As businesses seek reliable, secure connectivity solutions for an expanding list of enterprise use cases, Starlink and 5G offer unique benefits
In today's fast-paced digital world, emerging cellular and satellite technologies have sparked considerable interest and debate in the realm of connectivity. Today, enterprise businesses are examining the pros and cons of Starlink vs. 5G as they explore new ways to evolve and scale.
Starlink and 5G each come with their unique benefits and challenges. But despite their differences — or perhaps because of them — they can be excellent complements to one another.
What is Starlink? Understanding the draw to low-orbit satellites
Starlink is a low-orbit satellite Internet system developed by SpaceX. Requiring only a clear view of the sky for reception, Starlink is primarily used by individuals in rural or remote locations underserved by wired lines or cell towers. Since 2019, the company has amassed more than 1.5 million subscribers who use more than 4,000 satellites for network connectivity, and growing.
Starlink is one of many companies to propose satellites as a means to consumer connectivity. Companies such as Viasat and HughesNet have provided broadband satellite Internet service for decades. However, these companies rely on satellites in high Earth orbit (HEO), meaning they are positioned roughly 22,000 miles (35,405 km) above the Earth’s surface. Starlink satellites operate at a fraction of the height in low Earth orbit (LEO) — a mere 342 miles (550 km) above the surface.
LEO gives Starlink a distinct advantage compared to HEO. Since their satellites travel a shorter distance around the Earth, they pass overhead more frequently. The close range and dense coverage of these satellites mean they can supply lower latency and higher throughput to subscribers.
Comparing Starlink vs. 5G
Starlink began as a fixed wireless access use case requiring a satellite dish to be mounted to your home or building. Today, Starlink dishes can be mounted to vehicles or vessels, allowing users to maintain connectivity while on the move.
Yet while this low-orbit satellite service provides broadband over the air in virtually any location, Starlink still differs from 5G quite a bit?
One of Starlink's primary assets is its ability to bypass the limitations of traditional Internet infrastructure to provide connectivity to remote and underserved areas. However, successful Starlink connections require an unobstructed view of the sky.
With dense coverage in populated areas and three different types of 5G available to optimize performance and propagation, 5G offers better overall coverage compared to satellite. Although 5G networks are being deployed globally, achieving comprehensive coverage across vast rural areas may take time. That being said, 5G still has fewer topographical challenges compared to satellite service, with continued expansion on the horizon.
In optimal conditions, Starlink download speeds range between 50 and 250 Mbps. Comparatively, 5G can deliver average download speeds between 50 Mbps and 2 Gbps, depending on available spectrum layers. Although LEO satellites have significantly shorter latency than their high-orbit counterparts, 5G still beats out Starlink on latency, with 5G standalone latency rates capable of reaching single digits.
As its subscriber base grows, Starlink may begin to face saturation and congestion challenges that will negatively impact throughput and performance. Alternatively, 5G has tremendous network capacity — up to 1,000 times more than 4G — and its traffic can be optimized through advanced technology such as 5G network slicing.
Starlink provides a simple solution, but not the robust, wide-ranging network security features necessary today for preventing breaches. Connecting a satellite gateway to a Cradlepoint router adds not only the inherent network security of cellular WAN, but also the ability to establish zero trust architecture and SASE features throughout the network — all controlled through one management platform.
While 5G carriers can spread operational costs across billions of users, deploying a new satellite comes with a slower return on investment. These cost differences are ultimately reflected in the price point for customers. Both 5G networks and Starlink require an investment in rate plans and hardware, but cellular offers significantly more cost options based on service provider, location, and available data plans.
Maximizing the capabilities of Starlink and 5G together
With their key differences, 5G, Starlink, and even wired connections can work together to form a more reliable network.
Out of the box, a Starlink router provides entry-level functionality similar to a traditional in-home wireless router. However, by enabling IP passthrough mode and attaching it to a 5G router downstream, Starlink can become a failover link. In this scenario, users can use an SD-WAN to independently steer traffic on a per-application basis to any of the defined links
When enterprises use Starlink devices connected to hybrid WAN primary routers, use cases involving critical communication needs and remote areas abound. This is a winning combination for rural public service agencies, remote oil field operations, offshore vessels, and more.