HOULTON, Maine — Rural Mainers struggling to find efficient broadband internet connection may soon have a new option, if Elon Musk gets his way.
The California-based billionaire, famous for founding the companies SpaceX and Tesla, is setting up a constellation of satellites known as Starlink, which would provide internet to rural parts of Canada and the Northern United States.
The project has already applied for a telecom license to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and the application has seen thousands of comments in support of it. SpaceX has said that the Starlink system could see internet services being provided before the end of 2020.
But while Starlink may be on course for Canada, the Federal Communications Commission in the United States has raised issues regarding satellite-based internet, casting doubt on whether it would be able to meet qualifications for participation in its Rural Digital Opportunity fund.
The system works by sending thousands of mass-produced satellites into space, orbiting close enough to Earth to be seen with the naked eye at night. These satellites then connect with ground transceivers to provide high-speed internet access to areas that may not have been able to receive it previously.
The rural northern parts of Maine, which are farther north than the Canadian cities of Toronto and Montreal, could stand to benefit if everything goes according to plan with Starlink. One of the ground stations set up in the United States is at Loring Air Force Base in the Aroostook County town of Limestone, according to an FCC filing.
But SpaceX has not released all information regarding Starlink, including how much users would have to pay to receive the service.
“Starlink has been very close to the vest about a whole variety of things, including cost and latency — things that affect the end user,” said Peggy Schaffer, executive member of the ConnectME Authority, a group that advocates for high-speed broadband in Maine. “People are excited about this technology, they’re interested in it, and when you’re missing sort of the big pieces it’s hard to say yes, this might be a solution.”
Maine also has the largest percentage of people living in rural areas than any other state, which can make it more difficult to provide residents with high-speed internet under current conditions. According to BroadbandNow, a website that helps consumers compare internet service providers, Maine ranks 43rd out of 50 states in broadband access.
“I think one of the biggest challenges we have in the state of Maine is there’s a lack of modern telecommunications infrastructure,” said Jeff Letourneau, the executive director of Networkmaine at the University of Maine and a member of the ConnectME Authority. “Investments are not being made to support modern internet connectivity that you might expect in more urban areas.”
He said that the challenges mainly arise from the high costs associated with building the infrastructure for internet services in a spread out rural population.
The ConnectME Authority has provided grants to help companies deliver internet service to rural parts of Maine over the past decade, but the authority’s annual revenue is only around $1 million a year, which is hardly enough to provide for all infrastructure funds.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people to work and school from home, the need for internet providers for rural towns in Maine has become more apparent than ever.
“The connectivity issue is a part of life now,” said Dwayne Young, administrator for the small town of Weston in southern Aroostook County, which is one of the towns that has received a grant from ConnectME. “Working in the town office, I’m in contact with people every day and I’m asking them ‘Hey, if you had high speed internet, would it change what you’re doing?’ and the response I’m getting is ‘yes’.”
Regarding Starlink’s potential ability to provide high-speed internet access in the area, Young said: “That would be awesome, but right now we’re going with what we know for the technology.”
A special referendum is scheduled to be held on July 14 asking Mainers whether they wish to approve of an additional $15 million bond to ConnectME, which would be used to help provide service to 85,000 Maine homes. Schaffer has said it would cost more than $1 billion to provide internet service to all Maine homes.