By: Andrew Holden, Extension Educator, Agriculture & Natural Resources, The Ohio State University Extension
Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is to provide you with information about a new internet service technology and is not an endorsement of the company or their services. I hope that this information will assist you in making informed decisions and help you learn more about the importance of high-speed internet for rural communities.
Slow internet can frustrate almost anyone, but if you live in a rural area, slow internet, if any, can often be your only choice. The lack of high-speed internet access has been a concern for many years in rural America. While companies slowly improve service and governmental programs try to address these issues, many rural residents are left waiting for faster internet that can’t come soon enough. One company that is attempting to close this digital divide is SpaceX, with its high-speed satellite internet system called Starlink. While Starlink is just beginning to roll out service, the initial results appear to be promising.
Rural communities and Tribal lands have far less access to high-speed internet compared to those in more populated areas. The Federal Communications Commission considers high-speed broadband internet as being able to provide 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. According to the FCC’s, 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, “22.3% of Americans in rural areas and 27.7% of Americans in Tribal lands lack coverage from fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband, as compared to only 1.5% of Americans in urban areas”. Those without high-speed internet access can often be categorized under the phrase “last mile” customers. The last mile problem can be described as the customers at the end of the communication line that is more expensive to reach and located farther apart. As unfortunate as it is, in basic terms, companies would rather run a mile of infrastructure in an area that will yield 25 customers than run a mile for just one customer. Diminishing returns leads to internet companies being unwilling to improve internet in rural areas, as well as less competition for existing providers.
The impact of the digital divide can be felt across the US by those living in small and rural towns. Many aspects of modern life are affected by access to high-speed internet, including education, healthcare, entertainment, and employment. In a report from Michigan State University’s Quello Center, students with slow or limited internet access lacked digital skills and performed lower on standardized tests. In addition to education, 2020 highlighted the future of working remotely and virtual healthcare appointments which rely on faster internet. Rural businesses, from farms to manufacturing, benefit from better internet speeds as well, making it quicker to send and receive information. As technology improves and expands, more people in rural areas are slowly receiving better internet services, but one company that may have the ability to close the gap seemingly overnight is SpaceX.
SpaceX, short for the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, is an aerospace manufacturer founded by Elon Musk. Musk is also the founder of the popular electric vehicle company Tesla Motors. One of SpaceX’s business endeavors is providing satellite internet access via a satellite consolation called Starlink. This isn’t like the traditional satellite internet that has been offered over the years. Starlink uses satellites in low Earth orbit that allow for shorter distances and speeds over 100 Mbps for those in the beta testing program. Speeds like that would be a huge improvement for almost anyone in a rural area and can be offered remotely to the hardest to reach places. In February, Starlink opened pre-orders to the public and has been slowly filling orders ever since. With the high demand for the service, many orders are slated to be filled by the end of 2021 depending on your location. The current advertised cost for the service is $99.00 per month with the hardware, including a small satellite dish and a router, for a $499.00 one-time payment. On their website, Starlink states service will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and is currently taking $100 down payments to get in line for the service. If you are interested in seeing if service is available in your area or sign up yourself, you can visit www.Starlink.com to do so.
Will Starlink satellites be the solution to our rural internet woes? When considering access to high-speed internet service in rural areas, one thing that has historically lacked were options to choose from. Starlink will provide another option, or possibly the first option, to those living with poor to no access to the internet and may solve the last mile problem for many rural communities. Even those who do not use Starlink’s service could benefit from the competition that will encourage traditional internet providers to improve their infrastructure and speeds. Rural communities here in Ohio and across the United States could benefit greatly from better internet access and Starlink is on its way to providing it.
2020 Broadband Deployment Report: https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/reports/broadband-progress-reports/2020-broadband-deployment-report
Poor Internet connection leaves rural students behind https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2020/poor-internet-connection-leaves-rural-students-behind#:~:text=Slow%20Internet%20connections%20or%20limited,college%20admissions%20and%20career%20opportunities.