Out-of-this-world rural internet speeds still a long way off

Famed entrepreneur Elon Musk plans to bring affordable, high-speed internet to rural Canada, but experts are wary

A first batch of 60 Starlink satellites — each about the size of a table and weighing about 500 pounds — were stacked atop a Falcon 9 rocket and put in orbit in May 2019. More batches have been deployed and SpaceX plans to put thousands in place in a low orbit just a few hundred miles above the Earth’s surface.

Glacier FarmMedia – SpaceX is shooting for the moon with the promise of reliable high-speed internet for rural Canadians — but farmers might want to keep their expectations a little more grounded, at least for now.

Last month, the space exploration company owned by Elon Musk (of PayPal and Tesla fame applied for several Basic International Telecommunications Service licences — the first step toward providing Starlink satellite internet in Canada. This service will target areas where “access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable,” the company said on its website.

With a pair of successful launches last month, SpaceX has more than 500 of its small satellites (each about the size of a table) circulating a few hundred miles above the Earth’s surface. Musk’s company has said it needs 800 of them to provide “moderate” internet service — meaning only a few more launches are needed as SpaceX deploys about 60 satellites at a time. (It has received approval in the U.S. to launch more than 12,000 of them.)

But telecom experts aren’t holding their breath just yet.

Mark Goldberg. photo: Supplied

“There are a lot of questions on whether this is a project that may be beyond Elon Musk’s ability to actually pull off,” said telecommunications consultant Mark Goldberg.

“It’s unclear that they’re going to have the financing to complete the project, and even if they do complete the project, it’s not clear that it’s going to provide the kind of service that people want or at a price that people are happy with.

“If it’s a solution, it’s going to be a long way off. We’re talking years away.”

On its face, Starlink satellite internet service should solve the myriad problems rural Canadians have with their internet connection.

SpaceX uses low Earth orbit satellites that are closer to the planet’s surface than other satellite internet providers, and that decreased distance improves communication times. Using a constellation of these low-orbit satellites, Starlink will cover the entire Earth’s surface and provide high-speed service any time, anywhere — assuming there are enough satellites.

“They need thousands more satellites to be launched. That costs billions of dollars,” said Goldberg.

Raising such a huge amount of cash isn’t easy, added Imran Mohiuddin, policy analyst at Cybera, a Calgary-based non-profit dedicated to Alberta’s cyber-infrastructure.

Imran Mohiuddin. photo: Supplied

“Right now, there’s a need for a lot of investment,” he said.

“The capital investment it takes to do this kind of thing is very, very high right now, especially in the launch stage. I think that’s the main barrier to actually getting it done.”

Regulatory and financial hurdles

In Canada, there’s a “messy history” of companies that have explored low Earth orbit satellite internet service and failed, said Mohiuddin. OneWeb — one of the largest companies working in this field in Canada — filed for bankruptcy at the end of March because of a lack of funding.

“The problems with it aren’t technical — they’re financial and regulatory right now,” he said. “The regulatory scheme has not been fully fleshed out yet for low Earth orbit, so there’s still a lot of regulatory uncertainty and a lot of funding uncertainty.”

Telesat, another key player, plans to be operational with its constellation by 2022, he said, adding that Telesat has received $85 million in federal funding through the Strategic Innovation Fund to accomplish that.

“This type of internet is somewhat of a unique thing,” Mohiuddin said. “The companies are tied to specific countries, but the satellites are in space. It blurs the idea of which regulatory scheme they’re in and which jurisdiction is funding which company.

“SpaceX is coming into Canada, competing with Telesat, that is receiving money from the Canadian government. So there’s a complicated jurisdictional issue going on here.”

Even so, Mohiuddin thinks that low Earth orbit satellite internet is “very promising,” given the challenges rural Canadians currently have with their service.

“Broadband issues in Canada have been going on for a really long time,” he said.

“We have problems with connectivity, affordability, and access, so I think it’s always positive when a new competitor joins the space, especially if they’re planning to deploy in rural and northern areas where the least competition is.”

Other options

So far, other approaches to the problem “haven’t panned out to their full potential,” he added.

Alberta’s SuperNet is just one example of that. When it was first launched, the SuperNet was meant to be a publicly funded fibre ‘backbone’ that would allow internet service providers to focus on the ‘last mile’ — the final link in the telecommunications chain that actually delivers service to end-users.

With open-access fibre links like the SuperNet, the cost of providing last-mile coverage is supposed to be reduced enough that service providers will cover it, providing reliable internet no matter where you live.

“That hasn’t really happened,” said Mohiuddin, citing a lack of leadership, funding, and regulatory structures.

So while services like Starlink satellite internet could resolve some of these challenges once it’s fully operational, there are other solutions closer to home, including maximizing this existing infrastructure through better regulations, he said.

“Low Earth orbit isn’t the only way to get to rural connectivity. Some of it can be done at a more regulatory level, with some targeted funding,” said Mohiuddin.

“For a rural community in the middle of Alberta, I believe there are solutions there to get connectivity without having to wait for a low Earth orbit constellation to be deployed in three to five years.

“While there’s reason to be optimistic and it should be championed, there’s still quite a long way to go.”

Goldberg agrees.

“What people want is a high-speed connection, and a high-speed connection can be provided by a whole bunch of different technologies, like fixed wireless,” he said.

“People in rural Canada shouldn’t place all their hopes on SpaceX. There are other solutions.”

This article was originally published at the Alberta Farmer Express.

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