‘will make the biggest difference in rural, low-density, low-population counties’

Elon Musk’s mission to provide internet access to rural communities underway in Waldo County

Tue, 03/02/2021 - 8:00pm

    WALDO COUNTY — As rural communities across the state struggle with connecting to reliable internet, a new internet service provider — some call it space internet — is on track to narrow the gap of broadband internet struggles. 

    An estimated $600 million is needed to bring high-speed internet to 95 percent of Maine, according to a broadband action plan produced by the Mills administration in January 2020. 

    The limitations imposed on rural communities by the lack of access to viable high-speed connectivity can have negative impacts, according to the action plan, on developing a strong workforce, incubating innovation and creating an environment to attract new residents and businesses. 

    SpaceX’s Starlink satellite ISP is, according to PCMag, “poised to make a big difference in rural America” such as Waldo County. The magazine came to its conclusion after reviewing Ookla Speedtest data in late February. 

    Starlink is currently in a semi-public beta, serving more than 10,000 users, according to a recent FCC filing. Its public beta test, known as Better Than Nothing Beta, launched in October 2020, according to Business Insider and “has been a big hit with those living in remote areas of northern US, where it was first rolled out.” 

    During an observation period of December 2020 and Feb. 24, 2021, Ookla identified counties with at least 30 Starlink samples and charted its speeds county by county against all other fixed internet providers, according to PCMag. 

    Waldo County ranked among Starlink’s 30 best counties in the data assessment, and was the lone Maine county to crack the top 30. Counties in California, Illinois, Washington, Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho, Wisconsin, Oregon, Montana and Vermont also ranked among the best. 

    Analysis by PCMag found that Waldo County, noted by PCMag as having a population of 38,786 or 45 people per square mile, ranked among the top of five counties where Starlink is performing better than other fixed providers. (Data for California’s Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties were excluded from this dataset as PCMag believes the data likely comes from SpaceX or Tesla facilities and staff.) 

    The rural Maine county recorded a median download speed of between 50 and 75 using Starlink internet, compared to less than 25 through all other fixed providers, according to data analyzed by PCMag. 

    “Our own analysis shows that Starlink will make the biggest difference in rural, low-density, low-population counties with few options other than lower-quality satellite services,” PCMag lead mobile analyst Sascha Segan noted in his Feb. 26 story about the Starlink satellites. 

    Starlink is a project of entrepreneur Elon Musk, the founder of electric car manufacturer Tesla, co-founder of payment processing behemoth PayPal and the second richest human on the planet (he briefly wore the crown of the richest before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos reclaimed it). 

    Musk’s SpaceX aerospace company launched its first batch of Starlink satellites into orbit in May 2019, according to Business Insider, and boasts a collection of more than 1,000 satellites in space with a goal of having as many as 42,000 in 2027. 

    “The goal is to create a high-speed broadband system generated by satellites which envelope Earth and provide internet to people especially in rural areas without connection,” reported Business Insider’s Kate Duffy, Feb. 25. 

    A subscription to the beta is $99 a month, with an additional cost of $499 for the Starlink kit, which includes a mounting tripod, a WiFi router, and a terminal to connect to the satellites, according to Business Insider. 

    “All you need to do to make the connection is set up a small satellite dish at your home to receive the signal and pass the bandwidth on to your router,” reported CNET, Feb. 25. “Starlink offers an app for Android and iOS that uses augmented reality to help customers pick the best location and position for their receivers.” 

    An October 2020 email from SpaceX to beta testers noted expected download speeds are between 50 and 150 Mbps, according to Business Insider. Quite a few users, however, have hit upwards of 150 with the highest recorded being 215 in Utah, according to Business Insider. Musk, in late February, shared on Twitter speeds for beta testers will expand to approximately 300 Mbps later this year. 

    Mainers, however, may find challenges during the winter months when using the Starlink internet.

    CNET pointed out that although the receiver is capable of melting snow landing on it, it could be impacted by surrounding snow build-up or other obstructions that could block its line of sight to the satellite. SpaceX, for its part, recommends installing Starlink in a location that avoids snow-build up and other possible obstructions.