Starlink at sea: all change for cruisers
Starlink has shaken up its offering for cruising sailors with a crack down on service term violations and new data plans
Starlink, Elon Musk’s low orbit satellite network which delivers low cost high speed internet via a portable dish, has shaken up its offering for cruising sailors and other broadband users at sea.
Starlink has been hailed as a game-changer by many adopters. Since its launch just two and a half years ago, its coverage has expanded rapidly and many cruisers crossing the Atlantic last season reported full service mid-ocean. Even cruisers in remote Pacific regions have been reporting excellent connectivity while at sea.
In March this year, four American sailors were rescued after their yacht Raindancer sank mid-Pacific in what may well be the first Starlink-enabled rescue. While the conventional rescue communication protocols worked effectively, their rescue was accelerated by the fact that several other yachts on the route were made aware of their plight from browsing Facebook while online, and a Whatsapp group was set up to help coordinate their rescue among boats with fast connectivity (see June issue of Yachting World for the full story).
However, most recreational sailors have been using Starlink Roam, previously known as Starlink RV (‘recreational vehicle’) – a plan designed for those in touring vehicles, off grid cabins etc, who needed connectivity whilst stationary – and, critically, on land. The original dedicated Maritime version was designed for commerical use, with subscription initially costing around £5,000 per month.
Numerous Facebook groups sprang up, populated with instructions on how to ‘hack’ the standard Starlink dish to improve its connectivity on a moving yacht, though Starlink contracts always made clear that using a modified stardard dish and Roam connection whilst sailing was in breach of its warranty and terms of service.
However, over the past couple of week cruisers have been receiving emails from Starlink notifying them that the company is cracking down on this usage:
“Your Starlink has been used in areas that violate the terms and conditions of your service plan: your plan does not include service on the ocean. Starting as early as May 9th, 2023 you will be unable to connect to the internet on the ocean except to access your Starlink account where you can make updates to your account.”
The message then went on to recommend users change their service plan to one of their new, more expensive, ‘Mobile Priority’ plans (though considerably less than the previous Maritime plan).
It’s important to note that this crack down is not a change to Starlink’s usage permissions, the company is only enforcing its existing terms and conditions.
The notifications prompted a flurry of discusssion on the many Starlink user groups, with some joking that it ‘felt like Y2K all over again’, and concerns that connectivity would be cut off instantly at 0000hrs on May 9 (that wasn’t the case, although some customers have received repeated emails and connectivity warnings).
Starlink at sea
Starlink maps service areas into 15 mile cells, shown on its service maps as blue and black hexagons, determining whether that area is ‘land’ or ‘ocean’, marked in ‘blue’ and ‘black’ respectively. If the satellite technology detects that the dish is being used in a black hexagon it will consider you to be on the ocean. There are, unsurprisingly, a few anomalies – islands and promontories etc which have not been recognised as land etc.
Starlink advised Roam users instead move to one of their Mobile Priority plans. However, in a pattern that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed Musk’s rapid-fire changes at Twitter, those policy options went through a series of updates and different pricing plans over the past week.
One possible solution for cruising users may be to subscribe to a Priority data plan which can be ‘toggled’ on and off as they move between land and ocean areas – although some users report that even after toggling ‘off’ they were still using data from the more expensive Priority plan.
Whilst many RV/Roam users have successfully used Starlink’s standard dish whilst in motion, Starlink now offers a dedicated ‘in motion’ option using a higher performance dish. The website currently shows Starlink Martime and Starlink Mobility packages from £247 per month with a hardware cost of £2410, though there are some hefty discounts currently being promoted to existing standard dish owners on new hardware costs.
What’s not yet clear is whether the geo-locating technology considers being on anchor or in a marina as stationary or in motion. One email shared on a user group, apparently from Starlink customer service, says:
“You do not need the high performance dish to use in-motion service. However, using the regular dish in-motion voids the warranty, as it wasn’t deigned or built for in motion use. In motion means moving…. A boat at anchor is considered in motion. The bobbing motion will trigger the motion sensors in the dish.
“The non high perforamnce antennas may be used in motion now, and in the forseeable future. We do not anticipate removing this capability. A reminder however that they weill be out of warranty if used in motion.”
However, confusing, Starlink’s own FAQ page, under “Can I use Starlink in motion?”, advises:
“Flat High Performance Starlink is only available to be purchased in certain regions. If your account country is outside these regions, you can use your current Starlink hardware paired with the Mobile Priority data to access prioritized service globally on land and in the ocean while stationary.” [our underline]
User groups advise contacting Starlink direct if, for example, you want to use non-priority data while in port and only occasional in-motion priority data for an ocean passage. Options and restrictions also depend on which region cruisers purchased their dish in, and which address their data plan is registered to.
The other consensus among user groups seems to be that, unless you need seamless high speed connectivity because you are running a business whilst cruising or similar, not to rush to replace hardware or sign up for new data plans as they are rapidly evolving.