In Idaho, Starlink Could Outshine Fiber-Optic Options

An Idaho broadband official confirms that Starlink is a reliable and possible solution to expanding high-speed Internet to rural areas.

A SpaceX Starlink satellite in space
(TNS) — In a year when the world conducted much of its business online and Internet speeds have become a closely watched commodity, one local professional with insider knowledge of the Internet industry is taking his business to space.

After 32 years working on Internet networks, University of Idaho Network Manager Brian Jemes abandoned his land-based service for his home to join the beta-test of Starlink, Elon Musk's bid to beam satellite Internet directly to American rooftops. While he was somewhat skeptical at first that the service could deliver the speeds Starlink claimed would be possible, Jemes said he's only been impressed thus far.
While there are occasional service interruptions that can last as long as 10 seconds, Jemes said the speeds he's clocked for his home Internet use rival fiber-optic Internet lines. He said Starlink promised interruption issues will be resolved as the program progresses and more of its satellites are sent to space.
Inclusion in the program can be pricey — Jemes said he paid $99 just to be put on the waitlist to join the beta program. Once he was accepted into the program, this was followed by another $500 down payment for an antenna, router and other equipment, and $99 monthly payments to maintain the service. Thankfully, installation was pretty simple, he said.
"It ships with the Wi-Fi router so if you have a home that can be covered with one wi-fi router, it comes with everything you need to (set it up) out of the box," Jemes said. "You plug it into power, set the antenna outward so it's got a clear view to the north, it automatically orients itself and you're up and running in less than an hour."
SpaceX's Starlink is one of many programs seeking to create satellite-based Internet systems in the coming years — another prominent contender to create such a service is Amazon. Jemes said these efforts remind him of a Motorola-backed program to create reliable satellite cellphone service in the late 1990s through its collection of satellites.
While Jemes said that program worked well for cellphone service, its low bandwidth made it poorly suited to deliver high-speed Internet. However, he said, in many ways it was a precursor to Starlink and programs like it. "That was a crazy number of satellites — 66 satellites — that was a huge number," Jemes said. "Well, now, the last article I read (said) Starlink's got 1,000 satellites in orbit and they're adding more all the time."
With its roughly 1,000 satellites in orbit, SpaceX now owns about one-third of all active satellites and this is just the start — the FCC has cleared the company to launch almost 11,000 more. Jemes said Starlink and other satellite-based Internet programs present a promising solution for the problem of bringing high-speed Internet to remote regions — but it is just one of an array of options. He said many land-based services including DSL, cable and especially fiber can deliver some amount of broadband to their customers and, in a lot of cases, they're more than sufficient.
DSL, cable and others often don't offer the same speed or reliability that fiber and now satellite Internet appears to offer, but many customers don't need that level of capability. Fiber-optic lines deliver formidable speeds but building that infrastructure out to homes can be costly and time consuming. Prior to his acceptance into the Starlink beta test, Jemes said he'd been a customer of First Step Internet for 20 years and for many, it's a better value. He said satellite Internet is a promising new solution for broadening access to high-speed Internet around the world, but it's not the only solution.
"There's not one answer, there's not one best solution (but) I think it plays a big role for places where the economics just aren't there or where it's going to be so much more costly to put in fiber," Jemes said. "To me, I kind of feel like it's twice as expensive as my First Step service but I get 20 times the bandwidth, so that's a pretty good trade if you want it or if you need that."
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