How to install Starlink on a Sailboat
Photo credit: Steve Audette - S/V Angelfish
Disclaimer: This post is not a paid endorsement nor are we affiliated with Starlink.
There is a new wave of internet technology expanding the horizons of travel possibilities for nomadic, liveaboard sailors around the globe. That technology is a low latency, high speed satellite internet service brought to you by Starlink. If you enjoyed my post on reliable high-speed internet for liveaboard cruisers, this post is going to be of keen interest, especially if you are currently a digital nomad (or aspiring to be). We subscribed to Starlink for the first time several months ago and it quickly replaced our mobile hotspot data plans as our primary internet service.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a low-latency satellite internet service offered by SpaceX (Elon Musk) and it’s a total game changer. Unlike traditional satellite service that is high latency and limited to a geostationary orbit, Starlink satellites form a constellation that orbits the earth at a much lower altitude, thereby providing a network of low latency, high speed broadband internet to more people and places around the globe than ever before. With as little as 20ms of latency in most areas, and an average of 100-150mbps down/ 10-15mbps up, Starlink makes taking video calls, online gaming, 4k movie streaming, and other high data usage activities possible in even the most remote locations. In May of 2022, Starlink introduced a “Portability” feature for their service, giving customers the option to take their residential Starlink service with them. Starlink also offers an RV service, which is basically a permanently portable version of the service. These services are currently limited to the boundaries of the country where the service is registered but does allow up to 2 months of continuous use out of country.
What makes Starlink a good internet solution for sailors and RVers?
It boils down to a few things:
Unlimited High Speed Internet - Starlink has no data limits and, even if your speeds are throttled due to high usage/ congestion in a particular geo “cell,” the throttled connection is still much faster than a 4G hotspot and almost certainly faster than the internet connection at a typical marina. On our boat, I can be on Zoom video call for work, while my kids are gaming their Nintendo Switch, and Amber is streaming an eBook. This is no problem for Starlink. Speeds vary, even minute to minute, based on the usage in your area and many other factors.
Just how fast is fast? Pretty fast…
Affordability - the monthly residential service is $110 per month in the US, plus an extra $25 month for portability mode, for a total of $135 per month. That is cheaper than many hotspot data plans and WAY cheaper than legacy, high latency satellite providers!
Coverage - since the service is satellite based, it works almost anywhere your dish can get an unobstructed view of the Northern sky, giving you more freedom. And since SpaceX is constantly launching more satellites, Starlink coverage and speeds are continuing to improve.
The shortcomings of Starlink
Like all good things (and believe me, it is a very good thing), Starlink is not a silver bullet solution and it likely never will be. There are a few shortcomings to be aware of:
Gen2 Dishy is not currently optimized for use on boats while in motion - while Starlink has been approved by the FCC for in-motion use, unfortunately, when the motors try to adjust the dish direction to optimize for acquiring satellite targets, it can result in frequent but short disruptions, especially on a boat that is anchored and swinging with wind and current or changing directions and pitching while underway. You also cannot disable the motors via the Starklink app, currently, although we hope this enhancement may be released in the future. This shortcoming and frustration has led some boaters to “hack” their dish (and voiding their warranty) by physically disabling the motors by drilling a hole in the back of the dish an unplugging it, then installing the dish in a fixed, flat mount on deck. This improves the service because the dish is still fully capable of acquiring and following targets without having the motors enabled, thereby maintaining a more stable connection, while in motion.
Heavy rain will disrupt your connection - while the connection is fine in light rain, really heavy rain will cause your service to be interrupted. This is one of the shortcomings of satellite-based internet, regardless of the provider.
Geo-fencing - dont count on having a connection once you venture beyond about 12 miles offshore. We don’t see this as a major detractor, since we’re not attempting to work while underway, although the ability to refresh PredictWind without a separate Iridium device or the ability to stream movies for the kids on a long passage would be really nice.
Power consumption - the factory Starlink Dish and Router/POE run on AC power supply and these devices are power hungry, especially during the initial boot or when motors are actively repositioning the dish. Using the Dish/Router in the factory configuration means you either have to run an inverter, a gen-set, or be connected to shore power. If you have a lithium house bank and/or a large solar array, this may not be a concern. Alternatively, you can hack your way around this and “delete” the Starlink router/POE and power Dishy via DC power using a step up 12v to 24v buck converter. More on this later in this post.
Starlink Router/POE Footprint - the factory supplied router is a big, heavy, freestanding tabletop device. Not exactly ideal for in motion use or small spaces. It’s also not very powerful, in terms of broadcasting a WiFi signal. Generally speaking, it’s just not a great piece of kit. And, if you already have a router for your other onboard devices, then this is another router you will need to find space for as well as a way to power. We decided to make the Starlink Router obsolete and are much happier for it.
Yes, that is the official Starlink nickname for their satellite dish hardware. Finding the right spot for Dishy on a boat requires a bit of trial and error, especially on a sailboat, for obvious reasons. Ideally, Dishy needs an unobstructed view of the sky. Fortunately, the Starlink app has a “Visibility” feature to “Check for obstructions.” This is highly recommended before attempting to mount the dish. The X shaped base stand that comes with the Starlink kit is basically useless on a boat, not to mention it is huge, however Starlink has a number of alternative mounting hardware options and there are tons of creative mounting solutions you can find online.
Start by finding a location as far from fixed obstructions like mast(s), boom, arch, etc. as possible. At boot up, Dishy will try to point toward the Northern sky and, once it acquires satellites, it will basically hold this position unless it detects obstructions or a loss of connectivity, so keep this in mind before mounting. Also make sure the Dish can pivot and rotate in any direction without hitting anything.
Before permanently mounting the dish, we highly recommend a trial run with a temporary install using either a rail mounted 1-1/2in clamp-on fishing rod holder which happens to be a perfect fit for Gen2 Dishy’s tube base, or use a drum set multi-clamp for a 1-1/2in rack bar, which is suitable for a permanent install. Just be sure to verify the size of the rail you plan to mount to so that the clamp size of either choice before ordering.
Good locations may include above dinghy davits, the top of an arch, and other locations typically as far aft as possible. Avoid mounting Dishy in a location that will make it protrude outboard; this is just asking for the Dish to get damaged. Also, avoid mounting in a location where lines or boom(s) might swing. And, finally, avoid mounting in a location that will cast shade on your solar array. Even a small amount of shade on rigid monocrystaline solar panels can have a big impact on output.
Note: some hacks may void your Starlink hardware warranty; proceed down this path at your own risk.
Starlink hacks, in the context of this post, are not for nefarious purposes. It’s just people finding creative solutions to problems they have encountered trying to use Starlink and adapting the hardware/software in ways it hasn’t been explicitly designed for (yet). There are tons of Reddit threads and Facebook groups like: “Starlink Hacks” and “Starlink on Boats” with great ideas ranging from how to mount Dishy, how to power dishy with DC instead of AC, or even how to use the Starlink API to geek out on Dishy and access stats and write custom developer commands via gRPC (see link to GitHub page). And believe, Starlink is benefitting by crowd sourcing ideas from their customers, accelerating innovation and influencing the future direction of the Starlink product.
The “hacks” we have implemented on our boat include:
Starlink Router/ POE Delete - this is a great write up about eliminating the SL router and powering Dishy via your boat’s DC 12v house bank, instead of 110v AC. The benefits are a simplified network, valuable space savings, and reduced power consumption, which is important when your house battery bank is primarily powered by solar.
Custom patch cable and RJ45 coupler - by adding a shielded coupler, we can easily revert back to the factory router and 110v power supply in a matter of seconds.
Custom rail mount for Dishy - this drum set mount allowing us to mount the dish to our 1 inch stainless solar arch frame.
These hacks are not our original ideas; others blazed the trail ahead of us.
The Bottom Line
Starlink is a game changer for staying connected in daily life and being digital connected for homeschooling and working aboard. While we haven't traveled outside the US with our Starlink (yet), it has been super reliable and truly indispensable, so far. We can't recommend it highly enough and hope to continue enjoying this service as it continues to evolve and improve.