Starlink, Internet From Space and the Precarious Future of Broadband in Rural America

The Hoh Tribe consists of 28 homes along a strip of road on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula. Like in many rural parts of the United States, getting online here has been a constant struggle. A few homes have wired Internet connectivity, but the download speeds are incredibly slow—barely enough to watch a YouTube video. Others rely on patchy cellular service.

For years, community members have pleaded with telecom companies to provide their tribe with better internet service. But it never made financial sense for those companies to invest in the wires and towers needed to serve the hundred or so people who live on the reservation, which is about 30 minutes from the next nearest town. 

Then the pandemic struck in early 2020. Meetings, classes and government services moved online for the Hoh Tribe, just as they did for most of the rest of us in the United States. But most tribe members had no way to make the forced switch to digital—and they risked falling further behind. “Our youth couldn’t download the curriculum or even homework, so that was one of the main drivers of like, OK, we need the Internet as soon as possible,” says Melvinjohn Ashue, a former member of the Hoh Tribe council.

So, they decided to try something new. They turned to outer space. 

The Hoh Tribe are participating in a beta test for an internet service provider called Starlink. It’s a project by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company that aims to eventually send people to Mars. According to Musk, Starlink’s goal is to beam high-speed internet from space, down to the most remote parts of the world. 

Even though this project is still being tested—with mixed reviews—Starlink is getting a lot of attention in Washington at a moment when the government is willing to spend taxpayer dollars on infrastructure and take chances on new broadband deployment methods. 

In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved Starlink’s plan to send 12,000 Starlink satellites into orbit. And in 2020 the company received nearly a billion dollars in taxpayer money through something called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund—a federal program deployed during the pandemic to help connect rural parts of the country. 

But a recent investigation found the FCC had mismanaged the fund. At least 10 percent of its $9 billion (including Starlink’s awarded bids) was not being used to serve rural America, instead going to densely populated urban areas—and even used on projects including airport parking lots and highway medians. In July the FCC admitted it had mismanaged the fund and, now under new leadership, the FCC  is asking companies to return money that wasn’t going toward connecting people who needed it. 

Identifying the mistakes made with the Rural fund will ideally ensure that taxpayer dollars are better spent going forward. It’s likely we will see an unprecedented amount of money go toward connecting Americans in the coming years. Earlier this month, the US Senate voted to pass a monumental infrastructure bill that included $65 billion dollars to fund the expansion of broadband. 

This money alone won’t solve the problem. It needs to reach the right people, and to be invested in technology that can reliably deliver fast internet for years to come. Even though space-based internet is getting a lot of attention right now, it remains unclear what role it will play in solving America’s broadband problem. But what is clear is that Starlink has a place at the table. 

Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the FCC, says that when it comes to connecting Americans, all options—including Starlink’s extraterrestrial one—should be on the table. “We should be open to every technology that can help bring broadband fast,” she says, “and that is definitely one of them.” 

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