By Darren Lum
High speed internet is here for rural residents through Starlink, an effort being led by the private spaceflight company owned by Elon Musk – SpaceX.
SpaceX is constructing a satellite internet constellation to provide high-speed service access via a connection with ground receivers in low to medium population density communities around the world.
The product development for Starlink started in 2015 when SpaceX launched its first 60 low-Earth orbit, or LEOs, part way through 2019. More and more satellites are being launched, as part of a plan to form a megaconstellation, comprising of thousands of mass-produced small satellites that will orbit 550 kilometres from earth.
Currently, Starlink is in its beta stage and is offering the public an opportunity to connect through invites after they have submitted an online application.
It’s unknown how many beta users are in the Highlands, but for the few who are involved it has been largely positive results after spending close to $800 for the hardware (receiver, router, cable and hardware for installation) with tax and shipping, and the $129 monthly connection fee.
Bill Donnery, a retired resident who lives on Ritchie Falls Road with his wife, has been using Starlink for more than three weeks.
“I was just fortunate enough to get in on it so I jumped at the chance. I’m very happy with it,” he said.
Donnery, who said his internet use is mostly for entertainment – made up mostly of streaming services such as Netflix, and video chatting with loved ones, mounted his Starlink dish on his roof in place of where his satellite dish for television was. He’s among the select few not just in Haliburton County, but the country selected as beta users, who will provide information for Starlink .
When he first received the dish after a four-day journey from California he put it out on his driveway to test it and had internet connection within 10 minutes.
“It’s pretty simple. You plug it in and it finds its own satellite itself and rotates and tilts and within five or ten minutes you’re online,” he said.
He adds his highest speed recorded through an app on his phone has been 175 mbps and the low has been 35 mbps, while the latency is between 20 and 40.
Donnery said he’s only experienced the internet connection being down for up to three minutes in a day.
“The biggest thing is no cap. You don’t have to worry about going over your limit. High speed unlimited internet,” he said.
Donnery’s been living in the home he built since 1984 and his internet connection started with dial-up with Bell to Xplornet satellite in the early-2000s to now using a wireless network. The speed of his connectivity has ranged from two or three mbps with satellite to 20 to 25 mbps with wireless.
“This seems too good to be true,” he said, referring to seeing the 150 mbps speed.
Using cellular connection is expensive, with five gigabytes costing $60 and could go up from there. Recently, a new rate during the pandemic was offered, which saw him pay $120 for 50 gigabytes. However, sometimes speed with Rogers was halved during the summer when there were more users.
He appreciates the dishes’ heating feature that melts the snow so he doesn’t have to go up to his roof to clear it after a snow event.
Across Haliburton County, Moore Falls resident Richard Bradley was amazed by the connection he had within a few minutes after he placed the Starlink dish, which is similar to a size of a pizza, on his picnic table.
He loves how much clearer everything is when he watches the Toronto Maple Leafs play after he received it close to a month ago now.
“To watch a Leaf game and not have to set my TV to 240p so everything looks like sort of an interesting colouration of check-boards … Now when I put it on auto when I connect to Sportsnet or TSN or whatever, for a hockey game … more often than not, it selects 720p high definition. Obviously it does a speed test to decide,” he said.
Bradley, with two other users in the house, said there has been some down times of connection during virtual meetings that need a live feed without buffering, but he’s “willing to look past” it. Part of this will be resolved with higher placement of the dish to avoid obstruction of sight to the sky by the trees in his yard, he adds. Bradley said he’ll wait for the spring to install the dish higher on his house. He wishes he could have had an option for a different length cable between the dish and the router and you didn’t need to dismantle the dish to remove the cable.
He said the monthly cost for Starlink is comparable to what he pays now.
“If I cancel my landline and I cancel my internet with Bell, it’s almost the same price. It’s within, I dunno, $10, a month,” he said. “It’s an upgrade. I guess the real thing about the internet is we’ve already decided it’s not a fad. It’s not going away. So all we want is better, faster and more, right?”
Starlink uses beta users to evaluate connections.
As far as any concerns about being monitored, Bradley said he’s not overly worried.
“I don’t distrust them any more than I distrust Bell Canada. You know what? Whoever your service provider is … they can monitor whatever traffic [you have]. It’s all going through their system and they all have access,” he said.
Recently, Musk posted to social media that speeds will double later this year to 300 mbps and said latency – the amount of delay for a internet network, defining how much time it takes a signal to travel back and forth from a destination – will drop to 20ms later in the year. He’s also said Starlink will reach customers around most of the earth by the end of this year and have complete global coverage by next year.
Musk added “Important to note that cellular will always have the advantage in dense urban areas. Satellites are best for low to medium population density area.”
Amanda Conn, executive director with the Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce, acknowledges Musk can come off as boastful, but doesn’t discount his abilities and track record success.
“Even when he makes these claims that sound a little like crazy and outlandish at the time, he has been able to make a lot of them come true to some extent,” she said.
Conn, who lives in a wooded area west of Carnarvon, is expecting to have her hardware soon after placing an order on Feb. 23.
The issue for her isn’t access so much as gaining a stable connection.
“When it comes to connectivity it’s not just getting access to that connectivity, but it’s also getting access to stable connectivity, which I don’t know if in the beta Starlink they will have,” she said.
Her challenge with her connectivity is having video conferences where she can see herself moving.
“Seeing other people isn’t the … problem, but it’s more so you’re always frozen,” she said.
She is currently connected using satellite and LTE through her phone, as her location precludes her using Bell or North Frontenac Telephone Company [NFTC].
There’s been great anticipation for Starlink.
“I’ve heard great things, which is why I’m so excited, but as more and more people join I think we need to see how it actually works. I’m afraid of putting all my eggs in one basket without actually seeing the evidence,” she said.
The past few years, her dependency on connectivity has increased and, although it’s effectiveness fluctuated, it has improved with what she currently relies on for internet.
“I’ve seen an increase in their service in the last couple of years so there has been increases there, but this seems to be a big jump forward. It make all those things that are really difficult right now a lot easier,” she said.
She adds while video conferencing for work all day included acceptable audio, it also included frozen video images of her.
Internet access at her house of five users goes beyond work applications she said.
“It’s not just for work right now. Everyone is so far away and unable to be with their family so I think that is a huge part of it too. That social connection, especially over the last year,” she said.
Despite all the benefits and positive aspects that come with Starlink, there is a caveat.
“As more and more people are accessing the network and how it’s scaled up to millions of users they ultimately want to have, I think that is going to be important to keep an eye on,” she said.
She adds at some point there will be a limit to how many satellites will be allowed to meet the demands.
There’s an obvious high cost for this service that not everyone in the county can afford, she adds. It would be ideal if a solution that was accessible to everyone was available.
Also, Conn wishes there could be a local option.
“While we would love it to be a Canadian company that is offering that technology, you know, anything that we can do to help connect more people up here the better,” she said. “That’s going to help the businesses.”
She hopes her experience will not just benefit her, but will provide a perspective she could share with chamber members.
“If I have a great experience, probably, other businesses are asking for suggestions and solutions I would be more than happy to share that information with them and share my own personal experience. I don’t think it’s something the chamber needs right now because we are located downtown Haliburton so we do have access to infrastructure,” she said.
She believes this connectivity isn’t just good for businesses when it can enable more opportunities to new and more business, but also benefit their employees.
“If we have a period of time where people need to work from home or want to work from home and have better connectivity to do so I think that helps a business as a whole be more productive,” she said.