Rural residents react to Elon Musk’s newfangled Starlink satellites.
One night sitting around a fire with my friends, four blinking lights paraded in a neat row across the night sky. It was the first time I’d heard of Starlink—the Elon Musk-ignited Internet revolution that would bring speedy WIFI to the remotest corners of the earth. I was late to hear of it—mainly because I live along the fast-enough cable line here in the “big city” of Ruch. But for Applegate residents who live away from the thoroughfare of Highway 238, the arrival of Starlink satellites has been a game-changer. Before Starlink, they endured painfully slow horse-and-buggy signals.
“For us, it was a huge breakthrough,” says Marty Paule who runs his home business off of Sterling Creek Road. “Overnight we went from 2-3 megabits per second to 200-300 megabits per second.”
With Starlink Internet, phone calls that used to be dogged by awkward delays are suddenly seamless; families can stream four hi-definition movies at once. In the past, watching a single movie could deplete an entire month’s data allotment. But perhaps mostly dramatically, remote workers can now get their work done properly.
Alexandar Ose is a programmer who works from his house up Thompson Creek Road. “Having a bad connection can be one of those ‘otherizing’ things in my industry, where people tend to be clustered in cities”, says Ose. “From their point of view, it’s like, ‘geez, why don’t you fix your Internet?’ I know it sounds trivial, but it’s one of those things that I felt reflected poorly on my professionalism.”
“Starlink is as close to a silver bullet as there is for rural broadband,” he concludes.
Satellites have long been a fixture of rural Internet, but the new Starlink satellites have some key differences from the old “synchronous satellites.” For one, the newer ones orbit the earth rather than staying in a relative fixed position. They are also much closer to the earth, meaning that data-packets don’t have as far as travel. While the old-school satellites are positioned 22,480 miles away from the earth, Starlink’s satellites are just 330 miles away. Local installer Chris Beekman says the difference is “like traveling from Applegate to Portland versus the entire circumference of the earth.”
And this is just the beginning. Elon is launching more satellites all the time and hopes to expand his current 6,000 in orbit to 16,000 in orbit. This will result in even faster and more reliable Internet over time.
It all sounds good, but people cite a few drawbacks. The glowing satellites can present problems for astronomers investigating deep space. Paule is concerned: “I don’t want to stream movies at the expense of some scientist making breakthroughs about the origins of the universe!” For the dilettante star gazers, however, the light is less of an issue. Local Starlink user, Conrad Rogmans, points out that neighboring porch lights can more problematic than any orbital. “You can’t read by Musk’s satellites,” he says.
Beekman credits Musk for addressing this potential light pollution issue by programming the satellite’s solar panels to tilt away from the earth as they pass over continents.
There are also concerns about space junk. “The satellites only have an operational life-span of about ten years and they are constantly being upgraded,” explains Paule. This leads to a lot of clutter in the sky. The nuisance of space junk may have seemed like an abstraction until a couple of weeks ago when the moon received its first ever man-made crater: a three-ton rocket piece crashed into its surface at 5,800 mph, creating a new 16 km-wide indentation. The moon is full of craters, so this may just be symbolically upsetting, but the possibility of space junk striking communication systems is more alarming.
Finally, there are people who just don’t like Elon Musk. “We are essentially lining his pockets,” says Paule. “I know I’m making a rich guy richer.”
Beekman is less bothered. “I’m a rule breaker, as it stands. I say ‘Give ‘em hell, Elon.’ Most companies are stuck in the mud. His is not.”
Ose, who describes the CEO as “polarizing at best,” points out that there will eventually be competition in the low-orbit satellite space. OneWeb should be available later this year, and Kuiper may be available in 2024. “But for now,” he says, “Starlink is the only option.”
Thinking of Starlink? Here is some practical info:
Starlink does not employ a network of distributers or installers. Instead, they designed the Starlink package to be fairly DIY. “Installation is no big deal if you’re okay with drilling holes in your roof,” says Ose. Still, not everyone has the right drill-types, or is comfortable scaling extension ladders. It also takes some skill to locate the optimal spot, which requires a clear northern line-of-sight, free of obstructions like trees or chain link fences. After months of moving his dish around and not finding a good spot, Seth Kaplan, executive director of A Greater Applegate, gave up on the DIY approach. “We spend a few months moving it around the property and never found a good spot. Finally, we hired Chris.”
There are other challenges as well. Supply chain issues are causing delays in materials needed to install Starlink equipment. To overcome this, Chris Beekman is selling pole mounts and pivot mounts that he fabricated himself. His products might reduce your waiting time.
COSTS: $550 for start-up equipment package and there is only one data plan for $99/month. “It’s about $10 per month more than what I was paying,” Kaplan says. “But it actually works, so there is no comparison.”
Since the new-style satellite dishes have heaters to keep snow accumulation from interfering with the signal, so they require more watts (about 45 watts/hour) than the older satellites (which had to be manually cleared of snow). This means you may notice a small bump in your electrical bill, but the heater can be adjusted with an app on your phone. Still, if you rely on solar panels, the energy draw could be consequential–especially in winter when solar electric is harder to harness.
For Starlink installation help, or pole/pivot mounts, contact Chris Beekman at 541-899-3999