Will Elon Musk’s Starlink Fix Internet Issues in Western Pa.?

(TNS) — Dictated by the peaks and dips of Western Pennsylvania’s rolling landscape, Internet service is often spotty — even nonexistent — for thousands of people based on topography and a lack of infrastructure for high-speed Internet services.

But an ambitious project by billionaire Elon Musk promises lofty goals for those struggling with broadband inequities, which have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic as school and work largely moved online.

Starlink, owned by the Tesla CEO, has put more than 1,400 satellites into orbit, building a network — or constellation, as the company calls it — to provide Internet service to people across the country. Launches from Florida began in 2019 through a partnership between SpaceX and NASA. So far, there have been 10 this year. Eight of those carried Starlink satellites.

The network is close to being large enough to provide basic service worldwide, Space News reported this month.


“We do have global reach, but we don’t yet have full connectivity globally,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said April 6 at the Satellite 2021 conference. “We hope after about 28 launches, we’ll have continuous coverage throughout the globe.”

That could be reached in another four or five launches, Space News reported. The next SpaceX launch scheduled to deploy satellites is April 28, according to spaceflightnow.com.

SpaceX has approval from the Federal Communications Commission to operate 1,584 satellites some 340 miles above Earth, with permission to deploy another 2,825 at higher altitudes. The company has requested to move those satellites to the lower altitude. No decision has been made by the FCC.

HOW IT WORKS

The satellites will work with a ground network called gateways, which will be placed up to 700 miles apart and utilize fiber optic cable, according to Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Internet service will then be connected via dishes placed on homes and buildings.

“They’re considered a carrier of last resort because there’s a gap” in Internet service, Lightman said. “Nobody’s filling it because the Comcasts and the DQEs and the AT&Ts are like, ‘We’re not going to lay fiber. There’s nobody living there for 200 miles.’ But you can do it with satellite.”

Starlink is one of 13 companies expected to receive federal subsidies from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to address broadband gaps in Pennsylvania. The FCC named companies slated to receive funds in December; however, those companies then had to provide details regarding speed and other factors. A final decision has not come, but the FCC is able to revoke funds depending on that determination.

In all, the FCC is expected to award $9.2 billion to companies across the United States. Starlink (called Space Exploration Technologies on FCC documents) is expected to receive $885 million in federal subsidies to expand services to 642,925 locations across the country.

Of that money, more than $67.9 million would be used in 61 counties across Pennsylvania. That includes both Allegheny and Westmoreland, which would receive $486,460 for 747 locations and $1.3 million for 1,388 locations, respectively. Other companies awarded FCC funds plan to use fiber optic cables to expand broadband services.

It was not immediately clear how Starlink planned to use the FCC funds, if allotted. There was also no timeline for when the service could be available in Western Pennsylvania, although several Allegheny and Westmoreland addresses placed into the service’s website suggested it would be available mid- to late-2021.

But with Starlink rolling out beta testing worldwide — meaning the service is being provided to a small group of customers who may experience varying data and latency speeds, as well as periodic outages — critics were quick to jump on the funding allocation.

“We’re using the public’s money in the RDOF auction and it’s designed to be a deployment program for proven technologies, not a research and development experiment for technology that may or may not be capable of connecting millions of rural Americans with broadband,” Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said during a conference earlier this year.

According to Matheson, Starlink is “not a proven technology.”

Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Washington D.C.-based Fiber Broadband Association, made similar comments in an interview with the Tribune-Review.

“At the end of the day, we think it’s a really bad idea,” Bolton said of the funding allocations, “because what it’s going to do, anybody that’s relegated to a low-Earth orbit satellite for their broadband is going to be on the wrong side of the digital divide and left behind.”

STARLINK IN WESTERN PA

Western Pennsylvania has largely struggled with broadband services over the years, despite efforts to bridge the divide, which have included government funding and partnerships with local colleges and universities.

According to census data, about 84% of households in Allegheny County had a broadband subscription between 2015-19. Over that same period, that number was 80% in Westmoreland.

A 2019 Penn State study showed there is not a single county where at least 50% of the population received broadband connectivity, which is defined by the FCC as 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

The problem, according to Nathan Flood, president and CEO of Harrisburg-based Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research, is that there is limited infrastructure to provide Internet services to people in need.

“The infrastructure, which is really the critical piece to this, is either not there or not sufficient enough to be able to deliver that kind of service,” Flood said. “It’s not that providers can’t provide that type of service … but you need the infrastructure in place to be able to do that.”

Flood noted that if that infrastructure is built, it will require additional money for maintenance and other factors. He added that while Starlink’s structure is expensive to deploy, there are lower long-term maintenance costs.

According to Bolton, however, if infrastructure is built for fiber optic cable, “you’re putting in critical infrastructure that a community can build upon to have economic impact, to allow people to move there, to be able to modernize your electric infrastructure to be able to provide a path for 5G,” or the next generation of mobile Internet connection, one which offers significantly faster data transmission speeds and connects more devices.

He noted that satellites are subject to obstacles like rain, foliage and mountains that could weaken the signal. Starlink satellites are viable for only five to seven years, according to Richard Williams, spokesman for the Fiber Broadband Association.

“If you put federal dollars, taxpayer dollars, into space, that money is stranded in space,” Bolton said. “Those satellites literally fall out of the sky in five years, and so it is a wasted investment.”

Lightman, with CMU, acknowledged that it will take more than the Starlink satellites to bridge the digital divide in Western Pennsylvania. But, she noted, while the satellites will not provide 5G speeds, they will help connect people struggling to complete online school or remote work due to the pandemic.

“It can solve some … of the last resort kind of stuff,” Lightman said. “It’s better than dial-up, but it’s not enough.”

According to a December petition Starlink filed with the FCC, service already was available to 10,000 people in the United States and worldwide, then with more than 1,000 satellites in orbit.

So far, beta tests have determined the product is high-speed, low-latency broadband with speeds varying from 50 megabits per second to 150 megabits per second. Latency — defined as the delay before a transfer of data — is between 20 and 40 milliseconds.

Lightman noted the service would likely not go beyond those basic services, meaning bigger research projects, like that of autonomous vehicles, could not be done via satellite. But, she said, moving forward, improvements to broadband services will require various providers.

“I think it’s going to be a combination of the terrestrial and the extraterrestrial,” Lightman said. “It’s going to be the fiber that’s going to be 5G and it’s going to be satellite. I think we’re at the right time.”

(c)2021 The Tribune-Review, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.