Saturday, October 16, 2021

Starlink internet in Canada: A remote worker’s experience so far

I live full-time two hours north of Toronto in the Haliburton area. My house is on a lake and is 20 km from the nearest town. I have an address with a postal code, but you can’t find me on a Google Map. 

I’ve had my Starlink internet for roughly one week, and here’s what I’ve learned.

‘Better than nothing’ beta could be called ‘better than everything’ 

I am in line with a cell tower, so I get pretty good cellular service. When we bought the house after years in our earlier place with sporadic cell coverage at best, we made sure that wasn’t the case this time around. When the kids were young, they hated coming here mainly because of the terrible internet speeds. 

Over the years, I have tried cellular, satellite and most recently, a new service from Bell, a cellular component with a separate antenna outside.  

Both my wife and I are intense internet users. We haven’t watched traditional TV in ages. We watch Netflix; My wife uses Facebook and other sites to keep in touch with her friends and interests; I watch YouTube and stream my news, videos and music. Somehow, we got by, but it was always a trade-off. We loved living in the country, but we hated the internet.

For years, I would drive to Toronto three days a week. I kept a small apartment in the city to do the work I couldn’t do a couple of hours North. We’re a multimedia firm that does video, podcasts and routinely transfers large files. VOIP and videoconferencing were technically possible but unworkable or prohibitively expensive in cottage country.  

When the pandemic hit, video conferences were painful. We had to send a videographer to record at my house for a certain project, and we drove files back and forth.  

Related:

Canada’s network usage is exploding, and rural communities are getting left behind [Full story]

 

I have tried every alternative available to us in Haliburton. We are too far from the switch for DSL, which my other friends have. Xplornet Satellite was a bust. With frequent outages and huge latency (the time it takes for the signal to go to the satellite and back), it was only okay to watch Netflix in good weather. Bad weather meant even watching low-resolution video was painful. Zoom and other similar services were out of the question. Even in good weather, if you use the bandwidth intensely for a short period, you are slowed to a crawl.   

Cellular was good but expensive. When you go over your limit, the costs were extraordinary. We had a pool of about 20 GB – the maximum we could get, and we paid a real premium for that.  The download speeds are at the low end of the acceptable average of about 20 Mbps (megabits per second). This is good for average video or streaming. Video conferencing works, but it has frequent breaks in service and it consumes a lot of bandwidth. 

The upload speed averages at 8 or 9 Mbps which makes it possible to transfer large files slowly.   But even with careful planning, we could use our 20 GB by the end of the first week and maybe sooner.  We were finally able to get an unlimited data plan, but you slow to a crawl when you use more than the data limit.

And then summer arrives

The challenges we’ve talked about so far are tied to the winter. In the summer, the cottagers and tourists arrived. When they do, the cell towers are overloaded. 

You can be back to what is essentially really expensive dial-up speeds. With the pandemic, many people stayed up here longer, so the summer crawl extended well into the fall.

Bell announced a high-speed service based on cellular 4G. You have to have a clear line to the cell tower. Fortunately, I do. We thought our prayers might be answered. They installed a dish on a phone pole outside the house. Download speeds were marginally better than Telus cellular at about 30 Mbps versus 20 Mbps for Telus. The upload was much worse than cellular. The maximum I got — under the best conditions — was about 4 Mbps. Uploading a file of any size is slow and expensive.

The good news is that the new service came with a 350 GB data limit for a premium price, of course. So for almost twice what I paid in the city, I got a fraction of the speed, but at least it was workable. At least, that’s what the specs say. 

The reality was somewhat different, at least for me. Once again, the service was slow in the summer. It also seemed not to like multiple users for some reason. When one of us starts watching a video, the other gets interrupted or slowed to a crawl. I had to announce any video calls I was making or shift to the Telus cellular.

In the end, we kept both services and tried to cope.

A new hope

I’ve been following Starlink for ages, waiting for it to one day come to Canada. Our reporter Tom Li’s recent piece about Starlink coming to Canada quickly turned heads.

When Starlink’s site took a “waiting list” for their new “better than nothing beta,” I jumped at it and put my name in. I didn’t hear back right away.

I recently jumped on it and applied again. On a Friday, my dish arrived, and I’ve been running it for exactly a week. Here’s what it’s been like and what I’ve learned so far.

Don’t wait for them to contact you

I signed up as soon as I heard they might come to Canada.  They promise to let you know as soon as your region becomes available.  At least in my case, this was not true. Desperate as I am, I went in and signed up again — waiting list be damned. I had nothing to lose. It took me several tries over a 24-hour period. To my surprise, I got accepted. 

Part of my problem was in figuring out my address. I have a street address, at least theoretically, but I’m apparently not on their map. I had to calculate the longitude and latitude of my house. I know what the terms mean, but the last time I found anything by using longitude and latitude was in high school geography.

To make things more tense, Starlink has stern warnings about “not changing your address.” After all I’d gone through to get accepted, I wasn’t going to mess this up. Google Maps was easier than the Starlink tool or simply more familiar, but to be sure, I checked with both. Apparently, I got it right.

Then I had to download their software and check to see if I had an unobstructed view of the satellites. We have a lot of trees and other potential obstructions, so I was a little worried.

When Starlink’s site took a “waiting list” for their new “better than nothing beta” I jumped at it and put my name in. I didn’t hear back right away. I recently jumped on it and applied again. On a Friday, my dish arrived and I’ve been running it for exactly a week. Image Source: YouTube.

Checking out your ‘view of the sky’ is harder than it seems

I downloaded Starlink’s tool for finding obstructions. You will also need this later to install the dish. The tool shows you which direction the dish has to face. That part is painless – you just follow a large arrow on your phone till you come to the right place.

Once you have it in the general area and facing the right way (North), you are supposed to check for obstructions. This is where the tool is strange and maybe, as it turns out later, inaccurate.

The “view of the sky” you are supposed to see with your phone is not obvious. It keeps telling you to raise and lower your phone. Even when I could see the sky clearly, the tool shows a cryptic view and kept telling me to raise or lower my phone. Finally, I gave up. I was pointing the right way, and there was a big sky above me. I decided to chance it. Starlink says you can return the dish if it doesn’t work.  

I went to the site, tried a couple of times to get on, put down my 800 bucks and waited.

They are conservative on delivery times

Maybe I just got in early because I posted my request as soon as possible after Tom Li’s article on IT World Canada went viral. Even then, the site warned that “due to the volume of requests,” it would take four to six weeks to deliver. Imagine my surprise when almost a week later, I came home and found the box on my porch.

The installation is crazy simple

Once you get the location right, assembly and installation is foolproof. As a fool, I say this with certainty. I can screw up any installation, but not this one. The dish comes with the absolute minimum of assembly. You put the post from the dish in the base, and that’s it. Even the cords are plugged into the modem and router so you can’t even mess that up. The assembly instructions are a drawing that a child could figure out. Hooking up the internet on the router is straightforward. It’s impossible to screw up. Ikea should be forced to study with the people who put this together.

Speeds vary considerably

I have seen speeds at close to 100 Mbps. This is as fast as anything except a direct fibre connection. I’ve also seen download speeds drop to 10 Mbps or less. But the average is between 30 and 50 Mbps. This is still better than anything I’ve ever had and would even be respectable in the city, albeit at a cheaper price. 

Upload speeds are incredible. I’ve seen everything from 8 Mbps to 20 or even 30 Mbps.  The difference if you are uploading large files is significant.

Just to be sure, I measured performance with various tools. CIRA’s Internet Performance Test is featured in my video as is SpeedTest.net  CIRA’s test gives you a wealth of additional information and shows that I have better internet speeds than many people living in nearby towns with DSL and even some fibre. There is a speed test on the app that Starlink gives you and I expected it to be more “optimistic,” but it’s not. It reports the same speeds and the same variations.  

But the speeds vary considerably over the span of few minutes. I’m presuming that has to do with the satellites and their positioning or some early network issues — the bottom line is I don’t know. Satellite providers can throttle your speeds if you do a lot of file transfers. Starlink reserves the right to deal with heavy bandwidth users, but they don’t define how much that is.  I did notice my speed dropping after I moved several gigabytes of video files, but I’ve noticed the same variation without large bandwidth usage. 

But even when the speed drops, the lowest speeds I get are still, on average, better than what I was getting before.  My spouse can watch Netflix and I can satisfy my YouTube addiction while transferring files back and forth.

This all comes with an unlimited data package. For the first time ever, I dared to edit and send videos from home. For the first time, I’d moved a file larger than a gigabyte as a file transfer. 

Watch for obstructions – even if you can’t see them

My first few days were a real disappointment. After the initial blinding speeds, I found that I’d get frequent slowdowns and service drops. Skylink warns you that there will be interruptions until they have more satellites, but these were supposed to be for 10 to 15 seconds at most.

Several videos about other Starlink pilots in the northern U.S confirm this. My results were considerably worse, and the unpredictability diminished the benefit of the faster speed. I found myself more and more going back to my cellular service for work.  

Since it was a beta, I thought I’d report the results and see if anything could be done. I went to the “Support” section of the mobile app to report the issue or see if they had any information posted.

To my astonishment, I saw there was a link called “Obstructions.” And guess what? When I clicked it, the site told me that my signal was obstructed for two to three hours a day. I don’t know if that’s continuous or sporadic. It even showed on a 360-degree view where the obstruction was.  Since the dish points in one direction, I thought the 360 view was strange. There must be something blocking it.  I moved the dish 10 more feet from the house to give it a wider space behind the dish.  I have no idea why, but the obstruction is gone, but I have much stabler internet speeds.

Other problems? 

The dropouts in service are why they called it the “Better Than Nothing Beta.” As I found out in my promised delivery time, they manage expectations very, very well. They set your expectations low and then exceed them. And after I solved the obstruction issue, my dropouts diminished to about four per hour, measuring in seconds — from about four to fifteen seconds each. 

These are rarely long enough to break a video download connection. I don’t really notice them much on YouTube, either. Sadly the interruptions are most noticeable during video conferences. That four to 15 seconds happens a couple of times in every video meeting. It happens with Zoom, Teams, Google – it doesn’t matter which platform.

It’s not an issue for me since all of my other connections had the same issue. The dreaded “Your Internet Connection Is Unstable” message rears its head at least once in every video call, regardless of how I’m connected. Even my friends and coworkers from the larger cities seem to suffer from freezing and dropouts.

What about the weather? Satellites are notorious for weather issues. I finished this article on the day of the huge snowstorm in February and speeds have slowed considerably, but the internet is still workable. Is this the storm or just a blip in the beta rollout? It’s too early to tell. We’ll keep an eye on that and provide updates.

This beta is ‘Better Than ANYTHING’ – so far

For me, Starlink has delivered on its promise. The lost hours waiting for files, the driving to town or the city to transfer files – all of that seems to be history. I’ve installed the Starlink router into my home network and it seems to support all our services. 

I just got off a video call while my wife was on Facebook and we had no problems. We also have a storm moving in with significant cloud cover. The weather may reduce speeds, but with the variations in speed under normal conditions, it’s hard to tell. Performance-wise, it’s reliable.

The price for the dish and the new services is steep. But if it’s really unlimited, we could save a great deal of money. If we can drop just one of the other two services, it will almost pay for itself. When we add in savings on gasoline, wear and tear on my vehicle and other travel expenses, it would have a positive return.   

My fingers are crossed for the summertime when cellular slows to the point where I can’t work at all sometimes. If the service can adapt to the volume it’s going to get, it will make “work from home” not just possible but perhaps even enjoyable. 

That’s my first week. I’d love to hear your comments about your own experiences. I’ll also monitor the comment section for questions and answer what I can. Check out the video that I did if you want to see this all in action that is — if you have the bandwidth to download it.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jim Love
Jim Lovehttp://www.changethegame.ca
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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