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Experts: Closing the Digital Divide Will Take More than Satellites

With the recent successes of Elon Musk's company SpaceX, satellite Internet has become a "sexy" new technology. Experts, though, advise against thinking that it is the sole solution to besting the digital divide.

satellite orbitting earth
Shutterstock/Andrey VP
Although satellite Internet technology has advanced far beyond its initial capabilities, some experts have advised that the emerging broadband solution still has limitations that local and state stakeholders should consider.

In recent months, satellite Internet has been all over the news, particularly in events involving Elon Musk’s Starlink broadband service and government projects. Last fall, Starlink was used in Washington to connect a fire-devastated rural area as well as the Hoh Tribe Reservation. In December, SpaceX, the company behind Starlink, took home $886 million in federal funds to provide service to more than 600,000 locations across the country.  

Carl Russo, CEO of telecommunications company Calix, said for “very rural” places that have no access to other solutions, satellite Internet makes sense. But in less isolated areas, satellite can’t offer what fiber and wireless technology like 5G can. 

As such, Russo describes satellite Internet as a complementary, not a competitive, technology. 

“You get a lot of noise around it [satellite Internet],” Russo said. “It’s just another technology that has an application set … I would no sooner tell you to put fiber in the Sahara than I would tell you to address New York Metro with satellite.” 

Starlink’s low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites have limitations based on physics and math. LEO satellites zip around the planet at very high speeds, which presents the complication of staying connected to whatever satellite is flying over an area on the ground. To provide a contrast to this challenge, Russo mentioned how a driver on a phone stays connected by linking up to the nearest cell tower. 

“This is the exact opposite: you’re standing still and all the antennas are moving,” Russo explained. “Trust me, the driver moving is a lot easier math.”

SpaceX’s initial application to the Federal Communications Commission stated that each Starlink satellite would have the capacity for 17 to 23 Gbps, or an average of 20 Gbps. With Starlink's plan for 12,000 satellites, the total capacity would be 240,000 Gbps based on the average. 

On the surface, that number looks like a lot of Internet, Russo said. However, if one considers that LEO satellites are always moving, and that America makes up two percent of Earth’s surface, only 240 satellites, or 4,800 Gbps, would be available to the United States at a given time.  

“Any small city would obliterate that [Internet capacity],” Russo said. 

In a recent interview with Y’all Politics, Brandon Presley, northern district commissioner of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, expressed doubt that Starlink would be able to compete with fiber providers. 

“SpaceX is not offering the same quality product,” Presley told Y’all Politics, comparing SpaceX’s service to other FCC-funded projects in Mississippi. “[Musk] only wants the baseline speed requirement. He did not meet the speed requirement for gigabit speed.”

From a competitive standpoint, another potential drawback for Starlink is the cost, which includes a charge of $499 for equipment. 

“If you’re able to get service from a rural electric cooperative, you’re getting a gigabit service and you don’t have any equipment costs like that,” said Presley, again making reference to funded projects in Mississippi. “In every place that SpaceX received money you can pretty much see that there was no fiber option offered.”

“Are there some possibilities for SpaceX out there? Certainly, but they’re in the beta testing phase in many places and there are so many unknowns as to when you’re going to get to critical mass on that,” Presley added.

To his credit, Musk has implied that Starlink is more complementary than competitive. 

“I want to be clear, it's not like Starlink is some huge threat to telecos,” Musk said during a session at the SATELLITE 2020 Conference and Exhibition. “I want to be super clear. It is not. In fact, it will be helpful to telecos because Starlink will serve the hardest-to-serve customers that telecos otherwise have trouble doing with landlines or even with ... cell towers.”

Still, the excitement behind Starlink can sometimes give people the wrong impression. 

“You always hear noise when these things happen,” Russo said. “There’s a lot of people who don’t take the time to do the homework on the physics and the economics.” 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.