The residents of Brithem Bottom know better than most the feeling of being isolated.
The quiet hamlet in Devon is among the many rural areas in the UK that suffers from desperately slow broadband speeds – and up until recently, efforts to improve it have been in vain.
For Philip Hall, 68, the struggle to get a good broadband connection left him feeling powerless.
His download speeds were as low as 0.5Mbps, and if he wanted to make a video call, all other internet devices in his home had to be switched off.
So when he heard about Elon Musk’s initiative to blanket the world with Starlink internet satellites that could reach remote areas, he immediately signed up to become a tester.
An early version of the Starlink kit arrived on Hall’s doorstep on New Year’s Eve. Set up took just 30 minutes, and within the hour Hall was hosting a Zoom quiz with his grandchildren.
Hall says he is delighted with his £439 investment: “The satellite just keeps on working… I seem to get a consistent 80 megabits per second download and 30 megabits up.” That is above the UK average of 70 megabits per second.
Britain in the broadband slow lane
The areas in Britain with the slowest broadband
The technology could prove to be a solution to bridging Britain’s digital divide. The UK has one of the lowest rates of access to full-fibre internet in Europe, with just 21pc of homes covered. Only 80pc of rural homes have access to “superfast” broadband – with speeds of 30 megabits per second or higher – compared to 97pc of homes in urban areas.
The Government has pledged to spend £5bn on bringing gigabit speed broadband to more than a million homes in sparsely populated parts of the country.
Meanwhile, BT has a target of bringing full-fibre broadband to 25m homes and businesses by December 2026. But billionaire Musk believes he can do better.
His Starlink technology delivers broadband internet using a network of more than 1,800 satellites that beam signals to ground dishes on Earth.
Since Hall received his dish, Starlink users have been steadily growing. In February, SpaceX said it had 10,000 users globally with a further 700,000 on the waiting list.
Starlink appears to have solved the issues of slow speed and inconsistent performance that have plagued satellite broadband. “The lower orbit nature of Starlink’s satellites should go some way to reducing problems of latency,” says Matt Howett, founder of Assembly Research.
How low-orbiting satellites work
Musk’s satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of 340 miles. At that height, they do not suffer as much from latency, the time it takes a signal to reach them, which can slow down streaming and gaming. Starlink’s test satellites promise speeds of up to 100mbps – not equivalent to fibre, but better than entry level broadband packages.
But the system is not perfect. When setting up Starlink, early users say the signals can be interrupted by any kind of obstruction near the horizon, such as a house or trees.
In Devon, Hall admits his speeds are not as fast as some. “Some of the sky is obscured where I currently mount my dish,” he says. His friend nearby gets speeds up to 200Mbps faster.
Aaron Wilkes, another Starlink user in the village of Bredgar in Kent, has seen even greater speeds. “Over the first two months it was patchy… now the service is on a par with normal internet service providers”, he says. “Speeds have been in excess of 400 megabits per second download.”
One sticking point for now is likely to be price. Starlink costs £439 to install, while Wi-Fi boxes are generally free. It also charges a £89 per month subscription fee. Still, Wilkes says “£89 is value to someone like myself in a rural community.”
Others are less impressed. “It’s a beta service with inferior reliability when compared to current rural offerings,” says Tom Bastable from Cornwall, who claims customer service can take days to reply. “There’s no point glamourising the state of it. It needs to be better.”
Another issue could come from the US. Rivals such as Viasat have raised concerns over the safety systems used by Starlink, claiming its growing network on satellites in orbit would “substantially increase interference into other systems”. Musk has publicly slated Viasat’s concerns saying “Starlink ‘poses a hazard’ to Viasat’s profits, more like it”.
It also faces rivals in the UK, with Government-backed OneWeb courting BT to provide satellite broadband into remote areas. Meanwhile, Amazon has plans to launch a 3,200-strong internet satellite network as part of Project Kuiper.
Telecoms insiders believe that while Starlink will be able to cope with low-density rural broadband, once it hits hundreds of thousands of users its speeds will start to suffer. One space insider says: “Musk just doesn’t have the bandwidth”.
The jury, however, is still out. In March, ministers briefly met with Starlink representatives to discuss the UK’s rural broadband plans. The Government is now consulting on whether satellites could be used to extend the internet to the UK’s most remote 100,000 homes. It expects to publish findings later this year.
Still, Musk’s project represents a new and unexpected challenge to telcos. Starlink eventually plans to blanket the globe with internet connectivity using a mega-constellation of 42,000 satellites.
With such a bold vision, it would be a brave telecoms executive who would bet against the billionaire.