SpaceX’s Starlink may help bring internet to rural areas

A deer stands beside a Starlink satellite antenna—affectionately known as dishy—in rural Michigan. Photo by Oldcraftgeek via Reddit

By Luciano Cesta
Boston University News Service

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet has played an increasingly important role in many people’s lives. Work, school and entertainment have become an online endeavor. Connection to the outside world has been made possible by technology.

These services require reliable internet service. However, many people still do not have access to reliable broadband internet. This is especially the case in poorer and more rural areas.

In rural areas of Canada and the United States, it can be more difficult to get high-speed internet access. As of 2018, 78 percent of the U.S. population in rural areas had access to home, non-cellular broadband internet with download speeds over 25 megabits per second. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 25 megabits per second is fast enough to stream HD video or videoconference at the same time for more than one person.

Meanwhile, 99 percent of the urban population has access to high speed internet. 

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission says that around 45.6 percent of rural households have broadband internet with at least a 50 megabits per second download speed.

Starlink, SpaceX’s foray into satellite internet, which launched in late 2020, wants to close this divide with its faster satellite technology. According to the company, download speeds during the current beta-test period should range from 50 to 150 — enough for multiple people to use Zoom with no issue. Starlink does not currently have any data limits. 

Older competing satellite providers do not offer Starlink’s competitive speeds.

Instead, they often impose slower speeds after a certain threshold of data consumption. Viasat offers up to 50 megabits per second on their marketing materials. Depending on an individual’s plan, the company may make the internet slower after a certain threshold of data is reached.

HughesNet offers up to 25 megabits per second speeds. However, the company says that they will slow an individual’s internet to 1-3 megabits per second after the data cap is exceeded. 

There are also other options available when no ground-based internet exists. Some areas have access to cellular home internet. This internet is similar to regular home internet. However, it connects to a nearby LTE cell tower.

T-Mobile promises speeds over 50 megabits per second with no data caps. AT&T offers speeds of around 25 megabits per second with a data cap of 350 gigabytes. Verizon promises up to 25 megabits per second with no data caps.

Bill Tetley, from Wellesley Township, Ontario, has struggled with internet service in the past. He says that his LTE-based internet from his Canadian provider had a low data cap of 100 gigabytes. It was also inconsistent. His download speeds ranged from 10 to 15 megabits per second. Though he still has some consistency issues with Starlink, he no longer has a data cap and the speeds he experiences are faster at around 30 to 130 megabits per second. 

“We would try hard to stay under 100 gigabytes, but routinely went over and that got very expensive,” Tetley said.

Starlink is not cheap. Users are required to buy a starter kit that includes a satellite antenna —affectionately named dishy by Starlink’s users — which costs $499. Service itself costs $99 per month; in contrast, according to data from market research consultancy BVA-BDRC and, Americans pay an average of $66 per month for broadband internet. Canadians spend even lower rates than Americans, at an average of $55 per month on the internet.

While the initial reception of the service has been positive, Starlink has its detractors. The International Astronomical Union says that satellite constellations like Starlink’s may make it more difficult to use sensitive ground-based telescopes. Radio telescopes, which recently were instrumental in producing the first image of a black hole, can also be threatened by the interference that the Starlink constellations create.

Starlink is currently in its beta-testing phase where they are limiting the number of users in a given area, but, according to their website, they “will continue expansion to near-global coverage of the populated world in 2021.”

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