Starlink vs NBN satellite

Two satellite services with two different approaches to how they’re delivering internet from on high.

It used to be the main battle that happened in terms of space was whether you loved Star Wars or adored Star Trek. On the broadband front, there’s a different kind of battle happening in space: NBN satellite vs new contender SpaceX’s Starlink. There are pros and cons for both services. Let’s take a look at how both sides fare.

What is satellite broadband?

Satellite broadband is an internet service that’s typically offered to those in remote and offshore areas of Australia. Starlink and NBN satellite, or NBN Sky Muster satellite service as it’s otherwise known, are two such services competing for your interest.

To connect eligible homes to satellite broadband, NBN installs a satellite dish on or near the home, which is used to beam data to and from the home via one of two Sky Muster satellites in space. For Starlink, it’s a similar transmission story except the dish is installed by the user, either via included ground-level tripod or roof mount (purchased separately). For both services, a clear view between dish and satellites is required to have a better shot at lower latency, faster speeds and a more reliable connection.

Below are a few examples of popular NBN satellite plans.

Starlink vs NBN satellite: Availability

NBN satellite is available to order today for people in eligible areas. To find out if you’re in an eligible area, head to the NBN website and punch in your address at the top of the homepage to see which NBN technology is used to service your home. If you are in an NBN satellite area, all you need to do is sign up for an NBN satellite plan with a provider and they’ll take care of liaising with NBN for installation and activation.

At the time of writing, Starlink was still in its beta phase, with the intention of being available to Australian addresses by the end of 2021. Signing up is handled directly on the Starlink website, instead of via an NBN satellite provider, which also involves entering your address. Though pitched as a global service, the plan is for Starlink to be primarily available to remote and low-density areas.

That said, you may still be eligible to pre-order Starlink, though you will be refunded if the service is not available in your area.

Starlink vs NBN satellite: Cost

Cost proves to be another win for NBN satellite with users not responsible for the cost of the satellite dish or NBN modem, nor the fees for their installation. At the time of writing, plan prices started as low as $34.95 per month for an Activ8me Sky Muster 150GB Standard plan (15GB peak, 135GB off-peak data) and stretched up to $199.95 a month for the SkyMesh Sky Muster Plus 300GB plan (150GB peak, 150GB off-peak data).

Starlink has only one service, which costs $139 per month. There’s a steep initial investment fee, too: $709 for the required hardware as well as $100 shipping and handling. If you want to pre-order, you’ll have to pay the $139 monthly fee to secure one of the first-come, first-serve spots. All up, you’re looking at $948 in terms of initial costs if you are approved.

Starlink vs NBN satellite: Download and upload speeds

Starlink is faster than NBN satellite because its satellites are about 65 times closer to the Earth’s surface. In practical terms, NBN satellite plans can achieve NBN 25 speeds at least once per day—25Mbps download and 5Mbps upload—with a chance these speeds may burst higher.

Starlink, on the other hand, currently has a speed range of between 50 and 150Mbps during its beta phase, which means it range from NBN 50 to above NBN 100 download speeds. Upload speeds are reported to be around 20Mbps. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, tweeted in February 2021 that download speeds will double to around 300Mbps and latency should drop to around 20ms in 2021 (more on latency below).

Starlink vs NBN satellite: Latency

High latency is one of the biggest issues with satellite internet, due to the distance between dish and satellite, which means that activities like voice calls, videoconferences and online gaming can feel less responsive or delayed. Because NBN Co’s Sky Muster satellites are 36,000km above Earth, it takes time for the signal to be sent and received between dish and satellites, which makes latency go up. As a result, NBN satellite latency is around 600ms, which equates to more than a half-second delay for online tasks, which is more noticeable with activities that are real-time sensitive.

Starlink is able to achieve much lower latency because its satellites are a lot closer to Earth at 550km. In terms of the Starlink beta, this translates to latency values between 20ms and 40ms, which isn’t as fast as the 10ms-ish latencies of fixed-line NBN in metro areas (except for MyRepublic, whose latency was at 20.1ms according to ACCC data), but means that activities like voice calls, videoconferences and online gaming should feel more responsive.

It’s worth noting that the Starlink FAQ page claims that data speeds, latency and uptime “will improve dramatically” as more satellites are launched and more grounds stations are installed.

Starlink vs NBN satellite: Data caps

The trend with satellite internet services is they take an old-school approach to broadband data, splitting a total monthly data quota into peak and off-peak times. For NBN satellite plans, this tends to equate to a smaller data cap during peak hours (7.00am to 1.00am) and a larger one outside of peak hours (1.00am to 7.00am). In our comparison engine, 300GB is the most data you can get for $199.95 per month, split evenly into 150GB peak and off-peak data.

That higher $139 monthly fee for Starlink currently equates to unlimited data. Note that “currently” is there because the Starlink FAQ notes that Starlink services have no data caps “at this time”. Hmm.

Starlink vs NBN satellite: Equipment

Signing up to NBN satellite includes free standard installation of the equipment required to get you online. The only slight disclaimer to that while the NBN modem does come with multiple Ethernet ports for using the internet with compatible wired devices, you’ll likely also want to invest in a WiFi router or Mesh WiFi system to share the internet around your home wirelessly.

That steep initial cost for Starlink nets you everything you need to get online wirelessly in your home as part of the Starlink Kit: Starlink dish, WiFi router, power supply, cables and mounting tripod for ground-level dish installation. You can also pay extra for a roof mount.

Starlink vs NBN satellite: Which to go with?

If you want satellite internet today, the only guaranteed answer is NBN satellite. Similarly, if you don’t want to worry about steep upfront costs and want a more manageable ongoing monthly fee, NBN satellite is also the right choice. That said, if you’re in an eligible area and aren’t put off by the steep initial investment and heftier monthly fee, Starlink promises much lower latencies and faster download speeds that make it well worth considering.