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Could High-Speed Internet Access Finally Be Coming to Rural America?

Low-orbiting satellites hold promise, but cost may continue to be a barrier

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One of the joys — and banes — of living in the country is lack of internet access.

Disconnecting from the tyranny of Twitter and other social media can be a relief. But as many have learned during the pandemic, being unable to get high-speed internet access can make working, learning and video calling difficult, if not impossible, in rural areas.

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About 14.5 million Americans live in locales without broadband internet access. But the urban-rural divide is vast: At the end of 2019, 17 percent of rural residents and 21 percent who live on tribal lands lacked the even the slowest definition of high-speed internet access compared with about 1 percent in urban areas, according to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report released in January 2021.

Rural residents are also much more likely than suburban or urban residents to say that access to high-speed internet is a problem — more than half, 58 percent, vs. about a third of urban and suburban residents. That includes 23 percent who say it’s a major problem, more than double than those elsewhere, according to a June 2021 AARP study.

All that could change soon, thanks to new technology.

Federal and local governments have promised to bring broadband internet access to rural and underserved communities for decades with little progress. That's primarily because of the expense and limitations of the technology. Stringing miles of cables or optical fiber to a single rural customer doesn't make economic sense.

The same holds true for cellular service towers, and 5G wireless service that's expanding nationwide won't improve the situation. Its higher-frequency radio waves require an even greater concentration of towers because 5G wireless can't travel as far as 4G LTE transmissions.

Telephone wires, satellites are slower

So folks in the country have been stuck with old digital subscriber lines (DSL), which is internet service over wired telephone lines, or satellite services such as Germantown, Maryland-based HughesNet. Both are too slow to handle many of the ways information is disseminated today.

The maximum speed of DSL service in urban areas is 100 megabits per second (Mbps), according to the service-comparison site BroadbandNow. And that speed is more of a rare burst than a constant. The best a fixed DSL line could muster in our tests in a rural area was 1.2 Mbps on downloads.

Almost a quarter of rural residents are likely to use their local phone line to deliver high-speed internet via DSL, twice as likely as urban or suburban residents, according to the AARP study.

Existing satellite internet services promise up to 25 Mbps but usually fall short of that, especially when it's rainy, snowy or windy. Netflix streaming video service recommends speeds of at least 3 Mbps to watch a single standard-quality video, commonly referred to as 480p (a screen height of 480 pixels with a progressive scan that draws the picture line by line in sequence), 5 Mbps for high definition and 25 Mbps for ultra-high definition or 4K.

In 2015, the FCC raised the official requirements for broadband to 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. That's about 40 times slower than the gigabit download internet speeds that providers such as AT&T Fiber, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, Verizon Fios and Xfinity offer in urban areas.

Different kind of satellite offers alternative

Enter a potential solution now in early testing that uses small low earth orbit satellites. The first such service is called Starlink, launched by Elon Musk's SpaceX.

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It eventually will use a constellation of thousands of satellites to bring internet service to remote locations around the world with speeds of 300 Mbps or better. Unlike a HughesNet or DirecTV satellite, these are not geosynchronous or geostationary satellites, which typically sit in one spot about 22,000 miles above the planet. Starlink's smaller satellites orbit at 340 miles above the Earth, substantially reducing the signal delay or latency.

By the end of May, Redmond, Washington-based Starlink had more than 1,700 satellites in orbit. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets can put up 60 at one time, but thousands of satellites will be needed to provide full coverage. SpaceX has approval from the FCC to launch and operate up to 12,000 internet relay satellites.

Service during the beta test focused on southern Canada and the northern United States. After weeks of hands-on testing as part of Starlink's beta program, the technology already represents an improvement over the alternatives with speeds hundreds of times faster than DSL with a top download speed of 200 Mbps.

Hundreds of thousands eager for option

In early May, Musk announced that SpaceX had received more than a half million preorders for its satellite internet service, which is offered in more than just rural areas.

For the first time in our rural Vermont location, email downloaded in a split second, and we could stream movies without watching a “buffering” icon every few minutes. We also conducted Facetime, WebEx and Zoom video meetings and tried innumerable data intensive tasks, such as updating a computer operating system and playing games online. It all worked well with some provisos.

Speeds varied widely from about 28 Mbps to 200 Mbps. The low earth orbiting satellites move, so Starlink's motorized dish and software has to track them constantly, which could be one reason for some of the discrepancies. Furthermore, the Starlink connection often would drop for no apparent reason, suddenly interrupting what was until then a perfect Skype call.

These are hallmarks of an early beta test, and Starlink acknowledged as much to subscribers in a recent newsletter. As the company sends more satellites aloft, the company expects reliability will improve.

Viasat, a satellite internet provider based in Carlsbad, California, that started offering service in 2009, has objected to the large numbers of internet satellites, especially because SpaceX is now asking the FCC to authorize 30,000 more for itself. Among its objections are the potential for space debris or damaged satellites falling to Earth. The FCC hasn't made a decision on SpaceX's request.

Up-front equipment costs exceed $500

The Starlink package costs $499 for the satellite dish and Wi-Fi router. Shipping and taxes put the initial total at $581.94, which does not include $99 a month for service. That sounds expensive, but slower traditional satellite service can cost more.

The Starlink system is relatively simple to set up. Push the dish's pole into a supplied tripod, find an open piece of sky to aim at, string the cable to the included Wi-Fi router and turn it on. The dish is motorized to automatically adjust, and it's heated to keep it clear of snow and ice. People who live in wooded mountainous areas might have a more difficult time finding that open piece of sky so their dish can discover satellite coverage.

HughesNet satellite internet starts at $59.99, and data is capped at 10 gigabytes (GB) a month at the top speed of 25 Mbps. The price increases to $149.99 a month for 50 GB at the top speed. After that, download speeds are reduced.

That's not a lot of data. If you watch four two-hour movies from Netflix in 4K, you'll exceed the 50 GB limit. Streaming ultra-high-definition video can use up to 7 GB of data an hour, Netflix says.

Starlink has no data caps. HughesNet requires a two-year contract; Starlink has none. And the modem lease from HughesNet is another $14.99 a month or $449.98 if you purchase it outright.

Astronomers worry about light pollution

Starlink's plans have generated more controversy than from its competitors. The first complaints came from astronomers and amateur stargazers who pointed out that the light pollution from the low orbiting satellites reflecting sunlight interfered with telescope observations.

SpaceX has tried different solutions, including a VisorSat, that uses a black sunshade to reduce light reflection. How effective it is remains to be seen.

With thousands of satellites eventually expected to circle in low earth orbit, Starlink recently made an arrangement with NASA to avoid future collisions with craft such as the International Space Station. Starlink will automatically maneuver its satellites to avoid any collisions, NASA will not move its equipment so it won't create more problems and Starlink will report any planned launches to NASA.

More low earth orbit satellite services are likely:

  • Amazon, based in Seattle, received permission from the FCC in 2020 to launch what it calls Project Kuiper to deliver rural internet access. In April, Facebook moved more than a dozen members of its wireless internet team to Amazon to work on the project.
  • OneWeb, based in London, expects to roll out service for business and government customers in the Arctic by the end of 2021.
  • Telesat, based in Ottawa, Ontario, in Canada, has plans to bring similar services to maritime customers.

China also has at least two companies, Hongyun and Galaxy Space, with their own low earth orbit initiatives in that country.

So far, the low orbiting satellites might solve the problem of delivering high-speed internet access to remote areas. Government agencies are looking at the solution with a pilot test of Starlink's system planned this year in Allen Township, Ohio. The area west of Marysville is home to Honda's Marysville auto plant.

The number of people working remotely during the pandemic has accelerated the demand for high-speed internet access in rural areas. But a challenge remains: Can that demand lower the costs for all who want faster service like they see in cities and suburbs?

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