It was fun to see MinnPost pick up an impromptu conversation on StarLink that happened during the Broadband conference earlier this month. Starlink is the low orbit satellite service that is in beta testing now. I’ve written about it before the MinnPost article does a nice job outlining it.
- State Rep Garofalo
“This is just another example of technology solving our problems for us,” Garofalo said. “When they’re talking about making sure that communities have access, well everyone already does have access. The infrastructure is already in place, it’s just the monthly fees.
“Rather than subsidizing a fiber connection to a wealthy suburbanite who has a cabin in northern Minnesota, put some means testing onto some Starlink annual plans,” Garofalo said. “That way you’re going to get more people more access to broadband at a lower price.”
- Economic Developer Lezlie Sauter
One person who chimed in was Lezlie Sauter, the economic development coordinator at Pine County in east-central Minnesota. While the Legislature and some local governments have consistently funded broadband grants used on fiber in recent years, Sauter said in a later interview that some people are dismissive of her efforts to expand fiber broadband in the area with public money “because they’re like ‘Starlink will fix it all, I don’t know why we’re even talking about putting fiber in the ground.’ ”
Starlink could be the only option for some people, but she said it’s not affordable for many while and fiber internet is reliable, fast and “almost fail proof” since it’s in the ground. Pine County residents have among the worst access to quality broadband in the state.
- Economic Developer Michelle Marotzke
Marotzke, from the Willmar-based Mid-Minnesota Development Commission, said Starlink poses other concerns. Problems may not be able to be fixed as easily as traditional infrastructure, where someone can call a provider like an electric cooperative and have a technician show up at their house.
Starlink’s internet can still be slowed by inclement weather and obstacles like trees, and Marotzke said ongoing costs associated with thousands of satellites could prove to be expensive compared to fiber that requires little maintenance once it’s buried. “We have technology that is proven, that is solid,” Marotzke said. “We can literally put the shovel in the ground and get it done.”
- Computer Science Professor Peter Peterson
Peterson, the UMD professor, also expressed doubts about Starlink being a broad solution to internet problems long term. SpaceX has to keep launching satellites as it gains customers, raising environmental “space junk” concerns and affecting astronomy. (Starlink has previously said it hopes to launch 42,000 satellites.) Rural America also shouldn’t be forced to rely on one company, Peterson said, because if there are issues or outages that could affect a massive number of people. But if another competitor comes along, he said that would only grow the huge constellation of satellites.
- Chair of MN Broadband Coalition Jay Trusty
One common argument among fiber proponents is also that it can be done now, while Starlink isn’t widely available yet. “We’re already behind,” said Jay Trusty, who chairs the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, which includes telecom companies, counties, economic development officials and even the Mayo Clinic.
During the pandemic, Trusty said, “we had all these kids that couldn’t access their schools, people stayed at home trying to work from home.”
“We’ve got broadband issues that aren’t going to wait five, 10, 15 years.”
Professor Peterson concern for competition is compelling; lack of competition leaves rural residents stuck. I think that is what had folks most concerned because even those concerned about Starlink, aren’t opposed to it – in fact many have tried to sign up for it…
Despite their concerns, public officials skeptical of Starlink said it could still be a good option for many Minnesotans. Sauter, from Pine County, signed up for the service roughly eight months ago, though she said she has yet to receive equipment.
Peterson, the UMD professor, said his only option in Lakewood Township north of Duluth is brutally slow DSL. And while he hopes his area can get grant money to start a fiber cooperative as a long-term solution, for now he also applied for Starlink and is on a waiting list. “I’m signed up for it because we don’t have fiber in our neighborhood,” Peterson said.