How Starlink Could Get Rural Families Online

Connecting via satellite

Key Takeaways

  • Elon Musk’s Starlink service is rolling out to users, and among those who could benefit are rural families who often lack broadband access.
  • The Starlink service reportedly costs $99 a month plus a $499 initial cost to order the starter kit.
  • Industry observers say Starlink won’t replace fiber optic lines.
Farmer counts yields on a computer
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Rural families lacking broadband service may finally be able to get a speedy internet connection thanks to the recent rollout of the satellite internet service Starlink.

Door County, Wisconsin is among the areas that have become public beta testing sites for Starlink. Starlink claims it will have "near global coverage of the populated world in 2021," according to its website. The service is desperately needed in more remote areas, experts say.

"There are many rural areas in the US where installing extensive wired infrastructure makes very little sense, logistically speaking," Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, an internet service comparison site, said in an email interview. "Starlink and other low Earth orbit broadband initiatives will play a crucial role in these communities, as they do not rely on an existing infrastructure backbone to operate."

Thousand of Orbiting HotSpots

Starlink is a satellite internet network being constructed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, intended to provide satellite Internet access. The constellation will consist of thousands of mass-produced satellites, and provide high-speed access to areas around the world.

Among its customers could be the many Americans who live in places where broadband is hard to come by. According to a report by the FCC, nearly one-fourth of the population—14.5 million people—lack access to this broadband in rural areas. In tribal regions, almost one-third of the population lacks access.

There are many rural areas in the US where installing extensive wired infrastructure makes very little sense, logistically speaking.

According to CNBC, the Starlink service costs $99 a month plus a $499 initial cost to order the Starlink Kit. The kit includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod, and a Wi-Fi router. The price may be well worth it to some rural customers who have struggled to find broadband service.

"Ultimately, the best connectivity comes from fiber optic cable, as it supports the highest data rates," Barry Matsumori, CEO of BridgeComm, a company specializing in optical wireless, said in an email interview. "However, the cost of fiber optic cable makes it prohibitive for low-density housing regions."

But Starlink won’t replace fiber optic lines, industry observers say. Carl Russo, CEO of Calix, a software company for communications providers, estimated that the total capacity of Starlink’s proposed satellite internet could deliver a Gigabit connection to only 4,800 broadband subscribers in the entire United States.

"When compared to a single fiber network that is capable of Petabits per second of capacity, there is no comparison," he said in an email interview. "So where it makes business sense to connect subscribers via fiber, the math is very clear."

High, but Speedy

Starlink aims to provide speeds and latency comparable to a wired connection—a first for satellite-based internet, Cooper said. Since the satellites are positioned in low orbit, users can take advantage of things like video conferencing, streaming, online gaming, and other bandwidth-intensive applications.

The cost of fiber optic cable makes it prohibitive for low-density housing regions.

The Starlink service should get better as more satellites are boosted into orbit. The company has indicated it aims to pursue a more comprehensive release sometime this year, Cooper said.

"While no other low Earth orbit service is currently available to residential customers, Amazon's Project Kuiper is another initiative that plans to offer similar service to underserved areas globally," he added. "That said, the company has no commercial satellites in orbit as of [right now]."

two farmers using a tablet while standing in a field
shotbydave / Getty Images

The heads of Starlink and Project Kuiper recently got into a war of words, signaling the growing competition for internet from the skies. The two companies are battling over interference between their constellations of satellites. Amazon has protested Starlink’s orbital parameters, claiming it would interfere with its operations. Musk said Amazon’s protest would hamper SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellites, while Amazon replied that SpaceX sought to smother competition.

Rural internet users could be in for a speed boost if Starlink fulfills its promises. Let’s just hope the Starlink crafts don’t cross paths with Amazon’s satellites.

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