How Starlink Is Progressing As An Alternative To 5G

TV stations have mostly parked their satellite trucks and ENG vans in favor of mobile bi-directional wireless digital systems such as bonded cellular, wireless, and direct-to-modem wired internet connections. Is Starlink part of the future?

It seems nearly everyone in the industry is talking about 5G and 5G TV. We will save topic of 5G TV broadcasting for another time because it is experimental and there are no 5G TV phones on the consumer market, yet. On the other hand, 5G cellular service is exploding due to its faster peak data rate, lower edge latency and more spectral efficiency compared to 4G LTE. Nearly all internet data TV encoder and bonded cellular vendors offer 5G systems.

Not all 5G Communication Service Providers (CSPs) offer service levels that are the same. Some allow only fixed service that does not allow portability. Check for portability before you sign up for a new plan from any CSP. 5G hasn’t been rolled out in every small town, either. If, for example, you produce live high school sports feeds originating at various small town high schools, you’ll learn the venues where 5G is available and where it’s not. The lesson is to always bring your 4G LTE SIM cards for backup. Broadcast reliability often exceeds CSP reliability.

5G Bands

5G New Radio (5G NR) needs a larger network of smaller antennas to transmit and receive the higher frequency 5G radio waves. 5G NR operates in three frequency bands: Low, below 1 GHz; Mid, between 1GHz and 6GHz; and High, between 24GHz and 40GHz.

The Mid band is typically between 3.3GHz and 6GHz and includes the 3.3 to 3.8GHz band, which is the basis of many new 5G services and is sometimes called the ‘global backbone.’ A 150 MHz-wide band at 3.5 GHz (3550 to 3700 MHz), is unique to the US, doesn’t require a spectrum license, and is called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). The High band is also called millimeter wave (mmWave) band. It doesn’t travel far but it supports bitrates of 10 Gbps or higher. This makes the mmWave band ideal for private networks, such as inside a sports stadium for wireless camera connections, and/or to broadcast 5G TV game coverage to the stadium crowd. The 26 GHz and/or 28 GHz millimeter wave bands have the most international support.

One of the current challenges with 5G is that the initial roll out of services was mostly based on 5G NSA (Non Stand-Alone) which effectively deploys 5G transmitters using 4G core infrastructure and uses the mid-bands. The planned/ongoing second phase of 5G roll out is based on 5G SA (Stand-Alone) which replaces 4G core infrastructure and implements virtualized and cloud-based core systems. 5G SA is required to unlock the use of mmWave services along with 5G MEC (Mobile Edge Computing) etc... all of which is required for Private 5G 'network slicing' and may usher in a new generation of remote production systems in due course. Some CSP's seem to be further along their roll out roadmap than others. 5G NSA already brings significant benefits for bonded cellular systems, but the true potential of 5G is not universally available. 

Starlink Update

Once you get away from urban centers and out into the boondocks 5G coverage becomes thinner. Starlink eliminates the ‘last mile’ issue. Nearly everyone knows Elon Musk’s SpaceX is launching its Starlink constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, to provide high-speed internet services from about 300 - 375 miles (500-600 km) above sea level with 20 ms latency.

A LEO satellite will burn up during atmospheric reentry in approximately 5-6 years. SpaceX plans to launch about 40,000 Starlink satellites. As of now, SpaceX has launched over 5000 Starlink satellites.

Other companies such as OneWeb, Amazon Kuiper, Viasat and others are planning to offer essentially the same service. The difference is that Starlink uses thousands of small satellites instead of a few huge ones in geostationary orbit orbiting at 35000 km (21748 miles) above earth. This is the altitude necessary for a satellite to orbit and remain geostationary above earth. Best case latency for a geostationary orbit round trip is 280 ms, and often more delay is added with digital processing.

The most recent Starlink satellites use laser communications between satellites to minimize reliance on multiple ground stations. The ground stations that provide the Starlink internet connections are owned by Musk or Google. Laser communications is designed to reduce need for additional ground stations.

The older Starlink satellites are versions V1 and V1.5. They provide 20 Gbps, and weigh about 507 lbs (230 kg) each. In February 2023, Starlink deployed 21, V2 (Gen2 Mini) satellites, the next and upgraded version of V1 and V1.5. The V2 Mini provides 80 Gbps to the downlink and 100 Gbps between laser-linked satellites.

As of now more than 100, V2 Mini satellites are orbiting and operational. The V2 Mini uses optical inter-satellite communications, digital processing technology in the KU and KA bands, and phased array beamforming.

Not Geostationary

As opposed to the geostationary communications satellites the broadcast industry is accustomed to, Starlink satellites are traveling through space at approximately 27,000 kph (16,777 MPH). They must move at this high orbital speed to create the centrifugal force necessary avoid prematurely falling to earth. Tracking Starlink satellites for continuous service requires the dish antenna on the ground to switch between different satellites approximately every 4 minutes. The dish and satellite must continuously angle or ‘steer’ their beams of data pointed at each other.

Installing a Starlink dish is as simple as pointing it up in an area with the fewest overhead obstructions. It will orient itself. Graphic Courtesy Starlink.

Installing a Starlink dish is as simple as pointing it up in an area with the fewest overhead obstructions. It will orient itself. Graphic Courtesy Starlink.

The Starlink ground dish contains two motors used once for initial orientation. All further orientation is done electronically with a phased array antenna. A printed circuit board (PCB) inside the dish contains 640 small microchips and 20 large microchips mounted in a pattern, with intricate traces fanning out from the larger to smaller microchips and connecting the main CPU and GPS module. The other side of the PCB contains approximately 1,400 copper circles with a grid of squares between the circles. The layer above it is a rubber honeycomb pattern containing notched copper circles. Above that is another honeycomb pattern layer and then the front side of the dish.

The result is a phased array of 1280 antennas in a hexagonal honeycomb pattern, each stack of copper circles being a single antenna, and the phases of pairs of antennas are controlled by the dual RF output microchips on the PCB. The phased array is what forms the tight beam of the highest gain between the dish on earth and Starlink satellites as they move across the sky. Combining all the antenna’s power together is called beamforming.

The phased array beam from 1280 antennas is approximately 3500 times the output of a single antenna, because the phased array has patterns of ‘constructive’ and ‘destructive’ interference. When properly phased, the 1280 antennas in the array can transmit and steer a tight beam of constructive, in-phase interference (that builds the signal and improves s/n ratios) along with a wide beam of out-of-phase destructive interference that essentially cancels itself out.

Starlink global coverage.

Starlink global coverage.

Ready For Prime Time?

As of now, the number of Starlink satellites in LEO is about 12.5 % of the 40,000-satellite goal. More than 80% of Starlink subscribers are based in the US, and many of the early broadcast Starlink adapters were radio stations in Alaska. High-speed, high-data internet in many parts of Alaska is expensive and rare, other than from expensive satellite providers like ViaSat.

User reports on social media and broadcast engineering websites indicate that Starlink users in Alaska who have hoped for a decent internet connection since the internet was invented are thrilled. Some mention that they occasionally lose Starlink service because their northern latitude is near the edge of the Starlink footprint and there are not enough LEO satellites in orbit over those sparse northern locations to always handle heavy data traffic. Starlink can also slow down if there are too many users per satellite. A full complement of 40,000 LEO satellites will resolve that issue in Alaska and other locations. In the meantime, everyone reports that when it works, which is nearly all the time, it is fabulous.

Starlink offers multiple levels of residential and business service plans and hardware options that require significant due diligence to determine what service level and hardware is best for individual needs and what trade-offs are worth consideration. The latest hardware versions may not be best for you.

For example, the residential antenna covers 110 degrees of sky. The High-Performance antenna sees 140 degrees, allowing it to switch less frequently between satellites. The newest 3rd generation antenna doesn’t have motorized positioning, meaning that as Starlink constellations are adjusted, you will need to manually realign the antenna. The 2nd generation antenna automatically realigns itself. Starlink, like other satellites, is also not immune to rain- or snow-outs.

Starlink service levels begin at “Best Effort” (unlimited data, 2-10 Mbps upload, possibly as low as >1Mbps depending on demand). Starlink “Standard” is unlimited data at 5-10 Mbps uploads. Starlink also offers “Priority” and “Mobile Priority,” with capped data and 8-25 Mbps uploads. High traffic can bog down uplink speeds, but additional satellites will soften the uplink bottleneck over time.

You get what you pay for, and Starlink does allow you to switch between service plans at any time based on your needs. Will Starlink eliminate last-mile issues and be reliable enough for your live productions? Starlink offers a 30-day money-back trial. If not satisfied, return it to Starlink for a full refund. 

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