Emerging low-orbit satellite technology could undercut costly broadband rollout

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THE FUTURE OF INTERNET CONNECTIVITY?: Vermonters may need futuristic technology solutions like Starlink to get everyone online.

As Vermont prepares to invest hundreds of millions in expanded broadband internet throughout the state, a low-orbit satellite technology pioneered by the Elon Musk-led company SpaceX could turn out a more taxpayer-friendly option with comparable performance.

Starlink is an expanding network of thousands of low-orbit satellites that provide low-latency online performance, offering fast internet connectivity anywhere, but especially to rural, off-the-grid residents who otherwise struggle to gain access to broadband.

The service, pioneered by Elon Musk’s futuristic SpaceX, is still in its implementation phase. New satellites are being put into orbit 60 at a time with each SpaceX rocket launch, and the network is expected to reach full implementation of its initial phase within several weeks. The company aims to offer wireless connectivity coverage for the entire planet by 2025.

“It will likely render fiber-based broadband obsolete in the near term future,” Asher Crispe, executive director of Vermont Future Now, told True North last week in a phone interview.

Vermont is ramping up its investment into community broadband deployment as lawmakers seek to pass H.360, a $150 million broadband bill that would fund “communications union districts,” (CUDs) in which towns partner to develop coordinated, regional solutions for broadband connectivity. Vermont currently has nine such CUDs working with 80% of Vermont towns.

Gov. Phil Scott has proposed spending another $250.5 million on broadband and wireless connectivity using federal funds provided through the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA).

Mark Snelling, the son of the late Richard Snelling, who served as Vermont’s governor from 1977 to 1985 and again briefly in 1991, says he has been a Starlink user since February. He told True North it’s a quickly developing service that could be ideal for rural settings.

“Fiber, if available, is the best option, but … my key takeaway for you is that every situation is different, and there are some situations where fiber is never going to show up,” he said.

Snelling noted that one fiber company brought a broadband line almost within reach of his home, but “they wanted $10,000 to go the extra half a mile.”

Snelling said existing satellites take roughly four times as long to send a message up to the satellite and back compared to the Starlink network — this is what the term “low-latency” refers to, and what gives Starlink its advantage.

Crispe said there is some opposition to Starlink. Some Vermonters, he said, distrust billionaire Musk because he is among the super-wealthy. Also, some say sticking with conventional broadband means supporting local business. But Crispe isn’t so sure.

“Those providers are likely to all go out of business,” he said. “… [Musk’s] network will beat them.”

Snelling shared that linking almost every rural Vermont home is going to be difficult using the current technology and funding.

“There are going to be places — with the available money now — that are considered uneconomical, that are still going to get done,” he said. “But there are going to be some so egregiously uneconomical homes in Vermont that will not get done. And for those, Starlink makes perfect sense.”

Snelling said compared to the DSL (telephone line) system he used before, Starlink is giving him about four times the download speed and 25 times the upload speed. He said Starlink has occasional glitches from when satellites might not be aligned properly, but that the system is working well and improving.

“I’ve been up for probably 10 weeks and the Starlink service is much better today than it was the day I plugged it in,” he said. “Over the last 24 hours, I had about 25 seconds that it was not functional.”

The state of Vermont has determined that Snelling’s road is going to get fiber access, which Snelling learned by receiving a door-hanger notice. At that point he will have multiple options to consider.

Technology review website Tomsguide.com posted a performance review of Starlink, and gave it an positive review for reaching rural customers.

“Even in its current beta form, Elon Musk’s Starlink largely delivers on its promise of bringing high-speed internet access to those living in rural areas,” it states. ” … Elon Musk’s rather audacious proposal to put thousands of satellites in the air to reach remote customers is already paying off according to our tests of the still-in-beta Starlink service.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North. Send him news tips at bielawski82@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Image courtesy of Public domain

3 thoughts on “Emerging low-orbit satellite technology could undercut costly broadband rollout

  1. For the love of god stop calling the satellites and call them balloons like they are…
    if you have any doubt look up samsung’s “satellites” balloons
    if you goto thier webpage and they called it space satellite… they are lying to everyone

    or mabey you wanna buy space ship its a cessna 172 .. low miles (/sarcasm)

  2. My son lives 600′ from our house. A utility pole next to his house provides gig internet service from Comcast to his home. We have underground electric and phone lines from that pole. Our DSL service from Consolidated uses 2 of those phone lines and provide 3 mbs on a good day. When the grandchildren are here and try to use the internet to learn remotely, neither my wife nor I can use our computers for our business or personal use and the grandkid’s devices are very slow. Our ATT cell service is mostly unusable at our home so we have an ATT mini cell tower that sends/receives our cell phone calls out on the internet. Rain and wet snow will compromise one phone line making it difficult to impossible to use and it also slows down our internet considerably and drops cell phone calls even when it is not wet or raining. The rain and snow problem has continued for 30 years. Consolidated sends out repair personnel but it keeps on happening. At this time they are being very diligent in responding to our calls and making a serious effort to really fix it. The problem is that the 1 mile long line is old and no one believes that there is any chance of an upgrade anytime soon. With Comcast service only 600′ away we asked them to provide our internet service. The only stumbling block to that solution is the $12,000.00 (Yes, that is twelve thousand dollars) they would charge us to run that line. I asked if we could do the installation of the conduit ourselves (like we did for our Morrisville Electric and phone service) to save money and they said that only their contractors could do it. At $2000.00 per 100′ it will indeed take a lot of money to connect everyone to high speed internet. I signed up for Starlink 3 weeks ago and can’t wait for an internet service that won’t allow time for naps between downloads.

  3. So, VT is planning to piss away 150 million for a system that will become obsolete before it is ever completed. Just brilliant.

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