SpaceX Puts Data Restrictions on High-Volume Starlink Users

SpaceX announced that it will put data restrictions on high-volume Starlink users, including reducing upload and download speeds for users that use more than one terabyte of data per month. It promises that the throttling will only happen during peak hours.

Individual Starlink plans come in two tiers: “Priority Access” with faster speeds, and the cheaper but slower “Basic Access.” Once individuals on the “Priority Access” plan reach the data limit, their access will be scaled back to the “Basic Access” plan unless they agree to pay a per-gigabyte fee for the amount of data over the one-terabyte cap.

SpaceX had not originally planned to have tiered access for Starlink, but apparently changed its mind. It had also floated the idea of having a cheaper service tier for low-income customers. Starlink also offers an “enterprise-level” plan, as well as plans for Starlink access on boats and large vehicles like RVs. (If you must have Starlink for your vehicle, please don’t mount the terminal on the hood of your car.)

SpaceX blamed the decision on “a small number of users consuming unusually high amounts of data” in an email to customers. It says the change is expected to impact up to 10% of Starlink — presumably the ones that use the most data.

Could be people like…

  • People who work from home, who might want to consider sacking out at their favorite cafe or their local library instead.
  • Gamers, who won’t like to be told to cut back on their gaming.
    • People who have a live-streaming gaming channel on Twitch or something similar too.
  • “Influencers” who do a lot of videos.
  • Podcasters

…Though, really, it’s easy to use more data than you think you are. Even just using an audio streaming service can eat up your data.

Starlink has thousands of satellites in orbit and SpaceX frequently launches 50+ more Starlink satellites on each Falcon 9 launch dedicated to Starlink. However, this decision implies that there are limits to even Starlink’s growing capacity.

The Starlink website calls the satellite Internet service “a finite resource that will continue to grow as we launch additional satellites.” The service had more than half a million users in June 2022 and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk previously bragged about a long waitlist. SpaceX also made deals with countries like Brazil and Chile to provide Starlink service for remote communities that are hard for “traditional” ISPs to reach.

Starlink may be a bigger resource suck than anyone outside of SpaceX suspected. Its selling points include low latency, speeds that are comparable to “landline” broadband, and ability to reach areas that previously didn’t have access to reliable high-speed access. Like Tesla for electric cars and SpaceX for reusable rocket boosters, Starlink was an early mover for delivering Internet access from low-Earth orbit instead of geosynchronous orbit like ViaSat does. However, it could have been reaching its capacity limit during peak periods.

(Yes, ViaSat does complain, though maybe it’s not completely unwarranted. Tens of thousands of satellites are a lot to have in a single low-Earth-orbit constellation.)

SpaceX told the Pentagon that it spends $20 million a month to provide satellite Internet service to Ukraine – an expense that includes defending the constellation against sophisticated attacks from Russia. (“Military-grade” cybersecurity is not cheap. However, the Starlink team does a good job of it to earn kudos from the U.S. military.) The Pentagon is in talks with SpaceX to keep Starlink functionality up and running for Ukrainian forces. However, SpaceX did briefly suspend the service in Ukraine due to lack of payment.