The internet is a critical service — everyone can agree on that — but some go as far to say that it should be a public utility, like water or electricity. This has driven massive public spending in rural broadband development over the last decade at both the state and federal levels, and the chatter has only increased over the last year of remote learning and Zoom meetings.
Unfortunately, coverage of the issue is often superficial in Maine. The Bangor Daily News recently published a story on Starlink, a project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to deliver high-speed broadband internet service to rural areas via low-orbit satellites. The BDN headline called it “no silver bullet” for rural dwellers, but the limited pool of Maine customers with access to the service have had it for less than six months.
The BDN describes Starlink as Musk’s “side project,” as if it is a diversion from SpaceX’s mission of achieving low-cost human spaceflight, but launching Starlink satellites is a key component of SpaceX’s proof-of-concept. It has become the first company to successfully reuse rockets for multiple journeys. Nothing short of a feat of engineering, SpaceX rockets can land on their base, instead of incinerating in the upper atmosphere, or crashing into the ocean. Using this technology, the company is launching 60 Starlink satellites every week this year, after reaching over 1,000 in orbit last year.
Elon Musk recently estimated that Starlink speeds will ratchet up to nearly 300 megabits per second (mbps) and latency, or the delay in signal transmission, will drop as more satellites are rolled out “later this year.” Current Starlink users regularly experience download speeds higher than 100 mbps, much faster than the current statewide average download speed of 57 mbps, according to Broadband Now. Starlink customers in Maine have expressed optimism that the occasional service losses they experience today will dissipate as the company puts more satellites in orbit to stabilize the network.
But, perhaps the most confusing take on Starlink comes from Peggy Schaeffer, director of ConnectME, a state agency that compiles data and makes grants for local broadband access. She is also a satellite internet customer in Lubec who is new to Starlink. Schaeffer worries that if Starlink expands to serve more customers in Maine, other broadband companies will find it more difficult to build out their networks.
Satellite internet technology, especially using low-earth orbit, is very much in its infancy. The availability of Starlink in Maine is too. Isn’t it a bit early to say that this won’t be a solution?
Following FCC criteria, ConnectME designates “unserved” areas as those with under 25 mbps download speed and three mbps upload speed, also known as 25/3 service. As one would expect, the counties with the most unserved households are the most rural counties, but a glance at ConnectME’s connectivity map shows that the unserved areas (in red), are largely on the outskirts of more populated areas, like small towns. Current data show 11.5% of Maine households are unserved, either with no service available, or access to service under 25/3.
Since its inception in 2006, ConnectME has spent about $13 million in tax dollars to help connect 40,000 households to internet service. It is important to note that this figure does not count how many actually users actually signed up for internet service, simply those who gained access. In 2020, after the legislature allocated 10 cents per landline from E911 service fees to ConnectME, its funding grew by another $1.75 million per year. Just this past July, voters approved a $15 million bond for ConnectME, and Governor Mills is proposing another $30 million bond for this year. A small sum compared to the $1 billion cost estimated by Schaeffer to bring the internet to the remaining 11.5% of Maine households that are currently unserved.
The federal government, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has also granted more than $71 million to Maine over the next 10 years to bring connectivity to 27,755 Census areas around the state. Its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auctions will support “technologically neutral” internet service offerings from Redzone Wireless, Pioneer Broadband, Consolidated Communications, and Starlink, which alone will receive $34 million. There is a ton of public money in this space already.
It is ironic that ConnectME is worried about Starlink crowding out other companies by offering their high-speed satellite internet service in rural areas. After all, doesn’t Starlink contribute to ConnectME’s mission to ensure reliable connections across the state? If anything in this space is crowding out other options, it is ConnectME itself.
Mainers should wonder whether this agency really has the interest of rural communities at heart. Does it exist to bring better broadband to Maine, or does it simply exist to spend more and more tax dollars on its preferred providers?
There is no sense in digging the never-ending ditch of running “last-mile” fiber optic cable through areas with 5-10 people per square mile. Yet, this is the primary method that ConnectME funds with Mainers’ tax dollars.
This cannot be the whole conversation around getting reliable internet to rural areas. We cannot merely focus on what is happening right now and regulate a rapidly-changing industry via a snapshot in time. This is a problem best solved through innovation.
Starlink did not come to Maine because of government spending. It is here despite massive public grants to its fiber optic competitors. How can we shun nascent innovation, yet continually double-down on archaic internet policy based on ever-growing spending and red tape?
Photo Credit: Official SpaceX Photos, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons