Satellite Internet Will Not Solve the Digital Divide

Illustration: Jim Cooke/Gizmodo
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Internet service providers will be vying for some of the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund today, including Elon Musks’s SpaceX. Its Starlink satellite network allegedly has speeds of up to 100 Mbps now, so the company seems to be in a better position to convince the FCC it’s worth a piece of that $16 billion in grant money. A vast network of satellites that can provide uninterrupted, fast, and low latency internet access anywhere in the world is a cool idea. A dream, even. Musk and many of his fans even think it could solve the digital divide! Unfortunately, technological limitations and the cost of maintaining such a large network of satellites as Starlink means it’s more likely that those in the most need of internet still won’t have equally affordable and reliable access to it.

The digital divide in the U.S. existed long before today, and the covid-19 pandemic has only made it worse, especially for many people working or attending school from home. We need to close it as soon as possible, ideally sooner than the 10 years it will take for all that FCC grant money to be used up. Yet it seems like the best hope for doing it sooner rather than later isn’t investing in Elon Musk’s latest venture, but a big combination of improving geosynchronous satellites like the existing HughesNet network, expanding wired and wireless broadband, and allowing municipal broadband to thrive in every state.

The problem with most broadband expansion currently is cost. Cable and fiber broadband providers often cite the immense cost of laying new infrastructure as a reason they do not put much effort into connecting sparsely populated areas. According to Oltelco, a small telecommunications provider in the U.S., the cost of laying fiber is between $18,000 and $22,000 per mile. And that doesn’t take into account the cost of connecting individual homes to the network, which is about $500 and $750 per home. When 24% of people (about 14.4 million) living in rural America say access to high-speed internet is a problem, it’s easy to see how laying fiber throughout rural America could add up quickly.

Most of the cost of laying fiber or cable comes from digging trenches to lay the hardware itself, and there’s a lot more hardware involved to get wired broadband to rural areas. Satellites, utilized by ISPs like HughesNet, are currently the most wide-spread way to provide rural America with internet. You launch one, bus-sized satellite into space and it covers tens of thousands of miles. And though it’s incredibly expensive to launch one, it’s more time-efficient and less expensive than laying cable in the ground. The cost of installing it at someone’s house doesn’t change very much whether that person’s in Manhattan or the mountains in Montana.

Only there are inherent limitations to satellite internet, stark pros and cons compared to cable and fiber. Peter Gulla, Hughes Network Systems Senior Vice President, understands the advantages and challenges all too well, and is brutally honest about satellite internet’s role in closing the digital divide.

“Our purpose is to provide satellite internet where people cannot get it,” said Gulla. “Competing directly with fiber or cable is not our mission. We’re here to fill the gap and provide.” Satellite internet providers can go where other ISPs will not, but depending on the type of satellite internet customers will get mixed results in terms of speed, latency, and cost. Until Starlink HughesNet was the largest provider of satellite-based internet in the U.S. and faced a considerable number of complaints from customers.

The appeal of Starlink, at least in its marketing, is that SpaceX will provide the new frontier of the internet. It will be internet available everywhere and capable of going toe to toe with giants like Spectrum and Comcast instead of just functioning as the last resort for people with no other options. SpaceX and Starlink’s promise is based around the type of satellite it uses, which is very different from the kind HughesNet relies on.

Right now there are two types of satellites that provide internet across the globe: Geosynchronous (GEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO). GEOs, like the satellites HughesNet uses for its internet infrastructure, match Earth’s rotation on its axis. They remain in a fixed orbit over one location at an altitude of about 22,200 mi (35,720 km) or higher. Because they are fixed, ISPs like HughesNet can aim them in a specific direction to cover a large area to provide uninterrupted service, as long they are not above or below approximately +/- 70 degrees latitude. That means HughesNet needs fewer satellites to cover rural America in internet. But since they sit so high in orbit, latency is high, which makes HughesNet typically not great for online gaming and other latency dependent internet traffic.

Starlink relies on LEOs which constantly rotate around the Earth at a much lower orbit, around 1,200 mi (2,000 km) or lower. They must constantly move or else risk being pulled into Earth’s atmosphere and come crashing down to earth, or being flung out of orbit into space. Because this type of satellite is constantly in motion, it can’t provide uninterrupted service to a single location. Users’ connections will need to bounce from once satellite to the next to maintain uninterrupted service. Many more LEOs are needed to cover a single area compared to GEOs, which means a lot more satellites in orbit. However, since LEOs float much closer to Earth, their latency speeds are a lot lower, which makes them more suitable for gaming and the kind of internet speeds and latency people expect in 2020.

A kindergarten room sits empty at Rogers International School as students from that class quarantine at home, according to parents, on October 21, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.
A kindergarten room sits empty at Rogers International School as students from that class quarantine at home, according to parents, on October 21, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

Since it takes so many LEOs to create an uninterruptible network there can be problems. SpaceX’s Starlink network is one of the biggest LEO networks being built at the moment and its many satellites recently obscured views of Comet NEOWISE. The light pollution SpaceX is creating with its Starlink network is likely only going to get worse. The company has 835 satellites in orbit as of October 18, 2020 with plans to launch 11,165 more over time for a total of 12,000. That’s thousands of satellites all needed to provide a constant and stable internet connection—all at the cost of astronomy.

That’s on top of the 5,000 other satellites from the U.S. other countries inhabiting Earth’s orbit as of January 2019, according to the United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space. HughesNet uses just a handful of bus-sized satellites to deliver internet to rural areas, and the company plans to roll out a 100 Mbps service next year which could hopefully rival Starlink while keeping the number of satellites in orbit down.

The other problem with SpaceX’s network is the life span of a SpaceX satellite, according to Tim Farrar, President of TMF Associates. “SpaceX has rushed to launch hundreds and hundreds of satellites very quickly. The first ones that they launched are already deorbiting because they were not useable for commercial service,” said Farrar, who has been a consultant in the satellite industry for about 25 years. Starlink’s first prototype test-flight satellites launched in February 2018 and they’re already basically space junk.

“People are getting increasingly nervous with so many [Starlink] satellites going into orbit so quickly, not really knowing how well they’ll work and how reliable they’ll be, and how much SpaceX has its act together,” said Farrar. According to Farrar, a small percentage of those satellites have already stopped working, the clock ticking away until they fall out of orbit. Others SpaceX has been deorbiting on purpose because they don’t have the customer base to justify using them. Yet.

The goal of Starlink is similar to HughesNet, but any satellite-based ISP is going to face an uphill battle in trying to convince potential customers to subscribe. Satellite signals are easily distorted compared to wired internet. A bad storm or heavily wooded area can turn stable connections spotty or grind service to a halt. Even a misaligned dish or getting new carpeting in your home can cause problems. Satellite internet is also generally slower and more expensive than wired broadband or DSL for the consumer.

“I would dare compare it to dial-up,” said Nicole, a rural Michigan resident and former HughesNet customer, about how slow her service was after using up her allotted data for the month.

Nicole and her family live in a very rural town. Cash-crop county, as she describes it. Big fields full of sugar beets, wheat, and corn. Some windmills, too. With a total population of around 360 people, it’s the kind of town you can only see on Google Maps if you zoom in all the way. Before they moved to where they live now, internet service was so bad they relied on their cell phones for access. And up until April 2020, Nicole and her family were paying $150 a month for 50 GB of data, and download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps, through HughesNet. SpaceX’s beta service costs $100 a month with a $500 upfront cost to order the Starlink kit. By comparison, many metropolitan areas can get 100 Mbps cable broadband for $40-$50 a month.

That 50 GB data limit might sound like a lot, but it’s not: Streaming an HD (1080p) video on Netflix can use up to 3 GB per hour per device. Streaming in SD (480p) uses 0.7 GB per hour per device. Customers on cable or fiber plans are usually allotted 1 TB of data per month, or unlimited for Spectrum customers, but streaming in SD via satellite means Nicole and her family are only able to watch two hours of SD videos a day on a single device, which puts them at 42 GB for the month—but doesn’t take into account video conferencing, emails, or anything else work or school related.

For a while, HughesNet was the only ISP Nicole could get. If she needed to download large files or print something, Nicole would head to the town library or the family business so they wouldn’t run out of data before the end of the month. They even got a second internet plan at one point, DSL through the now beleaguered Frontier, just in case a storm completely took out their internet or they ran out of data. But when virtual learning started in March, neither was enough.

“[Teachers] would say go in the woods, find these objects, talk about it, and send us a video of what you found. But that video alone would take up a chunk of our data,” said Nicole. “And things you don’t even think about, like signing your child up for sports, stuff like that would take me hours.”

Nicole now has internet service through Agri-Valley Service (AVS), a local ISP that offers fixed 4G LTE wireless broadband, DSL broadband, and fiber. Some of its plans come with unlimited data, which she says has been leaps and bounds better than HughesNet—although not every plan offered has the FCC defined minimum of 25 Mbps like HughesNet. The heavily wooded area where she and her family live blocks out much of the satellite signals, but with AVS she doesn’t have to worry about disruptions to her internet service, especially while her kids continue distance learning during the pandemic.

“We just stumbled upon a pot of gold and got good internet [with AVS]. I had heard that some people had good luck with them, so we were waitlisted at first,” said Nicole. AVS was only available to a certain number of households in her area, but luckily enough a spot opened up not too long after remote learning started for her school-aged children. “Now we can stream, and we can be like normal people.”

Featuring 437 beds for coronavirus patients, a new field hospital built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and members of the National Guard is shown inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center May 11, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Featuring 437 beds for coronavirus patients, a new field hospital built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and members of the National Guard is shown inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center May 11, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)

Nicole also says kids who do not have Internet in her area have no choice but to return to in-person learning in the middle of the pandemic. In Michigan, it was left up to the districts on when they wanted to go back in person last month. But because so many kids don’t have reliable or affordable access to the internet, Nicole’s district decided to open the schools back up because it was the only option. Families who could do remote learning still had the option too.

“So far things are going well, because we’re pretty isolated. But it’s a safety issue, so we’re not gonna do that with our kids. Luckily we can do it this way, but it’s just one more inequality for the other kids.”

A few states away in a rural Upstate New York town—so remote that cell phone service is virtually non-existent—Nikki Wasielewski and her husband are also preparing to make the switch from HughesNet to a local broadband provider, which she says will solve all their problems. Solid internet is crucial for the two of them; Nikki manages online education for five nearby hospitals and her husband is an elementary school teacher, and they both have been working from home since the beginning of the pandemic. Without reliable internet, they can’t do their jobs properly.

“We’ve been with Hughes for about 10 years. We supposedly got upgraded to Gen5 a couple years ago but in the spring found out we never did, and was told we aren’t able to have where we live. I don’t think Hughes could support how many people were home at once when the pandemic started and that caused our Internet service from Hughes to be even slower and stop at times,” said Wasielewski. “When the weather is really bad—heavy snow storm, rain storm—it does interfere with the signal.”

On average, it takes 10-11 hours to do seven hours of work on their home internet, according to Wasielewski, and that’s when the weather is good. The hills on either side of their home can sometimes cause interference on those good days. And even at 50 GB of data a month, Nikki and her husband run out constantly due to the amount of downloads and uploads they have to do from home for work.

They also have to think outside the box when it comes to helping students who are in the same or worse predicament than they are when it comes to internet access. Some of Nikki’s husband’s students can’t afford the lowest $60 a month plan HughesNet offers, and even the ones that can only get a maximum of 10 GB of data a month run out of that data so quickly. To help students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend class, Nikki’s husband makes homework assignments available both in digital and physical formats.

“Not having high speed Internet really affects the local teachers. There are a lot of rural school districts where we live. Teachers are uploading lessons on the Internet, loading lessons on flash drives with students without Internet, or making physical copies for students who don’t have a computer.”

Nikki, unfortunately, doesn’t have that option when it comes to the students she prepares materials for. As part of her area’s response to the covid-19 pandemic, nearby hospitals have been re-training nurses who have been working desk jobs for years, yet still have valid nursing licenses. Nikki isn’t allowed to be on campus for as long as the pandemic rages on, so she relies immensely on being able to communicate with students using the education portal who need help finding or accessing materials.

“There’s a lot of people depending on me with my job as system administrator for online learning for local hospitals. We’re trying to train extra nurses to help during covid. Some nurses with desk jobs are being given refresher courses online that I’m responsible for uploading. And if they can’t get in to complete their courses, I have to troubleshoot, so it is critical for me to have good internet speed and connectivity,” said Wasielewski. “There are nurses waiting to help with patient care because they’ve got to get complete online education in order to go out to give bedside patient care. There’s already a shortage of nurses across the country, and if staff end up in quarantine, it makes even a bigger shortage. If my internet service was faster, I could resolve their online issues sooner and help get staff out to do patient care.”

How many ISPs will get a piece of that FCC money? We don’t know yet. Studies have shown municipal broadband would make reliable, fast internet accessible and affordable to rural communities, yet many states continue to roadblock those efforts in favor of keeping tiny monopolies across city and state lines between a handful of providers. Satellite, whether from a bright new upstart like Starlink or an established player like HughesNet, is a stop-gap. It’s a Band-Aid on a wound that needs sutures instead.

Regardless of what kind of satellite is providing internet, or who is providing it, it’s still prohibitively expensive for the speeds and the amount of data you get a month. Its signals are easily obscured by trees, storms, hills, buildings, and the more people connecting to a single satellite, the less bandwidth there is to go around. There are all areas where wired broadband is miles ahead of satellite internet.

The way to completely close the digital divide is to dump that money into fiber broadband, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, especially since there is no 5G network without fiber. “Fiber-to-the-home helps with the build out of 5G networks,” according to the EFF. “The fundamental challenge facing nationwide coverage of 5G is the lack of ubiquitous dense fiber infrastructure, which 5G relies on. Dense fiber barely exists for anyone in America, according to the government’s own data measuring network access deployment.” It’s ironic that the ISP’s own reluctance, even with federal dollars, to roll out broadband across the U.S. is hampering their own efforts to roll out 5G, true 5G.

It’s painfully clear that residents in rural communities need the internet as much as urban and suburban residents do, especially where education and health care are concerned. But an emphasis on short-term investments have made cable and fiber ISPs hyper focused on areas that would give them a quick return to please shareholders. This profits-over-people mentality created the digital divide and it needs to stop if we ever hope to close it.