New Brunswick

Can Elon Musk's satellite plan solve New Brunswick's rural internet problems?

Starlink is the dream of Tesla founder Elon Musk. It is designed to offer high speed internet services to people in rural areas around the world. But the timeline is still a question.

More than 700 SpaceX satellites are already in orbit, and thousands more are coming

A SpaceX craft launches a group of satellites. (SpaceX, Twitter)

At twilight last April 26, Hampton astronomer Paul Owen was hunkered down in his front yard, ready to capture an important moment with his high–resolution camera. He would not be disappointed.

Suddenly, just above Venus, a broken line of light streaked across the western sky. The show lasted barely 90 seconds.

"It's like looking at a train in the dark, a passenger train in the dark, all these things going by," said Owen. "It's quite something to see."   

What he saw — and photographed — really was a train. A line of 60 individual satellites briefly reflecting in the sun before disappearing from the atmosphere into low Earth orbit. 

It was among the first chains of what will eventually be a network of thousands of new satellites orbiting the Earth 550 kilometres above us.  

The low orbit allows faster internet response times than traditional satellites.

Today, five months and several launches later, nearly 800 of those Starlink satellites are in position.

It is the fulfilment of the dream of superstar engineer Elon Musk to bring high-speed internet service to hard-to-reach rural areas around the globe. And New Brunswick could soon be one of those places.

Paul Owen's photograph of the April 26 SpaceX satellite launch. The broken line is a train of 60 satellites leaving the Earth's atmosphere. (Paul Owen, submitted)

That can't happen soon enough for Stephen Wortman of Durham Bridge. Wortman gets his phone, television, and internet service through Xplornet Fixed Wireless.

He filed one of the 2000 plus intervention letters now attached to the SpaceX Starlink application with the Canadian Radio–television and Telecommunications Commission to provide telecommunications services, including internet, from an international location.

"To have an opportunity to get internet that is comparable to that available for urban citizens is something I didn't think I would ever see," wrote Wortman. "I am fully in support of allowing this service to be implemented in Canada." 

"When it works, it's great," Wortman said to CBC News of his current internet service. "Other times, it's not so great."

"All I'm looking for is a service provider that can give me quick, consistent internet."

It's not clear how well Starlink's service will perform. Public testing with volunteer households is set to begin this fall. Wortman has applied to be one of the participants.

SpaceX founder Musk, who is also the force behind electric car manufacturer Tesla, is himself cautious about predictions, telling attendees at the Satellite 2021 Conference in Washington, DC last March the service is aimed at the three to four per cent of rural customers "who simply have no connectivity right now, or the connectivity is really bad."

He did say, however, the service would be superior to 5G wireless in rural settings and subscribers would have enough speed to watch high-definition movies and play video games without difficulty.

But in recent days technology journalists have jumped on a research report from financial analysts at the investment bank Cowen that suggests it may be several years and thousands of more satellites before Starlink will have the capacity to provide faster Internet service to large numbers of consumers.

Engineer Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla. His plan will see thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

"While Starlink has the ability to provide a practical satellite-based broadband solution for the under served, the capacity has limitations in most of the U.S., especially considering the growing demand for bandwidth driven by in-home data-rich applications and devices," says the report.

It notes, however, the low Earth orbit satellites could eventually prove an "excellent solution" for four billion people around the globe with no access to broadband. 

Starlink has not responded to a request for an interview. A person answering a Starlink Canada phone number in Calgary said simply "We don't know," when asked how soon the service would be available. He said there was no one he could refer the call to.

The CRTC, in the meantime, is saying little about the regulatory timeline that would allow the service to be offered to subscribers in Canada.

"As per usual practice, the application was published on the CRTC's "Interventions" web page for public comment," reads an unsigned statement to CBC. "The Commission is currently reviewing the application."


Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726


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