The problem with going off-grid is the lack of connection.
The urge to get away from it all without losing access to Slack and Instagram was a #vanlife trend long before COVID-19. The pandemic only accelerated it, fueled by social distancing rules, office closures, and flexible remote work policies that enable more people to set up shop from any location they choose. Few do so, however, because change is hard, and going truly remote often means being out of range of cell towers — but not satellites. That’s where Starlink RV comes in.
SpaceX launched its internet from space service in public beta in October 2020. The service has steadily improved ever since we tested it in May 2021, when we found it to be “unreliable, inconsistent, and foiled by even the merest suggestion of trees.” The latest advancements include the release of a smaller rectangular dish and sanctioned support for portability, most expressly with the launch of the Starlink RV service. Starlink RV allows owners to take their $599 / €639 Dishy McFlatface anywhere (on the same continent) there’s coverage, which now means large swaths of North America and nearly all of Western Europe. You can even pause and unpause the $135 / €124 per month service so that you’re only paying for the months you need it.
Importantly, Starlink RV targets people on the go, be it weekend campers, overlanders and vanlifers who live in their rigs year-round, or retirees with an RV or vacation home where they reside for months at a time. As such, Starlink RV is competing against pricey unlimited mobile data plans and signal boosters that attempt to fill holes in coverage, not fixed home internet services. Unlike the fixed Starlink Residential service, which requires a perfect line of sight to the sky to be useful, subscribers to Starlink RV can move their Dishy at will, and likely be much more forgiving when the choice is between degraded service and no service at all.
I’ve been testing Starlink RV for the last two weeks in a variety of locations: from atop a Ventje T5 camper van parked in a German forest where tall trees block satellite visibility; at a crowded festival in Bavaria with overloaded cell towers; at a Dutch beach where the prospects of mobile data are bleak; and in a severe thunderstorm at my home in central Amsterdam. For me, Starlink RV’s performance was an epiphany and cause to get serious about leaving the shackles of my urban existence behind.
SpaceX currently offers two flavors of Starlink services: Residential Starlink and Starlink RV. There’s also the Residential Starlink plus Portability option, which is a jumbled hybrid of the two. Each service starts with the same dish and Wi-Fi router kit ($599 / €639) but differs in terms of expected speeds, monthly fees, the ability to use the service when traveling, and the option to easily pause the service.
Starlink RV is SpaceX’s most flexible offering. The Starlink RV monthly subscription costs $135 / €124 compared to $110 / €99 per month for the Residential service (adding Portability costs an additional $25 / €25 each month). Each service comes with heavily caveated performance “goals” of 50–250Mbps downloads and 10–20Mbps uploads with 20–40ms of expected latency and “no data caps,” although it does warn against misuse and abuse.
One big advantage of Starlink RV is the ability to pause the service (and fees!) at any time and then resume it at a later date when you need it again. That can save subscribers a bundle of money if they’re only traveling a few months each year. The big disadvantage is that Starlink RV users are “always de-prioritized” compared to Residential subscribers. According to SpaceX, that could result in speeds closer to 5–100Mbps down and 1–10Mbps up when used in congested areas or during times of high usage.
If my service was indeed being de-prioritized, it was done with a relatively light touch at my testing locations and times — though I did experience a wide range of performance over the two week period. Using the iOS Speedtest app on my phone positioned less than 10 feet from the Starlink Wi-Fi router, I measured download speeds as slow as 44.2Mbps and as fast as 235Mbps, with uploads ranging from 8.9Mbps to 29.6Mbps. Speeds sometimes varied from one minute to the next, but mostly I was seeing download speeds on the average of 150–200Mbps and uploads between 10–15Mbps.
That’s not particularly fast by home internet standards in Europe. But, in the four remote locations where I set up Starlink RV in Germany and the Netherlands, Starlink was faster (sometimes 100 times faster) than the mobile data networks from T-Mobile and Vodafone, which sometimes failed to connect at all.
For example, when parked alongside hundreds of other campers at a 4×4 show in the hills of Bavaria, Starlink’s satellites gave me 189 / 1 1.1Mbps (up / down) versus Vodafone’s 11.1 / 1.9Mbps due to the surge of people suddenly choking the nearest tower. On a relatively remote Dutch beach, I clocked 217 / 8.9Mbps while T-Mobile limped along at 0.7 / 0.16Mbps and Vodafone at 2.37 / 0.09Mbps. At one particular forest outside Dortmund, Germany, where we parked our camper to make lunch and walk the dog, Starlink was hitting 49 / 12Mbps through trees (more on that later), while Vodafone and T-Mobile failed to connect at all.
RV-grade signal boosters from companies like Weboost start at around $450 and would have likely improved cellular data speeds in some of my testing. You can sometimes double or even quadruple speeds with a booster, but even then they’d pale in comparison to the speeds achieved with the Starlink RV. And you can’t boost a signal that doesn’t exist.
To put these speeds into perspective, Zoom video conferencing requires up to 6Mbps down and 2Mbps up, while livestreaming needs at least 6Mbps up. But speed isn’t everything. Frequent dropouts can make video conferencing and streaming impossible, and latency above 60ms can lose an online campaign for gamers.
Regarding latency, the Starlink app was usually reporting lag around 50ms, with a range of 28–88ms. The more detailed Speedtest app usually reported idle latency (no other traffic) at around 50ms as well, with a range of 32–69ms. It also reported download latency (ping lag measured during downloads) between 161–293ms and upload latency (lag measured during uploads) between 71–169ms. YouTuber TTTHEFINEPRINTTT has some early positive impressions and live footage of gameplay over Starlink RV if that’s your thing. Regardless, Starlink still has some work to do to meet its latency goal of 20–40ms.
Knowing that I was traveling with Starlink RV meant that I was always looking for campsites with excellent visibility of the stars to avoid the well-documented dropouts and slowdowns caused by obstructions. My rectangular dish is 12 inches (50cm) wide and 19 inches (30cm) long. At 9.2 pounds (4.2kg), it’s nearly half the weight of the original 16-pound (7.2kg) dish. I stuffed my dish, router, and cables into a plush laundry bag. I kept the stand separate to avoid scratches, putting both the laundry bag and stand inside an old kitesurfing backpack to maximize portability.
Setting up the Starlink RV hardware takes only a few minutes after you’re parked. I usually placed the dish on the ground or on top of my camper and then ran its 75-foot (23m) cable back to the Wi-Fi router, where it attaches via a fiddly Micro USB connector that rarely lines up properly. Then you plug the router into your camper’s AC port, shore power, or big portable battery with a built-in inverter and watch Dishy rotate to life before turning to lock onto an overhead satellite. It would often take as long as 15 minutes after rolling into a new location before I had functioning Starlink internet — enough time to appreciate the space-age tech as I struggled with slow to nonexistent mobile networks.
When operating in an open field or at the beach, for example, Starlink’s perfect line-of-sight connectivity worked for hours on end without any network drops at all, allowing me to attend video conferences, make calls over Wi-Fi, watch TikTok videos, and stream Netflix and YouTube videos without issue.
I did experience some network dropouts and interruptions when using Starlink near obvious obstructions like tall buildings or trees. But I was still able to do things like message my kids, check that my home automations were running, work in Slack, research my next destination in Google Maps and Safari, check email, and myriad other things as the urge struck. About the only thing I tried and failed at was a FaceTime call that dropped mid-session. Fortunately, the whole kit is easy to pack up and move to another location with fewer obstructions if fast, reliable internet is more important than the view.
I also tested Starlink RV in the rain, including a severe thunderstorm in Amsterdam with plenty of lightning, wind, and a heavy downpour that lasted for about 20 minutes before exhausting itself into a steady rain. My service was interrupted at the onset, resulting in several “no signal received” messages logged in the Starlink app that lasted between 15–90 seconds over the first six minutes of the storm. Service didn’t stop completely; it just felt like really flaky Wi-Fi and certainly would have wreaked havoc had I been on a Zoom call for work. Things soon returned to normal with just a couple of 4-second “no signal received” messages over the next few hours of drizzle. In general, light rain didn’t seem to create any issues.
Other worthwhile mentions:
- SpaceX says the rectangular dish consumes an average of 48–74W — or 20W when idle. I think it might be better than that, having observed it jumping between 33–62W with an average draw closer to 42W when plugged into a Jackery portable battery with a built-in power meter. Power comes at a premium for RV owners, so it’s good to see SpaceX making regular improvements here.
- The Wi-Fi router supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac on dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The IP54 rating makes it resistant to splashing water and rain, but it’s intended for indoor use only. It can easily cover a campsite for at least a hundred feet in each direction if you’d like to share your service with others (or charge for it). There’s no ethernet port, though, so you’ll need to buy an adapter from SpaceX for that.
- I often forgot to hit the “Stow” button in the Starlink app (under settings) before unplugging the power from the router in my rush to get on the road again. Fortunately, you can still put the dish into the stowed position by removing the stand, setting Mr. McFlatface’s face onto a flat service, and plugging the power back in. The dish folds down after a few seconds, which is much better than waiting several minutes for the Stow button to reappear again in the app after the satellite service reconnects. It doesn’t go completely flat in the stowed position, but it’s flat enough to make it easier to stow away in the recesses of a vehicle.
- Although Starlink RV’s upload speeds can be slow compared to fixed internet or strong mobile data connections, creators who need to upload large videos from the road can start the process at night and be done by the time they wake up in the morning. That’s way more convenient than having to search for a cafe that doesn’t mind you leeching their slow public Wi-Fi all day. Just be careful not to drain all your vehicle’s power if you’re running Starlink RV all night long.
- Using Starlink RV in a moving vehicle will void the warranty, according to SpaceX. “While our teams are actively working to make it possible to use Starlink on moving vehicles, Starlink is not yet configured to be safely used in this way,” reads a SpaceX support page. That’s why you won’t (yet) find an RV mount in the Starlink shop alongside all the other accessories.
- Starlink RV can only be used on the same continent as your registered shipping address — something you should note if you’re planning to outfit your Unimog overlander with Starlink RV for your trip to Morocco or Iceland.
- The no wait list feature of Starlink RV is legit. I got mine in less than a week. Some Residential folks have been waiting months for their Starlink kits to arrive.
- There’s a software setting in the Starlink app that sends extra power to the dish to melt snow. Cool.
The audiences for Starlink RV and Starlink Residential differ in two fundamental ways. First, Starlink RV users are the types who are surprised and grateful to have any connectivity at all, while Residential users expect rock-solid connectivity at all times. Second, Starlink RV users can more easily move their rolling home to avoid obstructions, which is something Starlink Residential users can’t do.
To be frank, I’m kind of blown away by the transformative experience of using Starlink RV over the last few weeks. I’ve been a budding vanlifer for years, scouring Instagram on the reg for Sprinter 4×4 porn. Sitting in a remote field and watching Dishy lock onto one of the thousands of SpaceX satellites orbiting overhead reminded me of the first time I used GPS to magically navigate myself home. With Starlink RV, the magic is realizing that I can now take my home on the road and navigate the next chapter of my career. Hey Nilay, let’s talk.
Photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge