Home-based internet access is essential for communicating, conducting business, and completing schoolwork, making it frustrating if your family struggles to get decent connectivity or speeds. But the options for remote properties are improving, with mobile and satellite internet options coming to the fore.
You may not be aware, but if you can get a reliable cellular connection on your property, you may use a phone hotspot to provide an internet connection for up to ten devices in your home. Alternatively, satellite internet connectivity from Elon Musk’s Starlink is another option that has given rural property owners hope.
Want to learn more about these two alternative options for internet on your ranch or in your cabin? In this article, we compare Starlink and phone hotspots to help you evaluate which one is the best option for your home.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a satellite-based telecommunications company that is owned by parent company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). SpaceX is owned by Elon Musk and specializes in the development of spacecraft and satellites. SpaceX developed and launched the Starlink constellation, which currently has over 3,000 small satellites in low orbit providing satellite internet services to over half a million consumers.
SpaceX’s development facility maintains and controls the Starlink constellation in Redmond, Washington. Starlink aims to expand the constellation to more than 20,000 satellites in the coming years. This is expected to provide enhanced coverage and quality of service, making it a competitive solution for global internet access that reaches the most remote parts of the Earth.
The rapid growth of Starlink has concerned a range of scientists, including astronomers. They fear that stars and planets will be obscured by so many satellites. Starlink has responded by reducing the brightness of its satellites and designing them to safely de-orbit at the end of their lifespan. The satellites are also monitored and controlled with tracking data that each satellite can use to avoid a collision.
The History of Starlink
Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology has been around since the 1980s. The U.S. Space Force developed LEO to intercept ballistic cruise missiles. By the 1990s, several companies attempted to adapt this technology for satellite telecommunications, but few viable consumer solutions were brought to market.
SpaceX started to make strategic acquisitions relating to satellite internet in the early 2000s. Musk’s first satellite internet company was called WorldVu, but it did not get off the ground. A decade later, SpaceX applied to Norway’s telecommunication regulator for a license for a satellite internet network called STEAM. This name was changed in late 2014 to Starlink.
Between 2016 and 2020, SpaceX accelerated the development of the Starlink network by filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch a satellite internet system operating on the Ku and Ka frequency bands. The first satellites in the Starlink constellation were launched in 2019 and, in 2021, Starlink internet was released on pre-order.
Starlink Broadband Internet Services and Cost
Starlink uses its constellation of low Earth orbit satellites to provide broadband internet connectivity to some of the world’s most remote locations. This means that rural homeowners can benefit from high-speed low-latency internet connectivity that can support streaming, gaming, and videoconferencing. Starlink offers a maximum speed of up to 97 Mbps, depending on your location.
Starlink also offers a portability add-on that RV users and other subscribers who are mobile can use. This add-on allows subscribers to pause and resume their Starlink subscription as needed.
A Starlink satellite internet subscription is contract-free with a flat fee of $75 per month. There is a $460 upfront fee for the Starlink kit that contains the hardware needed to connect to the satellites and access the internet. Everything is covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Starlink Satellite Internet Equipment
Starlink doesn’t have any infrastructure on the ground, meaning its connectivity can be harnessed around the world. Simply set up the base and Wi-Fi router supplied to get your home internet connection up and running. The plug-and-play Starlink kit includes:
- Starlink base and mount: the Starlink base can be used for ground-level installation or mounted at a height to connect with the satellite network/
- Wi-Fi router: Starlink comes with a sleek Wi-Fi 5 router that provides high-speed connectivity for the devices in your home.
- Starlink app: Starlink comes with a smartphone app that provides updates, controls, and settings and offers real-time performance data for your satellite internet connection. The app can also pinpoint the best position to set up your base station.
What is a Phone Hotspot?
A phone hotspot is a type of private hotspot or physical location where devices can connect wirelessly to get internet access. This type of connectivity is also called phone-as-modem (PAM) or tethering, and it uses wireless local area networking (WLAN) technology that is like a home router.
If the smartphone or tablet that is used as a hotspot has a network data plan that allows other devices to share its internet access, phone hotspots can be a solution for obtaining internet access in remote locations that cannot receive internet via DSL, cable, or fiber. It is a practical and portable solution that can be set up anywhere there is mobile network coverage.
Use of a Phone Hotspot is a Premium Service
Unlike connection to a public hotspot or Wi-Fi network in a hospitality setting, the use of a phone hotspot is not free. The data that is used by tethered devices comes out of the data plan of the phone or is billed. Some mobile phone operators prohibit the use of phones as hotspots and will disconnect the phone if they detect tethering.
Phone Hotspots Use “Mi-Fi” Technology
The tethering technology known as “Mi-Fi” is present in smartphones, tablets, and laptops so that consumers can connect a range of devices using the Wi-Fi protocol.
Tethering is a form of bridging that turns the phone into a private hotspot using Wi-Fi technology. Public WLAN technology has been around since the 1990s. Tethering technology is present in the leading operating systems including Android, iOS, macOS, Linux, and Windows.
Wireless chipset manufacturers, including Intel and Atheros, also add Wi-Fi-based Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the Wi-Fi Alliance oversee the standards and protocols for Wi-Fi connectivity and compatibility between the phone and connecting devices.
What’s the Difference Between Starlink and Phone Hotspots?
Both phone hotspots and Starlink provide wireless internet access using wireless connectivity. However, the technologies used are completely different.
A phone hotspot is reliant on access to the local cellular network and requires a strong connection that can provide broadband mobile internet. The cellular network is terrestrial and only extends as far as the nearest base station, limiting options in remote or rural areas.
As a satellite-based system, Starlink is reliant on its constellation of satellites to provide high-speed, low-latency internet. Because the Starlink signal comes from satellites, you can continually access it anywhere in the world. Starlink has coverage in 40 countries, but they limit your use of the phone hotspot to the coverage of your cellular network.
Starlink reports broadband internet speeds of up to 300 Mbps, but the speeds that the device experiences by connecting to a phone hotspot depend on the quality of the mobile internet connection and the performance of the phone that is used. Until recently, the speeds offered by 4G/LTE smartphone tethering were between 60 and 100 Mbps, but with 5G New Radio cellular technology, speeds could approach 1Gbps.
Starlink vs. Windstream: A Side-by-Side Comparison
|What is it?||Satellite internet service provider (ISP)||Wi-Fi-based connection to mobile internet via a smartphone|
|Primary Use||Broadband internet access||Broadband internet access|
|Initial Release||May 24, 2019||1990s|
|Influential Developers||Elon Musk|
Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL)
|Henrik Sjoden (WLAN technology)|
The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)
The Wi-Fi Alliance
|Frequency Bands Used||Ku- and Ka-||2.4 GHz5 GHz|
|Max Uplink Speed||Up to 40 Mbps||20 to 60 Mbps|
|Max Downlink Speed||Up to 350 Mbps||60 to 100 Mbps|
|Latency||20 – 40 ms||25 ms+|
|Contract?||No||Depends on the mobile operator|
|Throttling?||No||Depends on the mobile operator|
|Data Limits?||No||Depends on the mobile operator|
|Monthly Subscription||$75||Depends on the mobile operator|
|Additional Fees||$460 equipment costs||No|
|Equipment Provided||Base station Router Mobile app||A smartphone|
Similarities and Differences
- You can connect to the internet wirelessly with Starlink and phone hotpots.
- You can use phone hotspots or Starlink for internet access in rural areas.
- Starlink uses satellite technology and a phone hotspot uses mobile internet.
- A mobile hotspot can support up to 10 devices, and Starlink can provide broadband internet to up to 128 devices simultaneously.
- Starlink can be accessed almost anywhere in the world, as it is available in 40 countries.
- A mobile hotspot is limited to the coverage of the cellular network it uses.
- Starlink’s satellite constellation can be accessed from the most remote locations, but a phone hotspot requires a nearby cell tower for connectivity.
- Starlink offers a consistent quality or service, but the quality and speed of connectivity will vary for phone hotspots.
- You can stream films using Starlink, but a phone hotspot may not have the bandwidth for streaming.
- The quality and condition of the smartphone hardware and signal quality determine the latency and speed of a phone hotspot.
- Starlink offers contract-free broadband satellite internet for a flat fee of $75 per month. This includes unlimited data.
- Phone hotspots depend on the data package of the smartphone that is used.
- Some mobile operators ban tethering.
What are Phone Hotspots Used for?
Phone hotspots were originally designed for personal use on the move. The Wi-Fi-based internet access is ideal for connecting a laptop for work or travel outside of your office or home.
The quality, speed, and bandwidth of phone hotspots and the availability of competitively priced mobile internet data packages have meant that people have expanded the use of phone hotspots to include home internet connectivity like smart TV and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices.
4G/LTE and 5G offer fast and low-latency connectivity that can support activities like gaming, video calls, and streaming. However, the performance of hotspots is notoriously inconsistent, meaning it may be unwise to rely on them. Alternatively, use an existing phone hotspot for your fixed wireless or satellite internet, so you won’t lose connectivity if they go down.
Can You Use a Phone Hotspot for Home Internet?
4G/LTE and 5G mobile internet are fast and have adequate bandwidth for supporting multiple devices simultaneously. For some users, it makes sense to forgo broadband home internet and use the data package on their smartphone to provide internet access to their property.
If your internet usage is not heavy, tethering is allowed by your mobile operator, and you can stay within your monthly data limits, a phone hotspot could be a convenient and cost-effective solution for getting internet connectivity in rural areas.
However, if you intend to use your home internet for heavy streaming or gaming sessions, your mobile hotspot is likely to be pushed to its limits. Just a few hours of Netflix can use up a month’s worth of cellular data allowance! Most unlimited cell phone data packages will start to throttle the mobile internet speeds after a certain amount of data (usually between 20 and 30 GB). The sharp drop in speeds can render your hotspot useless.
If you are keen to use mobile internet as your home internet solution, most cellular providers offer dedicated mobile internet hotspot hardware or home internet packages that have better data rates. This is a much better value, especially when you consider that the average American family uses over 400 GB of data per month.
Starlink vs. Phone Hotspots: 6 Must-Know Facts
- Starlink uses the multi-Gigahertz Ka and Ku frequency bands for data transfer.
- A phone hotspot transfers mobile internet data to connected devices using the 2.5 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands.
- Starlink’s base antenna is engineered to track the satellite constellation as it orbits. You should install it to face the open sky.
- Phone hotspots use significantly more power than the normal use of a phone. A phone hotspot uses 2A at 5V. Hotspot use will drain the average 2000mAh phone battery after just one hour’s use, so you should keep your phone charged.
Phone hotspots are a common workaround for internet connectivity if you are in a remote area. But, if you live in the country, using a phone hotspot for home internet could prove to be an inefficient and costly option.
Starlink has a high upfront cost but it offers unlimited broadband internet for a competitive monthly fee. If it’s time to get a “grown-up” home internet solution, a Starlink subscription may just be the answer.
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