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Starlink vs LTE: A Comprehensive Comparison for the Digital Divide

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the digital divide into stark relief, as millions of Americans struggled to work and learn remotely without adequate internet access. According to the FCC, an estimated 21 million people in the US lack broadband internet, the majority in rural areas. Traditional wired technologies like cable and fiber are often too costly to deploy in these low-density regions, leaving residents with few good options.

But a new generation of wireless broadband solutions is poised to change that. Foremost among them are Starlink, the satellite internet service from Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, and enhanced LTE and 5G home internet plans from mobile carriers like Verizon. Both leverage cutting-edge technology to deliver broadband speeds in places the cable simply doesn‘t reach.

For the huge swath of the country that has been left behind in the digital revolution, Starlink and LTE represent a potential paradigm shift, a chance to finally join the modern internet economy. But how do the two solutions really compare? Let‘s take an expert dive into the technical details and market dynamics to find out.

Starlink: A Ambitious Attempt to Blanket the Globe in Broadband

Starlink is Elon Musk‘s ambitious project to deliver high-speed, low-latency internet access from orbit. The plan involves launching a massive "megaconstellation" of up to 42,000 small satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) approximately 330-550 km above the Earth‘s surface. By blanketing the skies in satellites, Starlink aims to provide continuous internet coverage to virtually the entire planet.

The satellites themselves are relatively small at around 500 lbs each, a form factor made possible by miniaturization of key components like antennas, solar arrays, and ion thrusters. They are designed to autonomously avoid collisions and safely deorbit at the end of their 5-year lifespans to reduce space junk.

To provide service, Starlink satellites communicate with each other using lasers to form a mesh network in space. They connect to ground terminals (what Starlink calls "Dishy McFlatface") that use advanced phased array antennas to track and communicate with passing satellites. Customer data is routed through the satellite network and to ground stations that provide internet backhaul.

Starlink services officially launched in late 2020 after extensive testing and multiple failures. As of November 2022, Starlink has over 1 million subscribers worldwide, serviced by a constellation of 3,023 operational satellites (with more than 10,000 planned in the next few years). Customers can expect speeds of 50-200 Mbps download and 10-20 Mbps upload, with latency in the 20-40 ms range.

Technical details

Starlink currently utilizes the Ku (12-18 GHz) and Ka (26.5-40 GHz) frequency bands for its service links and user terminals. The FCC has also authorized the company to use the E-band (71-76 GHz and 81-86 GHz) for satellite links. By operating in higher frequency bands with wider channel bandwidths, Starlink can deliver faster speeds and serve more customers compared to traditional satellite internet providers.

Starlink‘s secret sauce is its cutting-edge satellite and antenna technology that allows fast, low-latency connectivity. Their proprietary low-profile "Dishy" terminals use beamforming and electronically steerable phased array antennas to track satellites across the sky without any mechanical steering. Starlink also boasts advanced collision avoidance and GPS technologies to maintain precise orbits and spacing between satellites.

Pricing and availability

Starlink offers several tiers of residential service:

  • Starlink: 50-200 Mbps speeds, 20-40 ms latency, $110/mo + $599 equipment
  • Best Effort: 50-200 Mbps speeds, 20-40 ms latency, $90/mo + $400 equipment
  • RV: 5-100 Mbps speeds, pay-as-you-go service, $150/mo + $599 equipment

Starlink is currently available across 30+ countries, with plans to rapidly expand globally. The company has regulatory approval to operate up to 1 million user terminals in the US. According to Ookla, Starlink had a median download speed of 105 Mbps in Q3 2022 across the US, beating all other satellite providers.

LTE and 5G: Leveraging Existing Mobile Networks for Fixed Wireless

While Starlink is building a new broadband network from scratch in space, mobile carriers are increasingly looking to repurpose their existing cellular infrastructure for home internet service. By installing outdoor antennas and specialized modems, customers can tap into nearby cell towers for a high-speed wireless connection, without relying on aging DSL or cable lines.

The current workhorse technology is LTE, which powers 4G mobile networks across the country. LTE is based on OFDM modulation and supports channel bandwidths up to 20 MHz, allowing theoretical max speeds of 300 Mbps. Typical download speeds for carrier fixed LTE plans range from 25-100 Mbps, with latency of 30-50 ms. All three major US carriers now offer dedicated LTE home internet plans:

  • Verizon LTE Home Internet: $50/mo ($40 with mobile plan) for 25-50 Mbps typical speeds
  • T-Mobile Home Internet: $50/mo, 33-183 Mbps speeds, no equipment fees or contract
  • AT&T Fixed Wireless: $60-70/mo for 10-25 Mbps speeds, with 350 GB data cap

Looking ahead, 5G technology promises to greatly expand the speed and capacity of cellular home broadband. 5G uses higher frequency bands (including mid-band and millimeter wave spectrum), massive MIMO antennas, and network slicing to deliver speeds up to 1 Gbps and latency as low as 1 ms. Verizon and T-Mobile have launched 5G home plans in select areas:

  • Verizon 5G Home: $50-70/mo for 300 Mbps – 1 Gbps speeds
  • T-Mobile 5G Home Internet: $50/mo for 33-183 Mbps speeds

Rollout and availability

The big advantage of cellular broadband is that it leverages existing nationwide LTE networks that already cover over 99% of the US population. Carriers have invested hundreds of billions in these networks over the past decade. With much of the infrastructure in place, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T can offer home internet with minimal additional per-customer deployment costs.

Still, coverage and performance remain variable, especially in rural areas. Carriers are densifying LTE networks by adding many more small cells and extending the LTE Advanced standard. These ongoing upgrades could boost rural speeds to around 100 Mbps in the coming years.

5G promises a huge leap in wireless home broadband availability and quality, but the rollout is still in early stages. Carriers are racing to acquire needed mid-band spectrum, deploy standalone 5G networks, and expand coverage, a capital-intensive process that will take years. TechUK predicts 5G FWA could serve 6.6 million households in the US by 2026 with a potential annual revenue of $18.8 billion.

Starlink vs LTE/5G: Comparison


In real-world testing, Starlink users average around 100 Mbps download speeds, exceeding the 25 Mbps target set by the FCC for what qualifies as broadband. LTE home internet speeds vary widely but average 25-50 Mbps down. Early 5G deployments are faster, typically offering 300 Mbps or more. So while Starlink has a clear edge over LTE today, 5G could meet or beat its speeds in the coming years as the technology matures.


Starlink‘s low-earth orbit architecture gives it a huge latency advantage over traditional geostationary satellite internet, but it still can‘t quite match cellular. Starlink pings average 20-40 ms compared to around 8-12 ms for LTE. Emerging 5G networks could cut latency down to 1 ms in optimal conditions. For latency-sensitive applications like gaming and video conferencing, LTE or 5G is likely the better choice.

Coverage area

Starlink is slated to offer near-global coverage within the next few years as it expands to a target of over 30,000 satellites. For truly remote areas beyond the reach of cell towers, it may be the only viable high-speed option. LTE already covers the vast majority of the US population, but geographic coverage is closer to only 70% of the country‘s landmass. 5G rollouts will initially focus on urban areas, potentially increasing the rural coverage gap in the medium term.

Cost and value

Starlink‘s $110/mo service fee, plus $599 up front for equipment, makes it one of the pricier broadband options out there. But for homes with no other good choices, it could still represent a great value. LTE home internet is more affordable at $50-60/mo with no equipment costs, but speeds are lower today. 5G will offer a big jump in performance but will likely command a premium price.


While Starlink has made great strides, its cutting-edge space-based technology is still prone to outages from weather, obstructions, and solar activity. LTE networks are mature and dependable, built to strict reliability standards. Backed by redundant fiber and hardened infrastructure, cellular broadband will likely remain more stable than Starlink for some time. However, both are subject to slowdowns in periods of peak usage and network congestion.


Starlink and carrier LTE/5G home internet are ushering in an exciting new era of broadband competition and access. For the first time, we have the technology to affordably serve the broadband needs of almost every home in America. A 2022 report from Fiber Broadband Association estimates that 60% of Starlink and cellular-served households could not previously access 25/3 Mbps broadband.

Looking ahead, Starlink‘s biggest challenge will be maintaining its breakneck launch pace and bringing down subscriber costs as it scales the business. It faces rising competition from rival LEO constellations like Amazon‘s Project Kuiper and the UK government-backed OneWeb (although these remain far behind SpaceX in deployment).

For cellular, the key will be expediting the rollout and densification of 5G networks, especially in underserved rural areas. Government initiatives like the $45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program could accelerate deployment of high-speed 5G in parts of the country that might not otherwise be economical for carriers to serve.

Ultimately, robust satellite and cellular broadband networks will likely coexist and complement each other to close gaps in the digital divide. Several carriers have expressed interest in partnering with LEO providers like Starlink to extend their network reach. The FCC is also exploring opening up the 12 GHz band for dual use between satellites and 5G.

Regardless of which technology "wins", increased competition and innovation in this space is a major victory for unserved and underserved households across the country. As FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel put it: "No matter who you are or where you live, you need access to modern communications to have a fair shot at 21st century success." With Starlink and cellular home broadband, we‘re one step closer to that goal.