It became news again recently, when Starlink was cited as the reason Ukraine could not launch an attack on Russian forces in Sevastopol, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014.
Starlink owner Elon Musk says he denied the “emergency request from government authorities” to extend the reach of Starlink’s internet coverage because it would implicate parent company SpaceX in an escalation of the war.
In now-deleted Tweets posted on September 7, Musk said “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation... the obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor.”
Starlink would have been used to control drones remotely, because it is a satellite internet service.
So what is Starlink, really, and can folks in the UK access it?
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a satellite internet project, and a subsidiary of aerospace company SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk.
It offers an alternative to the optical fibre and 5G internet many of us have in our homes. Starlink beams internet data from satellites in Earth’s orbit, which is then received by an antenna-like receiver.
One strength of Starlink is it does not rely on ground-based infrastructure near where you live. This is why it was such a useful tool in Ukraine following its invasion by Russia in 2022, and why it can provide signal in extremely remote locations.
The Starlink hardware package includes a receiver, which is connected to the Starlink router using a cable. You can buy this kit from places as well-known as B&Q, for £450.
Is Starlink available in the UK?
At the time of writing, the Starlink website suggests there’s a two- to three-week wait for delivery. However, you can also order the service without hardware and buy the kit from places like John Lewis or B&Q.
How much does Starlink cost?
There are two components to consider when considering a Starlink subscription: the hardware and the service cost.
The hardware starts at £449 for the basic kit, increasing to a more imposing £1,998-£2,399 for the High-Performance Kit, depending on where you shop. This includes a much larger satellite receiver, for better performance in areas of partially obstructed signal.
Alternatively, you can rent the standard hardware for £15 a month.
There are two tiers of data subscription, paid on top. Standard costs £75 a month, Priority is £180 a month.
With Priority, users get faster download and upload speeds for their first 1TB of bandwidth each month. After that, speeds will drop to the same as those of the Standard plan.
Unlike the average broadband plan, Starlink does not use long contracts. You are free to cancel the service whenever you like.
How fast is Starlink internet?
“Speeds in the UK currently range from 100-230 Mbps,” according to the Starlink website. This is comparable with download rates available in London through Virgin Media’s optical fibre, although Virgin now offers gigabit internet in the capital.
The existence of Starlink’s Priority plan is a clear sign network congestion is a significant factor here, though. UK YouTuber Charlie DIYte tested the system in the UK in June 2023, and achieved download speeds of around 191Mbps. Not bad.
How does Starlink work?
Starlink uses a web of satellites in Earth orbit, around 550km from its surface. This is a low orbit, which helps to keep latency down.
At the time of writing, there are around 4400 Starlink satellites in operation.
A study published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal suggests Starlink’s satellites produce “unintended electromagnetic radiation,” which could limit Space researchers’ ability to observe far-away objects using radio telescopes. The satellites generate noise that partially obscures other signals at intervals, as they pass in orbit.
The European Space Agency estimates there are more than 29,000 objects in Earth’s orbit that are larger than 10cm, 670,000 larger than 1cm. As well as surrounding the planet in Space junk, these objects can damage spacecraft.
“Any of these objects can cause harm to an operational spacecraft. For example, a collision with a 10-cm object would entail a catastrophic fragmentation of a typical satellite, a 1-cm object would most likely disable a spacecraft and penetrate the ISS shields, and a 1-mm object could destroy sub-systems on board a spacecraft,” says the ESA.
US regulators blocked SpaceX plans to launch a further 30,000 satellites, but the FCC did grant approval for the company to launch up to 7,500 second-generation Starlink satellites in December 2022.