AVERY COUNTY — An innovative partnership between Elon Musk’s satellite internet service Starlink and the state of North Carolina is bringing satellite internet service to two rural NC counties through a program that could likely have impacts in Avery, Ashe and Watauga counties in the not too distant future.
The program, known as the Satellite Internet Technologies for Student Connectivity Pilot, will provide students in the Swain County and Hyde County school systems access to Space Exploration Technologies Corporation’s, (SpaceX) Starlink internet service.
Funding for the program was made available through the CARES Act and implementation of the technology will be made possible through the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) and the Friday Institute at NC State University, among other state organizations.
“High-speed internet is a critical tool that our students need to succeed in these challenging times and into the future,” Governor Roy Cooper stated. “Innovative programs like this pilot with SpaceX can connect students and residents to high-quality, reliable internet service to help with remote learning, telehealth, job opportunities and more.”
Starlink, which is a subsidiary of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is a innovative program headed by Musk, who has also founded companies such as Tesla, OpenAI, Solar City, Neuralink, PayPal and others, that seeks to provide satellite internet to underserved areas through a global constellation of low Earth-orbiting satellites that will be capable of providing high speed internet to any location on the planet.
To date, SpaceX, the aerospace company that aims to one day establish people on Mars, has launched more than 1,000 Starlink satellites into orbit, with the goal of launching a total 4,425 satellites into orbit by 2024. The company has also been approved by the Federal Communications Commission to one day put a total of 11,943 satellites into orbit as part of the global satellite constellation. Earlier this year, Starlink opened up its public beta program and currently provides satellite internet to more than 10,000 users in the United States and Canada.
During the next 10 years, Starlink will also be making its way into Avery, Ashe and Watauga counties. In 2020, the FCC established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which provides $16 billion in subsidies over a 10-year period for companies to provide internet infrastructure to areas without broadband service.
In December, the FCC announced that SpaceX had been assigned to $17.4 million to provide its Starlink internet service to 19,552 locations in North Carolina. Additionally, Charter Communications was awarded more than $142 million for 128,509 locations in the state. These locations include Avery, Ashe and Watauga counties among others.
According to bid results from the Rural Opportunity Fund’s phase one auction, SpaceX was awarded $44,171 to provide its satellite internet service to 59 locations in Avery County, while Charter Communications was awarded $612,554 to provide its services to 335 locations in the county. Moreover, SpaceX and Charter were awarded $21,104 for six locations and $84,768 for 38 locations in Ashe County, respectively. For Watauga County, three companies were awarded a total of $369,677, with SpaceX being awarded $62,311 for 75 locations, Charter Communications was awarded $29,412 for 32 locations and Wilkes Telephone Membership Corporation was awarded $277,954 to provide its services to 460 locations.
Through a 10-year period, these funds go toward building out infrastructure and for each company to expand its services. For Starlink, this means building out of what it calls Gateways, or fiber-connected hubs that feature two to eight parabolic antennas that broadcasts a 620-mile radius of coverage. Additionally, funds will go toward the distribution of user-purchased satellite antennas that provide ethernet and WiFi connectivity. Currently, Starlink’s beta program costs users who qualify for the service a $499 upfront fee for the Starlink kit, plus $99 a month for continued service. However, the price of the service will likely decline as it becomes more widely available.
It will likely take some time before Starlink’s satellite internet service makes its way to the most rural parts of northwestern NC. In the meantime, the region can look to the Swain County School System to study the effects that the satellite internet provider has had on students in that particular district.
According to Swain County Schools Superintendent Mark Sale, the SITSCP is just getting under way, but it is already looking like a promising solution to provide internet to students who live in the most mountainous parts of Swain County.
“Because this is a SpaceX/Starlink endeavor, they have already placed (satellites) in parts of the northern hemisphere into a grid pattern. So Swain County (east and west) fits into two pieces of the grid. We looked at the connectivity and availability that was already in place on each side and chose the west side of our county,” Sale said. “(The program) is for all of our students. However, we are focusing on homes that are in the west side. We may have high school students using it or middle school students using it. I even have a suspicion that some of our college students will be using it next year as well.”
Sale said that SCS was chosen for the program through a partnership that began last summer after a representative from Hometown Strong, a K-to-12-focused program that is part of the governor’s office, approached the school system. SCS was invited to be a part of a work group that focused on internet connectivity issues in Swain and similar counties, and connections were eventually made through the Friday Institute at NC State University, which later brought Starlink into the fold. A total of $264,000 in CARES Act money was made available, which made it possible to bring Starlink’s beta service to SCS.
As part of the program, families will receive the Starlink equipment through a contract with the school system, which will allow the families to connect to the internet through Starlink. SCS is a one-to-one school district, which means that every student from third to 12th grade has a digital device that they take home to use. Sale says that students will be able to access the internet on their devices through Starlink’s service, while the company performs the necessary tests.
“We hope that students will have better connectivity than they have had before,” Sale said. “Of course, this is a beta program, so one of the pieces they’re testing is to see what level of loss might there be, what kind of latency might there be, what download and upload speeds are they going to have. They’re going to require families to do speed tests on occasion, things like that. It’s all part of the agreement.”
If all goes well, Sale says that the service could provide internet service to remote parts of Swain County and bring along the technological advantages that come with it, including digital education, video instruction for elementary students, high-speed connections for remote teaching, new opportunities with educational companies, more exposure with other cultures, as well as the businesses opportunities that would become available in a world that is increasingly online.
“I’m exciting about having multiple options for mountainous counties and school districts. One size doesn’t fit all. Obviously, we would love to to be able to run fiber up every road into every holler, but that is just not cost effective. We would also love to be able to tap into our cell service, which in this particular day and age provides enough download speeds to get good connectivity, but that’s just not available everywhere. Every option we have is just one more positive possibility for our families,” Sale said.
Like SCS, Avery County Schools also faced many of the same challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many students into remote education regardless of whether or not they had a reliable internet connection at home. In Avery’s school district, Riverside Elementary and Crossnore Elementary were two of the schools that faced this problem in particular, since many of the families whose children attend these schools live in the most remote parts of the county. However, students from all over the district live in areas with an internet connection as well.
Whitney Vance, principal at Riverside Elementary, said that seven out of 13 students in one of her third grade classes has access to internet, but only three our four of those students has reliable access. Over the past year, school staff and parents have provided workarounds for this issue, but the lack of connectivity continues to pose challenges.
“The need for internet is not ever going to go away. It’s just going to be more pertinent just because of the way society is moving. Most of our instruction is using online platforms of some kind. Anytime we order a product, they say, ‘Here’s your online version, here’s your online textbook.’ They’re pushing everybody to be online, which is good in some ways and not in others. Either way it’s not going anywhere,” Vance said.
While Crossnore Elementary Principal Matthew Bentley agrees that lack of internet in his part of the county has been an issue, and the school system and families have provided workarounds, he stresses the important of in-class instruction whether or not students’ families have online access.
“Internet is really good, but there’s no substitute for face-to-face, in-class instruction. It doesn’t matter how great it is, there is no substitute for personal instruction. Our teachers do a really, really good job with remote learning and some of the virtual options, but it’s still not the same as sitting there with your teacher and working,” Bentley said. “If I have kids in the building, my job is so much easier.”