Mainers using Elon Musk's satellite internet say it's no silver bullet for rural access
By LORI VALIGRA | Bangor Daily News, Maine | Published: March 8, 2021
BANGOR, Maine (Tribune News Service) — SpaceX's satellite service is bringing warp-speed internet to rural parts of Maine, but early users say its high price and dropped connections may limit its contribution to widely expanding Maine's lagging high-speed internet.
The much-anticipated Starlink satellite network operates in an orbit that is much closer to Earth and holds many more satellites than those in existing networks, factors the company claims account for high speeds. One Reddit poster who says they live in rural Maine boasted last year of download speeds 33 times higher with Starlink than their previous service.
But much remains unknown about the nascent network even as it has won federal funds to expand rural internet access in Maine, including whether it can keep its fast speeds when more customers and electronic devices are connected and to what degree it can be scaled to accommodate more users. It is being tested by about 10,000 users worldwide, according to a recent report SpaceX filed with federal regulators.
One of the early adopters is Maine's top official overseeing broadband access, Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the ConnectME Authority. She traded her older satellite system recently for a Starlink connection at a second home in West Lubec.
She said the initial $500 equipment investment plus $90 per month for service means the network is an option for people who have money and are unhappy with their current provider, but it is no panacea for Maine's rural broadband problem.
"It's one of the tools in the arsenal, but it's not the only tool and it's not a perfect tool," Schaffer said. "None of them are."
The network is part of the attention-grabbing portfolio overseen by Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of the electric vehicle and clean energy company Tesla. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of colonizing Mars. It became the first private company to send astronauts into orbit and to the International Space Station in 2020.
Starlink is a side project and the Maine clients differ sharply. Jack Gondela , a self-described "early adopter" of technology, switched recently from cable internet to Starlink at his home in Fairfield and said his upload speed is about 10 times faster.
Bill Frysinger of Northport, who recently signed up for the service after being on a waiting list for two years, is happy with the speed, but he is rigging up his own backup network so his old telephone line service will kick in when the satellite network is interrupted.
"If Starlink goes out for 2 seconds on a Zoom call, it can mess up the meeting," he said.
Schaffer also pointed to the same brief lapses in connections that can add up to 6 minutes or more a day, attributing it to SpaceX not having enough satellites in orbit. The company, which plans to have more than 4,000 satellites in orbit, currently has one-quarter of that amount. Every two weeks, it launches 60 satellites on one rocket to fill in the gaps. The Starlink satellite network connects to gateways on the ground, including one at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone.
Starlink is also one of four companies awarded a total $ 71.2 million over 10 years by the Federal Communications Commission to bring high-speed broadband to close to 28,000 rural locations in Maine. But Schaffer said its plans in Maine under that grant still are unclear and the company is tight-lipped.
"Off the record, we don't have any new information to share at this time," a spokesperson responded to questions last week.
A study by telecom consultancy Cartesian estimated that by 2028, some 56 percent of consumers who relied on Starlink would experience service degradations during peak broadband hours of 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. Cartesian based that on public information from the FCC grant process.
The network's performance might be further diminished because SpaceX plans to use Starlink for military, commercial and other applications such as smart cars, Cartesian's vice president Michael Darque, vice president of Cartesian, told a Broadband Breakfast webinar in February.
For now, it is providing Mainers with slow or no internet connections with much desired high-speed access. Schaffer said the HughesNet internet she had been using has satellites about 22,000 miles away from Earth, while Starlink's are about 1,200 miles away. It wasn't possible with the old service to stream movies in West Lubec, but she can do that now.
There is a potential negative side effect to Starlink as the state tries to bridge the digital divide, Schaffer said. In a poorer area, for example, if people who can afford the service sign up, other companies might find it difficult to expand because there won't be enough demand for their service.
"Starlink has the potential to make it much harder to build out networks," she said. "It's a huge equity question of how to bring the networks to people who can't afford service but still need connections."
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