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Starlink vs Windstream: A Detailed Comparison for Rural Internet

For many years, residents in rural and remote areas have had to deal with slow, unreliable internet compared to their urban counterparts. According to the FCC, over 14 million Americans still lack access to broadband internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. This digital divide has major implications, making it harder for rural communities to access online education, healthcare, business opportunities and more.

However, new internet service providers are finally starting to bring faster, more modern connectivity to underserved regions. Two of the most prominent are Starlink, the satellite internet service from Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, and Windstream, a DSL and fiber provider specifically focused on rural areas. In this article, we‘ll take a very detailed look at how Starlink and Windstream actually work and compare in terms of speeds, pricing, availability, and more to help you decide which is the best fit for rural internet.

Overview of Starlink Internet

Starlink is a satellite internet constellation constructed by SpaceX with the goal of providing high-speed, low-latency internet worldwide, particularly in areas where wired broadband isn‘t available. Since launching its beta service in late 2020, Starlink has quickly grown to over 1 million users across 40+ countries.

Unlike previous satellite internet systems which relied on a few large satellites in high geostationary orbit (~22,000 miles above Earth), Starlink uses many smaller satellites flying much closer in low earth orbit (LEO), around 340 miles high. Because signals have a much shorter distance to travel, this allows Starlink to provide significantly faster speeds and lower latency compared to other satellite options like HughesNet or Viasat.

As of 2023, Starlink has launched over 3,500 satellites with thousands more planned to further improve coverage and capacity. The satellites communicate with each other via laser links and connect to ground stations on Earth called "gateways." Each Starlink satellite weighs around 500 lbs and is roughly the size of a table, with a flat-panel design that minimizes volume and reflective surface area.

To access the Starlink network, users need to install a ground terminal that SpaceX calls "Dishy McFlatface" (yes, really). The Starlink dish is a phased array antenna that can automatically track satellites as they move overhead. The dish is paired with a Wi-Fi router to allow devices in the home to connect.

Overview of Windstream Internet

Windstream is a much more traditional wired internet provider that has been serving customers across 18 U.S. states since 2006. The company‘s focus is on expanding affordable internet access in rural areas within its coverage region.

Windstream offers two main types of internet service — DSL and fiber-optic. DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line, is an older broadband technology that transmits data over copper phone lines. While generally much slower than modern cable or fiber connections, DSL has the advantage of running on existing phone line infrastructure that reaches many rural locations where other wired options aren‘t available.

In more recent years, Windstream has also begun investing heavily in building out a fiber-optic network, branded as "Kinetic by Windstream." Fiber uses flexible glass strands to transmit data via light signals, allowing for a huge increase in speed and bandwidth compared to DSL or cable. Fiber also has the unique advantage of being able to provide matching upload and download speeds, which is important for video calls, content creation, and cloud computing.

As of 2023, Windstream‘s DSL service is available to around 11 million households, while their fiber network reaches around 1 million. Below is a table comparing some key stats for Starlink and Windstream:

Provider Starlink Windstream DSL Windstream Fiber
Max Download Speed 350 Mbps 100 Mbps 1000 Mbps
Max Upload Speed 40 Mbps 10 Mbps 1000 Mbps
Latency 20-40 ms 25-50 ms 10-20 ms
Monthly Price $110 $40-65 $60-80
Availability 40+ countries 18 U.S. states 18 U.S. states

Speed and Performance Analysis

In terms of raw speed, Windstream‘s fiber service offers the fastest max download and upload speeds at up to 1 Gbps, compared to around 350 Mbps max for Starlink and 100 Mbps or less for Windstream DSL. However, real-world speeds can vary based on location, network congestion, and other factors.

In Speedtest‘s Q4 2022 report, Starlink had a median download speed of 104 Mbps, up from 65 Mbps the previous year. Windstream‘s median download speed clocked in at 24 Mbps, an increase from 21 Mbps in Q4 2021. It‘s important to note though that this Windstream metric includes both their DSL and fiber customers lumped together. Fiber speeds are likely much higher but skewed by the larger volume of slower DSL connections.

Latency is another important factor, especially for online gaming and video calling. Starlink boasts latency as low as 20 ms in ideal conditions, which is very impressive for satellite and on par with wired services. Windstream‘s DSL latency tends to be a bit higher in the 25-50 ms range, while their fiber is comparable to Starlink around 10-20 ms.

It‘s also worth noting that Starlink performance can be more variable than a wired connection since it relies on having a clear view of the sky. Obstructions from trees or buildings and even heavy rain or snow can sometimes degrade speeds. Since Starlink‘s satellite constellation is not yet complete, some areas also have waitlists to sign up as the network is at capacity.

Pricing and Fees Comparison

The cost for Starlink and Windstream can vary quite a bit based on location and available promos. Starlink currently charges a flat $110/month for residential service, with no data caps or throttling. There‘s also an upfront hardware cost of $599 for the Starlink dish and router.

Windstream‘s pricing is more complex, with a range of plans and variable discounts for the first year of service. The table below shows the regular non-promo pricing for Windstream‘s most popular speed tiers:

Windstream Plan Monthly Price Max Download Speed Max Upload Speed
DSL 15-25 Mbps $45 25 Mbps 1-3 Mbps
DSL 50-100 Mbps $55 100 Mbps 10 Mbps
Fiber 200 Mbps $59 200 Mbps 200 Mbps
Fiber 400 Mbps $69 400 Mbps 400 Mbps
Fiber Gig $79 1000 Mbps 1000 Mbps

All Windstream plans come with unlimited data, no annual contracts, and a 30-day money-back guarantee. There is an additional $5/month fee to lease a Windstream Wi-Fi modem, which is required. Professional installation is available for $99, or a self-install kit can be mailed for a $50 fee.

So while Windstream has lower base pricing than Starlink, the hardware/install costs, varying discounts, and price increases after the first year make the long-term expense a bit murkier. Generally, Starlink will be cheaper than Windstream fiber over 2-3 years, while the DSL plans undercut Starlink‘s pricing.

Equipment and Installation Process

Both Starlink and Windstream require some specialized equipment and setup to get online. For Starlink, this involves installing the "Dishy" terminal yourself. Users have to find an open area on their property with a clear view of the sky, secure the dish to a post, pole or roof, and run cables to their home.

Starlink provides very detailed instructions and an app to help with aiming the dish and checking for obstructions. The kit also includes a special "snow melt" feature to automatically heat and de-ice the dish in winter conditions. Most users find they can install the dish in an hour or two without too much trouble. However, the size and weight of the dish and the need for a precise clear view can make finding an optimal spot tricky on some properties.

Windstream takes a more traditional approach, with both professional and self-install options available. If fiber is being laid to the home for the first time, Windstream will need to send out a crew to run the fiber-optic line from the road to a terminal box mounted on the outside of the house. This process can sometimes involve digging, drilling, or minor construction work.

Once fiber is connected to the terminal outside, Windstream provides a free wireless gateway router to allow devices in the home to connect via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. For DSL, installation is even simpler if the phone line is already in place. Users can either have a technician come set up their modem/router or opt for an easy self-install kit with step-by-step instructions.

Future Outlook and Impact

Looking ahead, the expansion of services like Starlink and Windstream fiber will be critical to closing the digital divide for rural America. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored just how essential reliable internet access is for remote work, education, healthcare and more.

Starlink in particular represents an exciting leap forward in satellite internet technology. While not without its limitations, the lower orbit laser-linked constellation approach allows it to deliver broadband-level speeds to areas that have been historically difficult or impossible to reach with wired infrastructure.

According to a report from research firm Cowen, Starlink is on track to have over 12,000 satellites in orbit by 2026. At that scale, the company could potentially provide service to millions of households in the U.S. and abroad, though capacity will still be constrained in very densely populated areas. Starlink has also begun partnering with school districts and Native American tribes to provide subsidized service in underserved communities.

At the same time, the rise of 5G and other fixed wireless technologies could pose growing competition to Starlink, especially if providers like T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T make rural coverage a priority. Wired fiber will also remain the gold standard where available, offering the highest speeds and lowest latency.

For its part, Windstream has committed $2 billion to expanding its fiber footprint in the coming years, aiming to reach up to 3 million locations by 2026. The company is partnering with state and local governments to secure grants and subsidies to make these builds economically viable. Windstream is also participating in the FCC‘s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to help bring service to unserved census blocks.

Ultimately, truly closing the broadband gap will likely require a combination of technologies, providers, and policies tailored to the unique needs of each rural region and community. But having quality options like Starlink and Windstream available is a major step in the right direction.

The Bottom Line

So which is better for rural internet, Starlink or Windstream? The short answer is it depends. If Windstream fiber is available in your area, that‘s going to be hard to beat in terms of speed and reliability. But coverage is still limited and not expanding all that fast.

For the many areas where fiber isn‘t an option, Starlink‘s faster speeds, lower latency, and wide availability make it very attractive compared to aging DSL networks. The main trade-offs are higher costs, more variable service, and the potential for waitlists in some regions.

Still, having multiple capable providers like Starlink and Windstream to choose from is a win for rural residents who have been making do with far less for far too long. Both offer a major upgrade over previous satellite and DSL services.

In my expert opinion, Starlink is a more transformative and future-proof technology overall. If SpaceX can continue executing on its ambitious roadmap, Starlink has the potential to connect millions of underserved households and truly bridge the digital divide worldwide. The main challenges will be keeping costs down, maintaining performance as more users come online, and navigating the regulatory hurdles of a global rollout.

That said, Windstream and other traditional wired providers still have an important role to play in the rural broadband equation. Building out robust "future-proof" fiber networks should remain the long-term priority wherever feasible. The ideal scenario would be for Starlink to provide a viable option for the hardest to reach areas, while Windstream and others focus on shoring up coverage in smaller towns and communities just beyond the suburbs.

The digital divide developed over decades due to the fundamental economics and challenges of rural infrastructure. Closing it will require an equally long-term, multi-pronged, public-private effort. But having new and improving options like Starlink and Windstream available is a critical piece of the solution. With any luck, the days of rural Americans being stuck with dial-up or worse will soon be a thing of the past.