An off-grid Starlink user achieves 'infinite WiFi' with 300 watts of solar
A Starlink user is running their setup purely on solar energy, allowing them to live an enviable off-grid lifestyle.
The Starlink customer, Steve Birch, who works in facility management, is powering SpaceX's internet service completely off-grid. The service, which has recently gained significant public attention for its role in the Ukraine conflict, allows users to access the internet almost anywhere — and Birch is taking that concept to its limits.
"Yes, during the summer, that was my goal [achieving infinite Wifi], and having it running 24/7," Birch, told IE on a video call this week.
A remote fully off-grid Starlink station
In a Reddit post last week, Birch wrote that he has a "remote fully off-grid Starlink station installed in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho." The station includes a 300-watt solar panel setup made up of three 100-watt panels and a 450Ah battery bank, and it's "been running like a champ 24/7 for the last week," he wrote in his post.
On our call with Birch, we asked whether his setup was still running smoothly and whether one Reddit commenter's claim that it would provide "infinite WiFi" was accurate. The initial setup worked non-stop for four days, he explained. Connectivity issues after the four-day mark — amid snowy conditions and temperatures of 12 degrees Fahrenheit (-11°C) — led him to seek assistance on Reddit. A smaller inverter later, he now believes he has 24/7 "self-sufficient" WiFi, achieving speeds of 113 Mbps, even in the pouring rain.
Birch used lead-acid batteries instead of lithium-ion to keep the cost down after figuring he'd need about 200 amp hours to run the system 24/7. He's now overshot the initial $1,200 budget he set aside and is somewhere over the $2,000 mark for the whole setup. "But it's worth it," he said. "It's something my family jokes about me, that I can't ever stop once I start a project because I do lots of little projects."
Mixing the world of campfires with live-stream sports
The idea for the sustainable off-grid Starlink setup came partly from Birch's need to connect with family from his remote Idaho getaway. "It's about a two and a half-hour drive, there's no cell phone coverage, and the one phone line was damaged by an earthquake and doesn't work very well, so there's no connectivity."
"That's a beautiful thing, but there are also things from a safety perspective that are challenging," Birch explained. "I couldn't connect with my mother and she wants to know that we're safe; moms never change, right?"
It was also partly down to Birch's love of green technology and a "karma" tradeoff. "So I felt there was some negative karma about bringing internet and bringing all that into the wilderness," he said, jokingly referring to teenagers watching Marvel movies while parents sit by the campfire. "And so I had to offset that karma, offset that debt, with something positive and try and do something cool here."
The setup allows Birch and his family to live stream UFC fights without issue and his son and wife to watch Chelsea FC out in the wilds — Birch said he recently caused a small accidental outage during the FA Cup final penalty shootout, leading to a yelp from his son in the other room.
Solar Starlink setup could help hikers in an emergency
Ultimately, though Birch emphasized his current setup is proof of concept, he believes it could be improved and used to help people hiking out in the Sawtooth Mountains. He and his family stay at a choke point where hikers enter and exit the Sawtooth Mountains, often for 10 days of "extreme hiking" on "rugged, unforgiving" terrain. There's only one road in and out and no cell phone coverage, meaning his setup could provide hikers their only connection point in an emergency.
Last summer, Birch said, a 20-year-old hiker came in off the trail who hadn't spoken to his family in days. "There's no cell phone coverage, the closest coverage is 50 miles away," Birch explained. "And so as a dad, I thought about his parents, and I asked, have you called your mom? Have you talked to your dad and told him you're safe? He's like, yeah, it's been a while, you know? And so I thought it would be kind of a beautiful thing to have it so if they did, so if someone else was in that position. They could use it to reach out to family and loved ones."
The off-grid Starlink station owner said he would "like to make it open, to allow people to use it," though he's worried about safety — as it's his access point — and he'd be open to a potential collaboration with a cybersecurity expert if he does end up making it accessible to people on the trail.
Shortly after the beginning of Russia's Ukraine invasion, Ukraine Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov appealed to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to provide Starlink internet coverage in the country. The private space company has since donated more than 3,000 Starlink terminals as well as equipment to run the service off-grid, allowing up to 150,000 users to connect daily.
SpaceX has also faced criticism for its Starlink service in recent months and years, with some disgruntled customers unhappy with recent price hikes due to inflation, and long delivery times. NASA has also warned that the growing orbital Starlink satellite fleet could negatively impact its ability to detect a potentially catastrophic asteroid impact in the future.
For Birch, it's enabled an incredible work-life balance: "I can enjoy the hot springs in the morning. Get a little bit of work in and then you know, five o'clock, four o'clock, whatever your time is, you just bug out. Hit the mountains, do whatever you want. Sit by the campfire."
Though he did concede that "it's a double-edged sword," as now he's "always reachable." An extremely relatable quandary for remote workers the world over.
Verena Mohaupt, logistics coordinator of MOSAiC, Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, talks about the perilous journey.