When Elon Musk came to the ranch

He’s a tad weird, but also a genius

Right from the git-go, there have been two missing links in our off-the-grid living adventure. One is a lack of reliable internet service, the other a growing scarcity of water. A solution to the first arrived on Tuesday, from a warehouse somewhere in Mexico, in the form of Starlink, a satellite internet system that is part of Elon Musk’s sprawling SpaceX company and his blazing imagination. Stew and I feel both relieved and awed.

Felisa (l.) and Ellie, our security team, check out the Starlink box for explosives or illicit drugs.

When we moved to the ranch 13 years ago, the sole internet option was a hit-and-miss service by Telcel, the near-monopoly that provides most cell phone service in Mexico. Unfortunately, our ranch is at the very edge of Telcel’s area of coverage, so our signal varied from feeble to none, depending on the sun, the wind or, for all we know, the price of tortillas. Just as feeble were proposals by fly-by-night entrepreneurs, including one to put a transmission tower in our ranch, with no promises that it would work or mention of any compensation for the disfigurement of our property. No thanks.

Four years ago, a more credible proposal came from another entrepreneur who was establishing a series of internet antennas on several hilltops in the rural areas surrounding San Miguel. He promised high-speed and reliable service, and installed a router in the house, and a small dish on the roof. On a reliability scale of one to ten, the service rates about a 6.5, with frequent hiccups and no service at all on cloudy or rainy days, when the solar-powered transmitters conk out, or succumb to other technical difficulties. The slow speed of the signal is particularly annoying in the evening, when the dreaded “buffering” circle appears, and goes ’round and ’round, and interrupts programming on streaming services like Netflix. Recently it took a couple of tries before we got to find out the murderer in an Agatha Christie serial. Or we receive a message that there isn’t enough internet oomph, if you pardon the technical term, to continue with the show. Time for bed.

Is that all there is?

Then Weird Elon showed up at our door. Actually we heard about Starlink from several people in town who were delighted with the service. So we ordered the installation package which showed up via DHL Express three days afterward. The cost is roughly $400 dollars for the setup kit, and $55 dollars monthly thereafter.

I must confess having some Luddite trepidations. If our former provider couldn’t muster a steady signal from a nearby hilltop, how is a signal from hundreds of miles up in the air going to get to us? We were reassured, though, by the nearly flawless performance of our Canadian satellite TV provider for more than ten years. For $50 dollars monthly, we receive the major American television channels, plus an assortment of Canadian curiosities like endless hockey games, programming by Canada’s indigenous people, and some French-language shows from Québec.

Laika, a victim of Soviet propaganda.

The discreetly gray Starlink box was very light and it contained a rectangular receiving rooftop dish, about 18 by 24 inches, with a mounting bracket, a special modem and what looked like miles of connecting wire. A white piece of cardboard showed three installation steps—the ultimate in plug-and-play. Stew and Félix climbed on the roof—I don’t fancy ladders or heights, and prefer to supervise the work from ground level—and bolted down the mounting bracket and reception dish. When we plugged the dish to the modem and an electrical outlet, the rooftop dish moved around seeking a satellite location. It reminded me of E.T. with his tinfoil contraption, searching for a signal from “home.” All three of us were duly amazed. Magic.

I am stunned by the sophistication and apparent simplicity of the new technology. In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, a pretty dumb 184-lb. satellite about the size of a beach ball, followed a month later by Sputnik II, this one carrying Laika, an unwitting mutt on a kamikaze mission that was more propaganda than science. These shocking breakthroughs, though, sent the U.S. into spasms of scientific inferiority for a few years.

A bit of magic: Félix watches the dish gyrate until it connects with the Starlink satellite.

In 2019, sixty-two years after Sputnik, Starlink began launching a constellation of mass-produced, low-orbit communications satellites. As of last month, there were over three thousand Starlink satellites already orbiting the earth, providing internet service to 40 countries. About 12,000 satellites are planned, with a possible extension to 42,000. As of June, Starlink had over 500,000 subscribers, including two happy guys at Rancho Santa Clara. Starlink projects to offer mobile telephone service by 2023.

The numbers boggle the mind and raise questions of a satellite traffic jam—both live and defunct, in addition to other junk—crowding the orbital lanes around the earth and possibly colliding with each other. Apparently this is not another neurotic concern of mine. Moriba Jah, an “astrodynamicist” and “space environmentalist” at the University of Texas, and a recent winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” is already studying the problem. Jah says that space may be infinite, but the orbital highways around the earth on which satellites travel, are not.

Anticipating such concerns, SpaceX says that the Starlink satellites are equipped with “krypton-fueled” thrusters that will de-orbit them at the end of their useful life, roughly five to seven years, and additionally, are equipped with collision-avoidance systems while they are service. That makes me feel a bit calmer.

As a service to my readers I planned to study Starlink technology and explain it in lucid, layman’s terms, but a third of the way through the Wikipedia entry, I realized most of it was beyond my comprehension—or attention span. If you want to find out more, here is the link.

Meanwhile, keep in mind that this blog post travelled from Rancho Santa Clara up to a Starlink satellite somewhere and down to wherever you are, courtesy of Elon and his constellation of satellites and brainiacs.

17 thoughts on “When Elon Musk came to the ranch

      1. Karen Quinn

        If Starlink is available here in the US, there is not much advertising for it. Comcast/Xfinitiy has almost got a monopoly here in Illinois I think. Their customer service stinks tho.


  1. Steve Weisberg

    When you were describing the joys of Canadian TV, you forgot to mention endless soccer, and my all-time favorite, curling. Better than a sleeping pill.


  2. John Wimberly

    In San Miguel de Allende on a hill overlooking the city, I am getting downloads of up to 200 (lows are in the 70s at times) and uploads up to 20 (lows around 10). Totally satisfied. john


  3. Kit

    Al, is this just for receiving tv programs, like Sonke, or does it bring wireless internet into your home for Netflicks, YouTube, iPad, computer, etc? Our service is pretty poor because of the mountains. And very expensive.


  4. Interesting article. I have experience with using IENTC at campo schools. Now I am trying to get internet to La Medina Primary, which is across the street from Don Bosco Dairy north of Los Rodriguez. IENTC service is problematic. Is your ranch anywhere close? What are the security issues for the antenna at a school overnight? I presume the signal can be shared with several classrooms.


    1. Our ranch is on the road to Jalpa, 5.5 km in from the junction with the highway to Queretaro, but that shouldn’t make any difference as far as Starlink reception, which comes from a satellite(s) in the sky and not any ground-based antennas. I can’t tell you about security, because I don’t know what’s the configuration of your school. The only thing exposed outside would be the receiving dish, which you bolt to the roof or something on the roof. Enterprising as thieves are around here, I can’t guarantee someone might try to steal it, though I don’t know what they’d do with it without the router. My best idea would be to pick a place on the roof that is somewhat concealed from ground level; the router you can lock up inside. We use Starlink on two cell phones, two TVs, two computers, a Google Alexa gizmo, though not all simultaneously. I don’t know how many classrooms you have but if they are close together in one building, it should work (maybe with some loss of speed if they all are connected simultaneously?) I know that outside our house, Starlink doesn’t reach very far. One curious glitch is that Starlink globs on to the Mexican Netflix, which doesn’t carry the same programs as Netflix from the U.S. Haven’t been able to figure that one out. Good luck. Installation of Starlink is a cinch as I mentioned in the blog post.



      1. Jesus Moulinet

        Good morning! Thank you for your very informative blog about Starlink. We live in Los Lopez out towards Cieneguita. We are seriously considering installing Starlink, We are currently using IENTC and their speeds are getting slower and more inconsistent as they hook up more customers. Would you mind answering the following questions?
        What speeds are you getting? Are they consistently in that range? Is your reception different during the day than at night? Given your comment about Netflix, do you have a VPN? If so, does it affect your speeds? Do you strictly use Starlink’s router or do you have repeaters or a mesh system throughout your house?

        Thank you for your time and again for your very informative blog(s).

        Jesus and Judy Moulinet


        1. Hello Jesus and Judy: Here’s the story as of this moment. I just checked (7 p.m.) and the download speed was 30 Mbps. When we first got the equipment three or four months ago, it was much faster, sometimes shooting up in the 90s. It is now faster at night. Despite the slower speeds we have had no complaints about interruptions or delays, particularly watching TV at night. So far so good. We use VPN on the computers but not on TV with Netflix. If I recall we were getting hassled by Netflix about using VPN. We have the one router that came with Starlink and a wi-fi extender in the bedroom, which is about 15 feet away. The TV in the bedroom and the living room both work fine. It sounds like the system you have now is like what we had before, when we were getting constant hiccups in the service and blackouts during bad weather. Anything else, please write again.


  5. Weirdos and genius seem to go hand in hand, do they not. Although I don’t know that Elon is much of a genius. But he certainly knows someone else’s smart idea when he sees one. Glad it’s working out for you. I’d be lost without decent internet connection.


    1. Creigh Gordon

      The Elon, genius or weirdo question reminds me of a remark an old boss made about a colleague: “He’s got a lot of intelligence but it’s all one kind.” For a while there it at least looked like the kind that makes a lot of money, but now I’m not so sure.


      1. I didn’t use to care about Musk’s weirdness because my Starlink internet was zooming, but now it’s slowing down because his “constellation” of satellites can’t keep up with demand. And Twitter is thrashing around. Hmm, maybe he’s not as smart as I thought.


  6. Thanks for the review. I’ve been wondering about using this service. Seems like a great option, and you can cancel at any time. I’d say that my only worry is that the service will deteriorate as more users are added to the network.

    Do you have to have a Mexican credit card to get the Mexican price? I think it’s more in the USA.


    Kim G
    Roma Sur, CDMX
    Where the internet is spotty at best. Despite it being fiber-optic.


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