Regional leaders wish upon Starlink
After a pilot program successfully connected 45 Wise County households with SpaceX’s Starlink high-speed satellite internet, regional efforts are underway to broaden access to the service spearheaded by billionaire Elon Musk.
Scott Kiser, director of technology for Wise County Public Schools, helped shepherd the pilot for families of students early this year. SpaceX’s Starlink constellation of 1,300 low-orbiting satellites delivers 80 to 150 Mpbs download speeds via a 23-inch diameter dish. Pilot users “couldn’t be happier,” Kiser says.
Though families in the yearlong pilot program receive the service free, it has an upfront cost of $499, plus a monthly $99 fee.
Starlink’s retail cost could be a barrier in economically disadvantaged areas, but alternatives can be prohibitively expensive. Kiser cites the $25,000 estimate a cable/DSL broadband provider gave one family to extend service by a quarter mile to their home.
“We have a lot of mountains in the area, a lot of valleys and hollows,” which makes it extremely costly and difficult to offer high-speed services like cable or fiber requiring buried cables, says Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority.
Satellite internet overcomes topography and last-mile issues, but the major providers have higher orbit satellites that are much slower than Starlink, which began beta testing in August 2020.
As many as 60% of households in Southern Virginia, Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley have no internet subscription, according to 2019 data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
“Southwest Virginia has long been affected by the digital divide,” says Kristie Proctor, executive director of the Center for Rural Virginia. But the pandemic made it “the priority.”
This year the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative awarded $28.77 million in grants to help increase broadband access in Southwest Virginia, Proctor says, though Starlink isn’t included in the state’s definition of high-speed internet.
Belcher’s EDA, which serves a 200-mile area from Bluefield to the Cumberland Gap, has received a $500,000 state grant to provide Starlink service to about 300 households. Broadband improves education, telehealth and work opportunities, he says, and his team is working to expand access: “We would want it to benefit everybody in the region.”
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, visited Wise in April to learn about the Starlink pilot, and state and local officials are watching too.
“New space-based satellite internet programs like this can provide a viable and more cost-efficient alternative to expanding internet to rural and underserved areas,” says state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon.