Living in a rural area I am aware of the technological divide experienced by many rural people. For many rural people internet access is unavailable or the service is horrid. In many rural areas the only option might be a smart phone hot spot, DSL, or nothing at all.

For some people high orbit satellite connections are possible but with severe usage limitations and slow speeds. Some rural areas are serviced by fixed wireless internet service providers (WISPs). As might be expected, many of these providers have a non competitive captive market, charging high prices for low speeds, accompanied with low data caps and overage fees.

Along comes SpaceX with the Starlink low earth orbit satellites. High speeds, no data caps, and no overage fees.

Initial reports by first round beta testers are promising. Many beta testers are reporting low triple digit download speeds. Many are experiencing a consistent 30 to 50 Mbps down. That is significantly faster than high orbit satellite and WISP providers.

The initial reports make a rural person cry with joy. Starlink could be a game changer and could disrupt the comfortable monopolies.

Sounds too good to be true. My research finds several potential caveats.

  • The service is expensive at $99/month and $499 for the hardware. Many rural people cannot afford that. Hopefully after the beta testing and the service goes public more affordable price plans will be available as well as monthly payment options for the equipment.
  • Installation is the responsibility of the customer. Thus far there is no secondary market for installers. Although many rural people tend to be handy with tools, installation will be a challenge for some people. Hopefully for many people third party installers appear when the service goes public.
  • The hardware is an energy hog. Many people report about 100 watts but during cold weather when the dish heating mechanism kicks in, the draw is anywhere from 140 to 175 watts. That kind of energy draw is expensive. Many people likely will power down at night to control the utility bill.
  • The dish has the ability to melt snow. This is a smart engineering design. Some beta testers report icicles becoming a problem. Should the icicles attach to another structure, the alignment motor lacks sufficient torque to break the icicles and possibly is prone to burning out.
  • Geographical roaming is not yet supported.
  • I am guessing Starlink will struggle with capacity for 40 million or more North American rural customers.
  • There is a limited amount of capacity per cell. When Starlink goes public and user subscriptions increase, to distribute the available bandwidth and reduce capacity constraints the speeds seen by beta testers will decrease. I am guessing monthly data caps will be introduced.
  • As Starlink is not yet public, there has been no mention about possible subscription locks such as two year contracts, a tactic common with many ISPs.
  • The infrastructure back end for the service is through Google servers. Google is a data mining and tracking company. That raises questions about customer privacy.
  • Unknown is whether the service will move to IPv6. That too could raise privacy questions.

Another option that should be available in the upcoming years is a similar low earth satellite service through the Amazon Kuiper Project. My guess is the same caveats will apply, notably the data mining and tracking.

Many rural people are desperate for reasonable internet. Many will sacrifice their privacy for the benefit of being connected.

Posted: Category: Commentary Tagged: General

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