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.There are currently no comments highlighted.