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Opinion: Satellite Internet Positioned for Rural Students

High-speed Internet remains a rare commodity for students in many rural and tribal areas of the U.S., but with government subsidies or other cost-cutting measures, satellites might help bridge this "homework gap."

Image: SpaceX
One of the biggest takeaways from schools’ recent dive into remote learning was how many millions of students have inadequate, if any, home Internet access. As a result of the country’s awakening to this persistent issue, federal and state funds are being allocated to help fix the so-called “homework gap.”

But even with the influx of new money, rural and tribal areas of the country will remain underserved. Given the cost and complexities of reaching these areas with terrestrial broadband Internet, there are few scalable solutions on the near horizon. However, though it’s still in its early rollout phase, high-speed satellite Internet could soon be a viable solution for reaching residents of far-flung regions of the U.S.

I live in a semi-rural area outside of Santa Fe, N.M., and though we have far better Internet options than many parts of this large but sparsely populated state, there’s only one Internet service provider (ISP) in our area offering fiber-optic broadband. So, when we recently decided to upgrade our Internet, we considered Starlink, the satellite Internet subsidiary of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. In the end we decided against it, but we know people who have gone this route with satisfactory results.

Starlink isn’t the only new satellite Internet player. Amazon will soon begin testing its own Project Kuiper service, and other companies like the London-based OneWeb are also in the game. Time will tell if any of these ventures will be successful, both in making a profit and in meeting consumers’ speed and cost expectations, though early results look promising.

But before discussing the particulars of satellite Internet, it’s worth taking a comparative look at the upload and download speeds of the three primary forms of terrestrial broadband Internet currently available, as measured in megabits per second (Mbps). On average, consumers pay about $55 per month for each of these options.

  • Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). Download speed range: 5-35 Mbps. Upload speed range: 1-10 Mbps.
  • Cable Internet. Download: 10-500 Mbps. Upload: 5-50 Mbps.
  • Fiber-Optic Cabling. Download: 250-1,000 Mbps. Upload: 250-1,000 Mbps.

Fiber is the clear winner here, but with an average cost of $27,000 per mile to lay fiber, it’s easy to see why commercial ISPs are less than anxious to venture into sparsely populated areas with fewer potential customers, without the support of government subsidies.

Also, for educational situations where students are using video conferencing applications like Zoom, fast download and upload speeds are equally important to ensure good two-way communications without latency — those irritating delays that occur when audio and video transfer speeds are too slow.

Geostationary satellites (GEO) have been around since the 1960s delivering communications, weather monitoring and surveillance services over radio frequencies. These satellites orbit above the Earth’s equator at about 26,000 miles. Given this distance, GEO satellites are capable of providing Internet speeds comparable to DSL — too slow for adequate video conferencing and streaming applications, and at a monthly cost of about $123. HughesNet is the largest GEO satellite Internet company, with 1 million subscribers.

However, a relatively new solution is now available via low Earth orbit satellites (LEO). As their name implies, they orbit close to the Earth — only 300 to 1,200 miles into space — allowing them to provide Internet transfer speeds in the same upload and download ranges as fiber.

LEO satellites are much cheaper than GEO satellites, but they have a shorter lifespan, and they don’t have a fixed orbit, meaning 40 to 600 LEOs are needed to provide similar coverage to three GEO satellites. Nonetheless, barring a major breakthrough in GEO satellite data transfer speeds, LEO satellites could have a promising future.

Starlink, though still in a public beta, has 250,000 customers served by a constellation of over 2,000 satellites. It charges users $500 plus shipping for a satellite dish and modem, and then $100 a month for broadband services.

Starlink has pilot programs underway in school districts in North Carolina and Texas that will be worth watching as they attempt to provide broadband Internet to students in remote areas. And Amazon’s Project Kuiper program intends to launch prototype satellites later this year to compete with Starlink in both functionality and cost.

If we’ve learned anything over these past two years, it’s that fast home Internet that was once a luxury is now a necessity for so many aspects of our daily lives: work, education, health care and entertainment. So satellite Internet may well have an important role to play in reaching our hardest-to-serve regions.

But unless competition is able to bring costs down from Starlink’s current model, or government agencies can provide serious subsidies to underserved families, these satellite Internet offerings will be out of reach for many of the students who need them most, further widening the homework gap.

For those interested in more background information on satellite Internet, I recommend a 2021 report, Low Earth Orbit Satellites: Potential to Address the Broadband Digital Divide, produced by the Congressional Research Service, a public policy research institute arm of the Library of Congress. I leaned heavily on their report in compiling this article.
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.