Over 800 table-sized satellites constantly falling in orbit at 340 miles above the earth are solving a problem for rural Wise County students, according to data from Wise County, Sky and Telescope and Space.com. The satellites are part of Starlink, a program from private rocket and space hardware company SpaceX that aims to bring high-speed internet to some of the remotest parts of the world. On February 1, 2021, 45 families will have access to the network, thanks to a program developed by the Wise County Public Schools (WCPS).
“Even prior to the pandemic we knew in Wise County schools that we had student homes that didn’t have internet access available to them,” WCPS Director of Technology Scott Kiser told The Virginia Star. “A lot of our homes were having to work off of mobile hot spots and that was the best connectivity they could get.”
Even with “unlimited” plans, the mobile networks cap usage. Kiser said that was fine before virtual learning, but now students can burn up a month’s worth of data in a week. County officials were rushing to find a solution that could bring internet to parts of the county without physical internet infrastructure.
“Fortunately I had a conversation with Jack Kennedy who is our circuit court clerk here in Wise County, and he’s also a space enthusiast. Jack had been keeping up with the Starlink program by SpaceX very closely.”
Kiser and Kennedy met with other county officials to discuss the possibility.
Kiser said, “Jack contacted Senator Mark Warner’s (D-Virginia) office, and his office made a couple calls in support of our efforts, and the next thing we knew we were gathering addresses and getting the arrangement in place.”
The program is part of a beta test from SpaceX, and costs were split between the Wise County general fund and a federal grant Kiser obtained. The county paid $24,705, spent on equipment including a $500 package for each family that includes a small satellite dish, according to Wise County Administrator Michael Hatfield.
WCPS spent $53,460 in grant money, which covers one year of coverage for the 45 families, or $99 per month per family. Kiser is hoping to expand the program to include 90 families, but Starlink is limiting the amount of people allowed in its initial pilot. Starlink is still adding satellites to the network, and according to Space.com, the company could build the network to 30,000 satellites.
A WCPS press release said the county is the first school district in Virginia to use Starlink to connect students.
According to Kiser, the satellites are in a lower orbit than traditional satellite internet networks, enabling faster internet speeds than with previous satellite systems. Hatfield said customers can see internet download speeds of 50 mbps. For comparison, Kiser said residential high-speed internet packages range from 25 mbps to 200 mbps. Starlink does not have a usage cap.
“Most of our homes are probably connected at 25 to 50 mbps,” Kiser said.
Early testing of the system shows that Starlink works well in the mountains, a critical feature for the mountain-dominated community.
“It is supposed to work well in the mountains but we will not know until the service begins,” Hatfield said.
Kiser hopes that after the grant money paying for the subscription ends, the families will be able to take over paying for the program themselves. But the program has broad implications for rural communities. Kiser wants to see other counties implementing similar programs for their students.
“In Wise County, since the economic downturn due to coal, we’ve been looking to rebuild our economy, and there’s a lot of talk in Virginia about technology being able to drive the economy and help us to rebound from our loss of the coal industry,” Kiser said.
“Even beyond our students, this is an opportunity for a solution like this to help folks gain employment through those upper end tech jobs with good salaries that allow them to work from home,” he said. “If we can get homes connected now instead of waiting 5-10 yrs for infrastructure to be built out, then this could really be a game-changer.”
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