 ms|
|In the box||Starlink dish and base, router, antenna cable, power supply|
|Plan||Pay as you go|
How it works
SpaceX has launched and continues to add to a constellation of thousands of low Earth orbit satellites. Customers use ground transmitters to send and receive signals, and these are sent to a Starlink Wi-Fi router.
Also: Everything to know about Elon Musk’s satellite internet service
Starlink released the RV version of its satellite internet service in May. Unlike residential Starlink orders, which have been hampered by waiting times, Starlink RV has been available for immediate purchase since launch. As of this writing, you can buy it now and it will appear in a week or so.
What is rub? Starlink RV does not require a service address as housing services do, but the service is given lower priority compared to private customers, which means that motorhome users get the lowest priority in case of high usage. There is also a portability fee of $25 per month, bringing the total monthly contract to $135. The equipment fee is $599 and shipping was about $50 to get the unit to Marina del Rey, California.
There are no long-term service contracts and the equipment fee is refunded within one month if you are not satisfied. Currently, customers receive a second-generation “Dishy” motorized dish. The more expensive maritime service now ships with a newer generation flat dish, which sits horizontally and remains stationary (no engines).
The coverage map below has been updated at the time of writing (check here for updates). If you live and plan to travel in the US, Canada or Mexico, coverage is excellent. Coverage in South America is sparse, although service is available in Chile and southern Brazil, as well as Medellín, Colombia. Australia is also well covered, as well as much of Western Europe.
From a traveler’s perspective (after all, this is the RV version), that’s a lot of territory. Luckily for me, since I’m on a boat, the coast of Southern California is well covered, including some of the offshore channel islands like Santa Cruz and Catalina. That makes it a game-changer for boaters in my region, as many of these zones have no cell phone coverage.
You experience one of the most impressive things about Starlink RV right out of the box: It’s easy to set up. I mean dead simple.
What you get is an X-shaped metal stand, the rectangular dish connected to a generous pre-installed cable, a Wi-Fi router, a power cord and a card with simple illustrations of what to do for setup. Everything comes packed tightly together in the box with the help of some molded plastic packaging material. That’s it: No big booklet, no piles of mounting hardware and bags of screws, and no random wires and adapters.
To set up the hardware, clamp the dish into the included base and place it somewhere with clear skies. The cable has a nice integrated gasket on the router end and plugs in securely. You connect to the router and the hardware setup is complete. Your best bet is to find a permanent location for the router and a repeatable strategy for setting up the dish. A permanent dish rack would be a nice upgrade, although I haven’t gotten there yet.
One thing to note for mobile users: The dish requires a 100-240V AC outlet, which means RVers will need to use an inverter or generator if running from a battery bank. See the speed and reliability section below for power consumption data.
You control Starlink RV via an app. Pro tip: Get everything set up while you have LTE service. The first step is to connect to the Starlink Wi-Fi network. The app takes you through setup and configuration, including mapping the sky with your smartphone and letting you know if there are obstacles. It took me about 10 minutes the first time to set up, and then about 5 minutes to get the dish up if you have all the hardware in place.
One pain point is that there is no carrying case. We can’t store that bulky cardboard box on board, and I imagine RVers and vanlifers are in the same…uh, boat. Since this is designed with mobility in mind, it would be nice to have a dedicated carrying case that provides a minimum of protection. For now, a duffel will do, but I plan to cobble together something more useful in the long run.
Using Starlink is basically like using any high speed internet connection. The app is useful, with good basic controls and functionality. Upon setup, Starlink receives a signal and the dish moves from its stowed position to point in an appropriate direction. The app tells you whether your Starlink is online via the website. From there, you can check your dish’s visibility and router range (useful for mapping your house and finding dead zones), and get speed and latency stats. A network tab tells you which devices are connected.
Starlink has a snow melt function, which heats the barrel to get rid of snow build-up. It’s not a problem where we live, but it’s a nice automatic feature you can toggle in the app. If you want to store your device, press a button on the settings page and the tray will move to the storage position. An advanced tab allows you to troubleshoot or restart your Wi-Fi or Starlink dish.
Speed and reliability
In general, I have found the Starlink to be stable and fast enough for general office use. Is it perfect? No, but it’s good enough that we ditched our existing internet service and plan to use it full time, either docked or on the go.
In the last 12 hours from the moment I write this, my Starlink app reports three outages of 5 seconds or more. These are pretty significant gaps, but to be honest I haven’t noticed more than a second or two blip during high usage cases like video conferencing, and they’re very sporadic. I’m also in Los Angeles, a zone of high coverage but (I can only assume) very high demand. Being de-prioritised probably works against me.
Also: Starlink now comes to your moving vehicle
Latency is higher than I would have expected, and for my use it has been higher than Starlink’s stated 20ms latency average, averaging closer to 50ms. The lowest latency I’ve achieved in the last 12 hours was 21ms, while the highest was 130ms. For my use, it’s not a big deal, but consider your own needs: especially games and live streamed content may require better latency performance.
How is the speed? Starlink is crushing my old ISP. Right now, which is mid-morning on a weekday, I’m getting 144 Mbps down and 2.4 Mbps up. That upload speed is still a little anemic, but for my use it’s enough. I’ve more consistently seen speeds in the 80Mbps-to-100Mbps download and 1Mbps-to-2Mbps upload range.
Power consumption is also something to keep in mind if you take the Starlink RV on the go. According to the company, the standard Starlink hardware uses 50 to 75 watts on average. This includes the antenna, router, power supply and cables. When there is no network activity, the standard Starlink uses approximately 20 watts to remain connected to the satellite network. It is not insignificant for off-grid use, so it is important to determine if and when your system can absorb this usage load.
The bottom line
Look, it’s damn good. It’s not perfect, there are some things you can pick and choose (power consumption, lack of protective cover, downgraded service), but at the end of the day this is a breath of fresh air for me and my family, essentially removing one of the big the limitations for comfortable work and stay on board our boat. I have heard the same from others in the area.
One word of warning: Many good things (like unlimited LTE data plans) come to an abrupt end. Elon Musk has made no secret of the fact that Starlink is an experimental technology and service. The lack of long-term contracts, while convenient for users, is also a sign that Starlink can evolve its equipment, service plans or operating model. Or it may cease to exist altogether. The best bet against that is the astronomical (literally) investment SpaceX has made in the satellite constellation, but you never know.
For now, though, I’m a very happy customer.
Alternatives to consider
If you live within LTE coverage areas, Verizon’s Jetpack is a great mobile hotspot to consider for your next adventure.
Connects up to 20 devices and unlocked to accept all SIM cards.
If you’re looking for low-speed satellite connectivity to let you download weather or make voice calls while sailing or driving, the IridiumGo has long been the go-to device for boaters and vans.