Join me on the adventure of testing available internet services like Starlink and Skymesh (Sky Muster) in an Australian rural location, all while trying to work remotely at a global technology company. Being a nerd working in a forest with no access to a wired internet connection could be a frustrating - and hopefully fun - ride. Let the ramblings begin!
If you know more about this kind of topic and have some tips - leave them below.
Satellite is an imperfect tool.
This point is important to make first as my experience is my own. I'll no doubts have complaints and issues of my own making. Your location, weather and general obstructions will give you totally different results.
In case you're wondering, I'm well equipped with a stockpile of phones, routers, network hubs, repeaters, cables and test devices. Have faith I've done decent testing to rule out common hardware issues unrelated to the internet service itself.
As of June 2022, I'm still running both but the SkyMuster Plus plan has been downgraded to a much smaller plan since it's really only the backup now. This gives a bit of redundancy but it's still interesting to compare them from a data level. I am closing my eyes and pretending not to notice how much money I'm burning having both.
Skymesh (on the Sky Muster™ Plus plan)
Skymesh does more than just satellite but for this article I'm only talking about the Sky Muster satellite plan. This is the default service for my area and really has been an essential one that I'm grateful for. I could not have made the move here if there wasn't at least some baseline access. I get very poor cell service in my area so this really is a lifeline to the connected world. Those two Sky Muster satellites up there keep me connected, let me write odd blog posts like this, provide entertainment, and keep me employed (phew!).
I do have mixed feelings - and bias - on my experiences so far and there's key call outs that would be useful for those specifically in tech or for others that have a heavy internet reliance.
I'll get more verbose over time but for now some scrappy bullet points:
- Skymesh/Sky Muster is fairly reliable with decent speed. It's not lightning fast but has good enough download speeds. i know fast will mean different things depending on how you use the service but i still get excited going to hotels for work travel knowing I'll get better internet. I've also been spoilt with 200Mbps speeds so it's hard to go back to slower.
I see Sky Muster being perfect for those wanting average browsing on things like online shopping, emails, facebook, chats, etc. Streaming is ok but you would want to keep the quality settings down to save bandwidth and to have a start/stop buffering experience. Overall, it's great for non critical tasks. I'd caution against using it for critical tasks, sharing it among a large number of active devices, in settings where more than one video stream is expected, or if more than one person needs to rely on it for internet based income.
^ take a guess which one is Starlink and which is Sky Muster.
- The dish hardware is solid, and heavy. Hail, heavy winds, or a pack of psycho possums is not going to damage the equipment. Given the chunkiness factor I imagine it handles higher temps really well and I've not seen it fail under extreme Australian heat. In comparison, Starlink dishes are way prettier but I fear for their long term strength and resilience. I do wish I could easily debug the satellite as much of the insights into the hardware are guesses.
- The support is ok but lacks clear access to technical or escalated teams. I have experience with network infrastructure, the NBN, streaming video technology and cloud systems. I'm in no way a pro, but I know enough. When it comes to satellites i have beginner insights at best so I will have questions. In my interactions if felt like complex conversations are not ones they are well set up to handle. Perhaps the greater bulk of their rural customer base doesn't hit them up with as annoying tech questions like I do.
Direct questions don't feel noticed, or understood. It is frustrating to have to deal with rounds of generic replies until you get someone that actually reads the specific question you asked. Sometimes replies don't come at all, or the issue is marked as resolved with specific questions being missed entirely. Skymesh could do way better here. I would consider paying more for better support - especially since connectivity directly impacts employment.
I suspect that even though i've been frustrated with Skymesh that they will win the support category over Starlink. Haven't needed to call in for Starlink assistance yet so read into that as you will. From time to time I get to see the below error in the Starlink app. You get zero details, but I also haven't felt a problem so that's just odd.
- There's no good data reports or APIs with insights. I want insights into downtime, itemised usage, connectivity quality, etc. With this I could self solve a bunch of issues, or at least do more leg work to make life easier for the support team.
Since there is a strict usage quota it would be nice to get a sense of where data is being used. I want to be able to lock things down should there be a run away device, but also have the proof that I'm being metered correctly. It's expensive and limited, so it shouldn't be weird to expect a better breakdown. I also want to review the quality of the service and have insights into connection issues, latency, throughput, etc. I can monitor parts of this locally (and I do) but I want to match that against their reported usage. Data from the provider can give clues with identifying other hardware issues (like the dish) that a router alone can't report on. I'll post some screenshots of what reports exist if anyone is curious.
Starlink isn't much better (or for some data, worse) but you do get a clearer view into connectivity. It helps me understand potential issues so this is a small win.
- Upload speeds are lacking. Lacking being kind of awful but is somewhat expected for common satellite connections. Even if downloads are good the uploads are what hurts me for productivity.
This seriously impacts your ability to do quality video meets, push code around, upload video files or major design assets, collaborate, or even have good two way voip calls. You can forgive a lot of this when it's personal use, but when it's for work standards are higher. Being a tech guy with shit internet is a comical talking point so I feel that pain deeply.
I am seeing Starlink being at least 4 times faster for uploads (eg, just ran another test whilst typing and Skymesh was 1.2Mbps up - Starlink was 25Mbps). Starlink wins this one consistently.
- VOIP/Wifi call quality is poor most of the time. I tend to run up to a high point on the hill to make phone calls via cell service than try to do it via Sky Muster. Best to not assign all fault to the ISP here since this could also be on the cell provider too that handles that wifi call. That upload speed limitation won't help though.
I need to do some testing with Starlink in some back to back wifi calls to see if there's a clear winner. Initial usage suggests it's better but this is a gut feel for now based on a small sample size.
- Outages are slow to be reported/confirmed. I know why teams would want to confirm an outage before listing it on the status page but often you see a post in facebook hours before the official status page is updated. There's got to be a better way to handle this than making me search a FB page for a post. I want to know if I need to jump in the car and drive to a cell service zone, or if it looks like a minor outage and I should just grab a drink and wait...
Don't see Starlink as being better here either. In fact most ISPs generally have slow error reporting. Starlink probably loses on this one.
- Latency is huge. You're not going to be playing Starcraft or online games anytime soon. Average latency range on Skymesh sits in the 600ms to 1500ms range (and can be seen into the 5k+ ranges). 600 should be what you consider best case but what I've seen is fare worse. Ping times bring a tear to your eye.
Compare that to Starlink which are in the ranges of 30-50ms (with highest hitting 300+). I'll get one of my pi devices to start collating data non stop so i can post trend data here.
Skymuster Plus does include things like Steam in the unmetered content so if you do enjoy some gaming just stick with single player and offline one. You will still be able to download the games without it burning quota.
- Timeouts with asset delivery are common so depending on what software and service you use you may find things just fail. General users won't notice this at all so this is a niche issue. Some hosted software problems I have immediately go away if swapping the connection to Starlink. Even if Starlink is slower at that point in time. This both surprises and confuses me greatly as it can't just be latency at play. It makes me curious about what is happening behind the scenes in their upstream/downstream controllers. Or maybe there's some edge cache servers trying to be helpful, but actually making things worse. Or perhaps the request is being flagged and throttled into a tar pit. Ground based systems adding a bottleneck? It will annoy me not knowing so will explore this more over time.
Sky Muster fails hard here. Starlink is a clear winner as I can actually get my work done effectively.
- Download quota is small. No doubt the plans offer more than enough data quotas for general users. For me, it would not be unusual to need to move many gigs hourly. And since VPN data via Skymesh plans are considered metered content that makes some parts of my work rather quota expensive. Anyone in network infrastructure, security, web dev, etc will need to be really mindful of this as you could burn your entire months data in one day thanks to a VPN. Would be nice to see this removed (and yeah, I know this will add abuse problems like torrents). It's rare that I would get to the end of my billing month with lots of data spare.
More recently the NBN has made some changes to Sky Muster Plus (starting July 1 2022) that will see video streaming only metered from 4pm to Midnight. It used to be 24/7 so that's a great improvement. No doubt feeling some pressure competitors in the space have added.
Starlink still wins this one (for now) as there's no cap/quota. And with the speed I can move a lot of data around very quickly.
- You may need to set up scheduled data transfers in the small off-peak usage windows. Skymesh breaks your plan into two parts (eg, for a 200GB per month plan you really only get 100GB peak, and 100GB off peak). The off peak hours are rather useless for most people so I have had to create some truly silly automations to do bulk data transfers during the 1am to 7am off peak window whilst I sleep. Not everyone will be like me so have to assume most have extreme wastage of their off-peak quota each month.
Given the speeds of Starlink and lack of quota I'll start to rethink if this automation is really needed anymore. It will remain as the known process for now but I won't mind having more things powered down to save energy at night.
[update: June 2022] I have pulled all automations from my NBN SkyMuster Plus plan and are pushing bulk transfers normally via Starlink instead. Much easier.
Keep in mind I've still got the Starlink dish in a random spot outside and it's not been moved to an optimal roof location yet. I'll get round to mounting it one day but until then it remains a ground based device with plenty of obstructions around it.
[update: Mar 2022] I've moved it to a flat-ish section on the roof but it's still not mounted. Laziness wins, but also with good luck as there's zero obstructions.
There's some clear positive and negative side effects of Starlink. I will bullet point those too:
- Overall the video meeting reliability is better because the upload speed is better. My colleagues got to see my weird head in HD (vs shitty low res) for the first time. Working remotely puts a much higher emphasis on human connection and simply being seen better and in greater clarity does help. Even if there's buffer bloat it's fast enough for me to not notice.
- Interestingly, the connection isn't as reliable. With it's new position on the roof it's much better than it was, but still not perfect. More of this to come and it could be the current choice of location, or maybe it's just a little erratic. I will update this over time. Very interested to learn if this speed trade off has a reliability hit. Right now the drop offs are an acceptable drawback for the speed as i am more efficient and productive with Starlink. The less time waiting = more time doing something other than work.
- So talking speed it's at least as good as Skymesh. Even when Starlink is slower than the NBN (it does happen) the uploads remain faster than Skymesh. I've never seen uploads being faster on the NBN. For me it's the uploads that matter more for getting shit done so this is a win.
- It is better to code with. Unless you've felt the latency and delays in pushing code around you won't feel this, but it changes my world. Hosted software feels snappier. There's less timeouts or failed transfers. Sorry to NBN SkyMuster here but their service is close to unusable for some aspects of my work.
- Currently no metering of data. I expect this will change but since it's not metered there's aspects of reporting I don't need to care about. It's no longer a finite resource so I don't need to micro manage it. Not having to limit or implement weird data movement schedules does simplify my life. Some streaming services don't give you very good control over quality settings so ones I avoided using (since it would burn my entire quota quickly) can now be used again. VPN usage also doesn't hurt.
- This is hopefully obvious but use 5Ghz when you can. There's a setting in the app that will let have a dedicated 5Ghz network.
Mobile internet and 5G
Well this is an easy one as I have terrible reception. No way I'll see 5G internet here anytime soon unless I plan to start chopping line of sights into the forest. I could put in a really big aerial but the cost is incredibly high and would only be an absolute last resort.
I have recent put in a Cel Fi Go 4 box and semi decent aerial onto the roof. Connection is rare and very erratic but when it's connected speeds are ok! And this is also via Vodafone (vs Telstra). I see 17.2 up, 9.94 down. Also now on the list to find a better place for the hardware and booster box. Until the connection is more reliable this isn't a viable option.
Neighbours have better success with 5G so if you can get it your area, try it. You could get some pretty fast speeds for a lower cost than Starlink or Skymesh. You may even avoid some of the weather issues.
Weather sucks and whilst I still doubt that the Starlink dish will really survive as long as the NBN tanky disk, the connection winner is clear. It's Starlink every time. In storms and bad weather the NBN is the first to drop out. This isn't a shock given the satellite positioning. It takes a decent storm to lose connection with Starlink.
Expect me to try and work out some ways to map weather data and map that to my connection data.
- Medium rain storm, low wind. 19 Feb 4:20pm
- Starlink: 128.90/29.5
- Skymesh 27.4/4.95
Working in tech and things I've had to figure out...
Tips to come...