Starlink or Fibre Internet – which is better?
One of the questions we get asked the most at FSET is, which internet service is better – Starlink or fibre? Naturally, answering this question requires taking a few other specific considerations into mind: which service is the fastest? Which is the most reliable? And, which is the most cost-effective?
Keep reading, and we’ll breakdown all of these questions, and more. The answer to which service is better might surprise you!
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a broadband internet service provided by SpaceX, which is owned and operated by popular tech mogul Elon Musk. Unlike terrestrial-based fibre internet, Starlink signals are beamed from satellites in space. While there have been other satellite-based internet services in the past, what makes Starlink stand out is that its constellations reside in low Earth orbit (LEO), roughly 350 kilometres above the surface of the planet – a lot closer to ground level than most other satellites, which are usually around 35,000 kilometres away!
As of August 2022, there are about 3,000 total Starlink satellites in orbit around the planet Earth (compared to just 2,000 other kinds of satellites in the atmosphere above them). All it takes for a signal to be sent to a customer is for them to have a receiver dish installed at the ground level, connected to a modem with power (both of which are standard and bundled in all consumer kits). There are currently more than 400,000 Starlink subscribers in 36 different countries.
FUN FACT: As of May 2022, FSET was responsible for more than 1 per cent of all Starlink installations worldwide, with all of them being installed right here in remote communities in Northwestern Ontario!
What is fibre?
Fibre internet (short for fibre-optic) is delivered through wires containing small, flexible strands of glass. Whereas older cable connections sent electricity through copper coaxial wires, fibre signals are delivered through the glass via pulses of light – and with a speed roughly 2/3rds as quick as the actual speed of light, many refer to the service as lightspeed. Fibre cables are a terrestrial-based solution, meaning that they are typically grounded or buried beneath the surface of the Earth, which provides protection from both extreme weather events and curious wildlife.
Whereas SpaceX is dominating the market on LEO technology, there are many internet service providers (ISPs) currently vying against each other in the Canadian marketplace. Some of these company, such as Telus, Rogers and Bell, exist at the top of the pack and often provide internet signals for smaller brands to resell, such as Northwestern Ontario staples like Shaw and Tbaytel. Just in North America alone, there are upwards of 60 million internet users currently connected to fibre through dozens of different telecommunications companies, and several experts have referred to the service as future proof – meaning it will be around for a very, very long time.
Which is faster?
When it comes to broadband connections, the main measure of speed is a signal’s download strength, which is essentially how much data can be sent to the device you’re accessing the internet on.
While Elon Musk originally promised Starlink would be capable of download speeds in the range of 1 gigabyte per second (Gbps), the service isn’t quite there yet – a study performed by one of the top speedtest companies in the world recently showed that the average Starlink download speed clocks in about 93 megabytes per second (Mbps), with highs of up to 300 Mbps. While these speeds are well below Musk’s vision, they are still generally very fast, and the SpaceX CEO has said he hopes Starlink will reach speeds of not just 1, but 10 Gbps in the future.
When the same speedtest was performed on fibre connections, the terrestrial-based median came in a bit higher than that of its LEO technology competitor: 115 Mbps on average, with many service providers capable of actually hitting that fabled 1 Gbps benchmark (as you might already be aware, many ISPs offer differing service plans wherein consumers can pay more for higher speeds). It should also be noted that researchers in Japan have hit insanely high speeds on fibre-optic cables – 319 terabytes per second (319,000 Gbps)!
When measuring internet speed, there are a few other factors that are usually taken into consideration: upload speed and latency. Upload speed refers to how fast your connection can send data from your device of choice back to a server (basically sending the internet signal in reverse), such as when you might upload a video to YouTube or attach files to an email. Speedtests have shown Starlink’s median upload speed to be about 14 Mbps, while fibre often outpaces with 20 Mbps or more depending on how fast of a connection you’re paying for.
The most significant difference between the two services is currently their latencies. Speedtests have shown Starlink’s average latency to be 45 milliseconds (ms), meaning it takes about a third of the time it takes to blink to send a signal from the sender (network) to a receiver (you). While 45 ms may sound fast – and it most certainly is – some may also call it slower when compared to fibre latency averages, which often clock in at 15 ms or lower.
FUN FACT: The people that care about latency the most are usually gamers, as when they play online against others, every fraction of a second can count! Once latency speeds begin to exceed 100 ms, gamers will start to be able to notice the “lag,” and when it comes to videoconferencing, that’s when your signal may start to get choppy.
Which is more reliable?
Elon Musk has gone on the record to say that he intended for Starlink to be able to provide broadband internet for the hardest-to-reach customers on the planet, and so far he’s been absolutely right: Starlink’s main advantage is that it is the only modern choice for remote areas and rural communities where fibre-optic cables have not yet been laid.
Fibre-optic infrastructure takes a lot of time, effort, and money to be put in place. While fibre beat Starlink to the marketplace, it is still in its infancy as a service; while it has been set up for most major cities around the world, we’re a long ways off from being able to say everyone everywhere can have access to fibre – in fact, based on the Earth’s geography, such a feat would likely be impossible.
Here in the North, there are a lot of specific hurdles in the way of getting fibre set up. For one, there’s just so much ground to cover: Canada is one of the largest countries in the world, and Northern Ontario is one of the largest parts of the nation. That’s a lot of trees to clear out of the way, and a lot of effort necessary just to get a cable from point A to point B. To make matters worse, if and when infrastructure is put in place, hazards – namely forest fires – pose a huge threat to their wellbeing, especially with climate change contributing to more and more blazes than ever before. For example, back in June 2019, a 4,000 hectare forest fire burning near Pikangikum First Nation took out countless telecommunications lines, taking out not just internet signals, but even the community’s ability to call 911.
Fact: There are over 109 million hectares of space across Canada where wildlands come into contact with power lines and telecommunications corridors.
On the flip side of the coin, Starlink does carry a few question marks: namely its susceptibility to being temporarily taken down by extreme weather or geomagnetic interference, whereas fibre connections are must better protected and generally not affected by such occurrences. It’s also fair to say that Starlink isn’t a “one size fits all” kind of solution – for those living in places like apartments and multiplexes, it would be borderline impossible to have enough room to install the required amount of dishes for everyone (not to mention the logistics of upkeep and maintenance for shared buildings).
At the end of the day, it really boils down to one question: what’s available to you where you’re at?
Which is less expensive?
While it’s fair to say that, ultimately, Starlink is currently more reliable and readily available than fibre, it is also more costly to acquire. As of September 2022, consumers are required to pay upwards of $800 for a Starlink kit, and possibly more fees if a third-party installer is required to set the dish up. After that, Starlink customers can expect to pay $140 a month for the service (which, on the bright side, comes with unlimited data and usage). If a service area is maxed out, Starlink users can still join the waitlist for roughly $135.
While prices vary slightly between different providers, consumers can generally expect to pay between $50-$100 a month for fibre internet, depending on the speed they’re looking for. Except for in rare cases, there are usually no major upfront costs other than minor installation or setup fees to get the service up and running. It should also be noted that many telecommunications companies offer bundles that can save consumers money by pairing internet connections with TV and phone services.
On the topic of dollars, it’s important to think about each service’s “hidden cost” – namely the amount of power they consume and how much they’ll affect your hydro bills. On average, Starlink dishes draw about 75 watts of power per hour, but this number can rise dramatically during inclement weather; in other words, if you live in a place that experiences extremes fairly often – such as in Canada where the winters themselves can be quite cold and blizzardly – then you can expect to spend hundreds of dollars per year just to power the technology, in addition to the cost of the service. Conversely, and much to fibre’s benefit, Wi-Fi routers only cost between $1-2 per month to keep running.
While fibre is cheaper to run, any discussion about it must include the cost of getting the necessary infrastructure in place. Back in 2021, the Canadian governments announced they would be fronting the bill for a handful of rural communities that don’t yet have fibre in Ontario. According to federal and provincial officials, it will cost a grand total of $398 million to get the job done for 55,800 households, which equals out to an average of $7,132 per home.
But wait, there’s more: for some of the most remote communities, the cost of setting up fibre is much, much higher than the aforementioned average. For example, Keewaytinook Okimakanak is set to receive $46.63 million to install fibre infrastructure for 182 residences in Fort Severn First Nation and Weenusk First Nation, which equates to roughly $256,250 per home!
Taking these kinds of numbers into consideration provides a whole new level of understanding for what Starlink brings to the table – for some, maybe the service’s higher upfront and hidden costs aren’t so bad after all.
What’s the verdict?
Despite how badly some might want a conclusive answer to this question – or how much fans might argue in favour of one service over the other – there really is no clear winner between Starlink or fibre internet. What it really boils down to is, where you are located and what service is available to you.
If you are in a remote community, or just looking for a way to connect your cabin in the middle of nowhere, Starlink will without a doubt be your best bet. On the other hand, if you’re living in a city centre where fibre infrastructure is already well established, you would do well to join the majority of your neighbours by opting into a wired connection – it will be cheaper and faster, after all.
“Precision beats power, and timing beats speed” – Conor McGregor