Wise County is first to receive Starlink internet in Va.
Pilot program from Elon Musk's SpaceX will provide broadband via low-orbit satellites
Wise County Public Schools announced Monday it is the first school district in Virginia to use SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation for high-speed internet.
Founded by Elon Musk, aerospace company SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches spacecraft and is working to deploy its Starlink system, a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit that will delivers high-speed internet to “locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable.”
Southwest Virginia has long been affected by the “digital divide.” Only 49% of households in Virginia making less than $20,000 per year have a broadband subscription, and in some areas of Southern Virginia, Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, as many as 60% of households have no internet subscription, according to 2019 data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
The Starlink pilot project announced Monday will provide free internet service to 45 Wise County families starting in early 2021, and will eventually expand to serve an additional 90 families in the county.
“This innovative partnership represents the opportunity for our county to provide internet access to the unserved or underserved families in our county and is unprecedented action for our school district and our community,” Wise County Superintendent of Schools Greg Mullins said in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic created a situation in which our district had to quickly pivot to virtual instruction last March and it was apparent that the lack of broadband access is a crisis in Wise County. … Today, we are moving closer in closing the digital divide that exists within our community.”
Last week, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced that SpaceX would receive a total of $856 million to expand internet access for rural America, according to reports. Musk has said that Starlink has consistently reported internet speeds faster than 150 megabits per second (mbps), while the average internet speed that most people in the U.S. has is 12 mbps to 25 mbps.
Fiber optic connections can provide speeds in excess of 250 to 1,000 mbps, but most rural communities have far more limited options, such as DSL, cable and traditional satellite internet, which offer much slower speeds than fiber optic, which isn’t available in communities with mountainous terrain or spread-out rural communities with fewer people.
“Unfortunately, there are too many people who lack this access, particularly schoolchildren, and it’s critical that we support and facilitate opportunities like this to help make that access a reality throughout Wise County,” Mullins said in a statement. “We are thrilled to have this opportunity to work with committed partners like the Wise County BOS, as well as SpaceX and its next generation internet solution to provide service for our families.”