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Starlink’s Impacts to Broadband Strategy and Rural Connectivity

With the ever expanding Starlink satellite count in low earth orbit, I decided to explore how Starlink may fit into the overall broadband and connectivity strategy for rural Ontario (and other rural areas of the world to a certain degree). This articles gives a quick overview of Starlink and where it’ll potentially add value in Canada.

What is Starlink?

Starlink is a satellite internet service developed by SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk. It aims to provide global broadband internet coverage by deploying thousands of small, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. These satellites communicate with each other using laser links, forming a mesh network that enables data transfer between satellites and ground stations no matter the earth’s position. Users  can access the internet through a Starlink connection and combined with the low orbit of the satellites and the mesh, this helps provide higher speed and reduced signal delays compared to traditional satellite internet systems in higher orbits. As of the writing of this article, there are over 4500 Starlink satellites in space, with 12,000 planned and approved for the future. They are even exploring the possibility of adding a further 30,000 satellites.

Starlink has the potential to reshape the way we connect, communicate, and access information. In this post, so lets explore some of these potential impacts on telecommunication infrastructure, funding, and planning and the changes it may bring to the digital landscape.

Do You Need Starlink?

First lets ask the question to get it out of the way, will you be a user of Starlink? The likely answer is not in your day to day life if you live in urban areas or areas in close enough proximity to populated centres. The goal of Starlink is to provide high-speed internet access to areas of the world where traditional internet infrastructure is unavailable, unreliable, or too expensive to deploy. Taking the example of Ontario, Canada, this is most likely to be areas of northern Ontario off the main Sudbury to Thunder Bay stretch, and even stretches of rural Eastern and SW Ontario. This would translate to many other rural parts of every other province and territory. Imagine being in the middle of Wekweeti, NWT or Fort Hope, ON and having access to the high speed internet. Its game changing for rural communities that otherwise have no real chance of reliable internet access without monumental engineering and construction projects and funding.

Potential Impact of Starlink:
  1. Reducing rural disparity:  In the most remote regions of Canada, Starlink can serve to provide individuals and communities with equal opportunities for education, healthcare, e-commerce, and communication. This has the potential to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas.
  2. Redundancy: Traditional internet infrastructure can be susceptible to natural disasters, failures, or attacks. Starlink’s satellite network can provide redundant connectivity in the event of an on the ground emergency. We saw this during the war in Ukraine where Starlink was engaged to provide internet connectivity when on the ground services were shut off. There is some downside to this of course in it can be used for nefarious situations too or even used as a negotiating point to advantage or disadvantage one side. Either way, this increased reliability could be critical for emergency communications, disaster response efforts, and maintaining uninterrupted connectivity in specific extreme circumstances.
  3. Accelerating Innovation: The widespread availability of high-speed internet to all regions would accelerate technology. Think about autonomous vehicles that will require continuous, high response connectivity at all times. For this to function in a rural area, there needs to be reliable high speed internet everywhere. Healthcare other IoT offerings would benefit with access to this connectivity and can propel innovation and drive economic growth.
  4. Global Interconnectivity: This connectivity can facilitate economic development, educational opportunities, and access to information that can empower individuals and communities in any rural or unserved area of the world. Just think the impact to Ontario or Canada’s rural communities, but on a much grander global scale.
What This Means for Broadband Strategy:

Right now, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Ontario and other parts of the country are going full steam ahead with government funding and connection programs to connect >700,000 homes in Ontario by 2025. While this will be incredible in terms of the improvements, it still leaves many rural areas with lower connectivity options. My best guess is that there will be an uptick in Starlink use in hyper-rural areas to fill the speed gap. The price will be an issue, but as with any technology, prices should continue to drop as acceptance grows and we may even see the government subsidize technologies like Starlink for these hyper-rural regions as an additional component of the broader broadband connectivity funding programs. We may even see regions that were slotted for hardline broadband installation that get delayed and technologies like Starlink fill the gap in the interim and end up being more feasible to just continue using and funding instead of going forward with hard line installations. In fact, Canada’s Connectivity Strategy already has areas earmarked for satellite connectivity too so this is part of the funding considerations. It is really too early to tell and price is a major factor still, making Starlink out of reach for many, so that will need to be solved before it makes a significant dent in the overall strategy here, either as costs naturally decline or as government provides funding.

Wrapping it up:

Starlink really is an interesting approach to gaps that exist and will continue to exist in our connected world. In urban areas, we often take for granted the infrastructure and connectivity we have, but for those in rural areas, its just not something they have or can have easily. Starlink’s approach is an ambitious project and there are still technical and cost aspects to be worked through to make it viable and accessible for those that can truly benefit. There are also potential downsides to this technology, but no matter the case it provides an interesting piece in the connectivity puzzle we are trying to solve for the world and can serve to fill key gaps for underserved areas across Canada and the world. Besides, who doesn’t love seeing a Falcon X rocket land again at sea after taking off for space?

Ron Laidman, P.Eng, C.Dir., MBA

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