Hey, Why Not Satellites for Rural Broadband Access?

Everyone can agree, I think, that broadband Internet service is an essential utility for Virginia’s rural areas. There appears to be a wide base of support for the commonwealth to expend modest sums of money to help extend broadband to rural Virginians where the population density is insufficient to attract fiber-optic and wireless investment by private telecom companies. But I do have one question: What’s wrong with satellite broadband?

My question is prompted by an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today by Evan Feinman and Courtney Dozier, the point persons in Governor Ralph Northam’s bid to expand rural broadband access. They describe programs that use public dollars to grease partnerships between localities, internet service providers, and electric utilities. Since the beginning of the Northam administration, they note, state-funded programs have helped establish 71,000 connections to homes and businesses. And that’s just the beginning of what they have planned. They are asking for tens of millions of dollars more.

That all sounds great. When it comes to rural economic development, investing in broadband may be the most effective way to spend public dollars. Still, what’s wrong with satellite technology?

In some parts of Virginia, the joke goes, the satellite dish is the state flower. Clearly, satellite service is readily available in areas where fiber optic and microwave service is impractical. A quick perusal of the Internet reveals that Infinity Dish provides “high-speed internet” plans starting as low as $20 per month (subject to availability), and speeds up to 1 Gigabyete per second.

There are multiple providers of satellite service — HughesNet, Viasat, EarthLink and Dish among the more prominent. One disadvantage, apparently, is that bad weather can interfere with transmission speeds. Another is lag times due to the distances data must travel to satellites and back. Yet another is that Internet plans do not offer unlimited bandwidth — hit your monthly limit and the provider can throttle you upload and download speeds.

But the satellite industry is not static. Market Research Future, a market research firm, notes that the cost of satellite broadband connectivity is “expected to decrease in the upcoming years due to technology advancements in internet connectivity.”

Meanwhile, the business model of SpaceX, a firm founded by Elon Musk, is built around launching thousands of low-orbit satellites capable of providing “high-speed, low-latency data communications worldwide,” according to Wayne Rash with  PC magazine.

SpaceX is one of half a dozen companies that have applied to the FCC to operate satellites that’ll provide this broadband access. These satellite networks are in varying stages of development, but if they’re successful, they should provide essentially ubiquitous, high-speed broadband to consumers and businesses anywhere.

Twenty years ago, latency was a major drawback to satellite broadband, especially in applications that required two-way communications such as video conferencing or high-speed data analytics. But SpaceX plans to place satellites in orbit much closer to earth, which will reduce end-to-end delays to a few miliseconds.

Assuming SpaceX works as advertised — admittedly, when Elon Musk is concerned, any promises must be taken with a grain of salt — rural Virginia could well have access to fast, cheap Internet access on a commercial basis in a few years. Is it possible that the tens of millions of dollars the Northam administration invests in expanding terrestrial-based rural broadband will be rendered obsolete? Do better opportunities exist for the commonwealth to partner with SpaceX or one of its competitors to accelerate the deployment of satellites that serve Virginia?

I don’t know the answer. This may be a non-issue. But I haven’t seen anyone else address the issue of satellite broadband. And from what I’ve observed in other public policy debates, silence about a particular topic is a pretty good indicator that no one is thinking about it.

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9 responses to “Hey, Why Not Satellites for Rural Broadband Access?

  1. What’s wrong with it? You spelled it out: “One disadvantage, apparently, is that bad weather can interfere with transmission speeds. Another is lag times due to the distances data must travel to satellites and back. Yet another is that Internet plans do not offer unlimited bandwidth — hit your monthly limit and the provider can throttle you upload and download speeds.”

    The figure of $20 gets thrown around a lot. But that’s usually for an urban area. For Mathews, when I called Infinity Dish, it connected me to HughesNet. But after introductory reductions, HughesNet lowest price is $59.99 plus $350 installation or $10/month lease. I’d need to spend $99.99+tax plus inst to have what I get on DSL for $67+ tax (includes required phone line). Viasat would be $70-100++ a month.

  2. Has anybody heard of a rural community that benefitted from investment funds taken from outside that community for broadband and went from economically depressed to economically self-sustaining?

    What specific jobs will rural broadband enable? Call centers? Bed and breakfasts for urbanites who want high speed connections?

    This report claims that 31% of rural America does not have access to rural broadband at home. Ok. I assume that 69% of rural America does have access to broadband at home. Is that 69% materially better off than the 31%?

    https://www.publicknowledge.org/issues/rural-broadband-access

  3. Shut up and pay for it, mister rich Northern Virginian 🙂 The money trucks still roll by my neighborhood nightly on their way to the Capitol. Lovely sound.

    Hey, why is this so different than the dispersion or electrical or telephone services a century ago? Those efforts were not automatic, and trailed behind urban areas, but it happened and a certain amount of cross-subsidization was involved. Is somebody blocking the creation of broadband coops? Perhaps the very satellite providers Jim mentions?

  4. DJs right, the internet won’t help rural any more than electricity, phones and farm-to-market roads did…… 😉

    I’m a little bemused. Just consider things like education for rural kids and their dads/moms.

    Farms are businesses these days and benefit from connectivity.

    Schools, hospitals, businesses that use credit cards, you name it – its basic infrastructure for the 21st century.

    the question is – would the government subsidizing it generate an aggregate ROI (like electricity) and if it did – then should that subsidy be paid back?

  5. The Mathews Schools Superintendent shared VA Dept of Education survey info recently that said 5% of students could not get broadband at home and 5% were from families who could not afford it. Other families had some access, but their connection wasn’t reliable and others had limited service due to cost. So there are two problems for students: those who can’t afford it and those who can’t get it.

    VaDOE has a report online: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/technology/edtech_plan/infrastructure_program/full-klip-report-2017.pdf 2017 Broadband Connectivity Capability Survey Report.

    “Top 5 school divisions in Virginia with the least affordable Internet access: $52.25/Mbps: Northampton County Public Schools, Eastern Shore of Va $50.00/Mbps: King and Queen County Public Schools, Gamewood Techn. $31.12/Mbps: Bland County Public Schools, BVU Authority
    $29.44/Mbps: Westmoreland Public Schools, Metro Cast Cablevision
    $25.85/Mbps: Mathews County Public Schools, Metro Cast Cablevision and CenturyLink
    Some school divisions in Virginia pay more than other divisions in the state because of their geographical location. For example, one school division technology director reported that Metro Cast Cablevision was the only service provider that could provide an E-rate FCC Form 470 response for a bid that met the needs of their rural schools. Another rural school division technology director on the Northern Neck of Virginia reported that the only way they could get Internet access was through an established service provider in the area that had already installed fiber. Yet another division technology director reported that they do not have any affordable options pointing out that one service provider has cornered the market in their region of the state.” So some rural counties are already paying substantial amounts to provide service to their schools.

  6. One of the interesting points about the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grants from DHCD is “Applications must be submitted by a unit of government with a private-sector provider(s) as a co-applicant.” So unless a locality is large enough to set up its own broadband authority, the grant will go to provide infrastructure to a private business who also gets a guarantee the locality will secure enough subscribers to support the system. But the locality is unlikely to get a price guarantee of $20 for a subscriber.

    Bedford County set up a broadband authority to use its VATI grant. They started their Broadband Authority in 2009 as a political subdivision of the Commonwealth. They have between 25 and 30,000 households, according to different reports. (Mathews has 3800.)

    VATI requires 25/3 speeds. Bedford will have three tiers: 25/3 @ $86; 50/3 @ $108 & 75/5 @ $145. Plus a more affordable option of 15/2 @ $59.
    Bedford will be getting its broadband service by the end of 2019, ten years after they started. It took a lot of work and money to reach this point. https://www.bedfordcountyva.gov/boards-commissions/broadband-authority

  7. Jim,

    Good question. There are lots of developing broadband technologies, and many are exciting. That said, there is currently no silver bullet technology in the pipeline – short or medium-term that is likely to solve the challenges of rural broadband and get our communities online.

    You hear a lot about satellite broadband. Here’s the challenge: current satellite services rely on a few satellites far above the ground (the only height at which geosynchronous orbit works), and even though signals are fast, there’s no way to speed up the “latency,” or the time it takes your clicks and keystrokes to travel up to the satellite, back down to a receiving station, out to the internet, back to the receiving station, back up to the satellite, and back down to you. This type of service is also very expensive and, as anyone whose service has been knocked out during a thunderstorm can attest, can be unreliable in bad weather.

    Elon Musk wants to put LOTS of satellites into orbit much closer to the ground (in both low earth orbit and VERY low earth orbit) to try to solve that problem. And it will undeniably do that. But that creates a whole bunch of new problems. These problems are largely related to the satellites having to move across the sky rather than stay in the same place, the satellites falling back to earth much more quickly, the high visibility of the satellites from the ground, and the satellites having to talk to each other – among others.

    The movement across the sky requires ground stations that can track the satellites, a VERY robust mesh network between and among the satellites, or both which technology hasn’t been developed. The low orbits mean those orbits degrade swiftly, requiring constant replenishment of the fleet, at high (though decreasing on a per-unit basis) cost which will have to be passed back to the customer. The high visibility means that a constellation of thousands of these bright lights streaking across the entire sky at night would effectively end earth-based visible light astronomy.

    So the service is likely to be very expensive, have other social costs, and makes no promises about improved reliability in bad weather relative to current satellite service, and that’s if the economics of it can be made to work at all as a business rather than an eccentric billionaire’s hobby.

    I think Elon Musk does lots of neat stuff, and don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to have people thinking outside the box on this, but I’m not holding my breath on these developing technologies, and you shouldn’t either.

    ~Evan

    • Hi, Evan, Thanks for the reply. It is reassuring to know that you have looked into the SpaceX business model and low-orbit satellites. Your concerns seem reasonable.

    • I had looked into satellite when we had the house at Wintergreen, rejected it for those reasons, but that was years ago and its safe to assume things have improved. But back to my original question, Evan – why isn’t this spreading the same way phone and electric service did? I guess part of the problem is those were regulated entities with defined territories, while consumers now face so many choices no one can get enough of a grip on the business, and the low hanging fruit is consumed.

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