When Billy Markham looked down his street less than a year ago, the fiber-optic cable running less than a quarter mile from his house was almost within reach. But internet access remained lightyears away in his neighborhood in Coeburn, a small town sitting on the banks of the Guest River on the eastern tip of Wise County. “We talked to Comcast, but they would have charged us $23,000 to run the extension to our house,” said Markham, who works in IT for Ballad Health. “That just wasn’t feasible.”
While many other customers in less remote areas have enjoyed the world of Netflix and Hulu, interactive video games and web-based home security systems for years, these 21st century perks were not an option for Markham and his wife, Michelle Vaughan, who shared a cellular hotspot at home. When the pandemic hit, they would take their son Benjamin, 6, to the parking lot of the local library, where he would do his school work by logging into the facility’s Wi-Fi. “It was miserable,” Markham said.
This all changed on Jan. 28, 2021, when Markham and dozens of other families in Southwest Virginia finally joined millions of other Virginians in the present day – thanks to help from outer space in the form of Starlink, a new satellite internet constellation operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
A regional effort between Wise County Public Schools, the Wise County Board of Supervisors, the Appalachian Council for Innovation and the state government has lured Starlink to the area for what initially was a free beta testing project of the new satellite internet service, which has launched more than 1,600 mass-produced small satellites since 2018. The project has since expanded to include Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell counties, bringing broadband access to a total of about 600 students to date.
The lack of broadband has always been a problem in the mountainous regions of Southwest Virginia, particularly in Wise County, where about 30% of students were still without internet access by early 2021. Outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam has made broadband access a top priority – in July, he moved his previous 2028 deadline to connect every household in the commonwealth up to 2024 because the state had been able to tap into $700 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to back this effort. And in October, Northam announced that the state would use $850 million in federal and state funds – matched by $1.5 billion in private and local government funds – to accommodate requests for $943 million in grants that would fund 57 projects statewide, putting Virginia on a fast track to complete connectivity.
But the vast majority of these projects consist of fiber optic broadband that has to be laid in the ground. While providing reliability and high speeds, this technology is expensive – not just for governments. Most providers price the cost of running a 500-yard extension at $3,500, which in the case of the most remote areas falls on the customers, many of which live in low-income communities.
Satellite internet is widely seen as a less expensive alternative, at least for the consumer. Starlink wants to be a major player in this industry – the company has vowed to launch a total of 42,000 satellites in the coming years that would operate in low Earth orbit at altitudes ranging from 200 to 360 miles (other satellite internet providers are in stationary orbits 22,000 miles out).
Starlink currently relies on what it calls gateways, a system of ground stations that are based around the world, exchanging signals with the satellites, while tapping into existing fiber-optic infrastructure. When a consumer’s antenna connects to a Starlink satellite as it passes by, it turns them into the nearest gateway.
“Virginia, and the whole of humanity, need modernized broadband satellite constellation to reach rural areas where it is much more costly to conduct ‘big digs’ and to enable broadband connectivity for commercial aircraft, privately-owned watercraft, recreational vehicles, and subsequent low-cost global mobile phones, not to mention enhanced Global Positioning Systems use cases and a host of others coming in short order,” said Jack Kennedy, Wise County’s clerk of the circuit court and a longtime advocate for bringing new technologies and industries to Southwest Virginia.
In October 2020, when SpaceX first announced that it was looking for Starlink beta testers, Kennedy alerted his local school division that, like any other in the country, was struggling with the effects of virtual learning on staff and students, many of which did not have reliable internet access. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., facilitated the connection to SpaceX and by the end of last year, an agreement was in place between Wise County Public Schools and Starlink to connect 45 homes by early 2021, bringing reliable internet access to more than 100 students. Wise County was only the second school system in the country to work with Starlink.
Markham and his family were among the first to be offered participation in Starlink’s beta-testing. “I first heard of it through Jack and the school system, and I said, I believe it when I see it,” he remembered. In January, Markham received his beta starter kit, which included a Wi-Fi router, a power adapter, cables and a mounting tripod. “It comes in a ready-to-assemble box, you just put it in your yard, run a cable into your house and in 20 minutes you’re up and running,” he said. “Anybody could do it.”
Experiencing high-speed internet in his home for the first time was life changing, Markham said. “We finally moved into the 21st century, I didn’t even know where to start,” he said. His family currently has six devices connected to their router, enjoying speeds of almost 200 MBps per second – enough to stream 4K movies and working with large media files, including videos. Markham’s son Benjamin finally got to invite friends over to play video games.
To date, Markham said he had no major service interruptions. As long as the antenna has a clear view of the sky, the dish automatically aligns itself with satellites overhead, maintaining an internet connection, even during winter weather. “It’s carrying well, I am on it at least eight to nine hours a day working from home, and it’s allowed me to go back to college too,” he said.
For Jennifer Deel, who lives in Big Stone Gap with her husband Travis and their two boys, Isaiah, 5, and Judah, 3, their newfound broadband access through Starlink was a blessing, Deel said. “The benefits to our family are countless. Not only can we better do our jobs by being connected, but our kids benefit tremendously,” she said. “Not only do kids use the internet for entertainment and connecting, but having internet access for school work is almost mandatory. Our kids now can access resources to aid them as they grow and learn.”
The Deels live in a rural wooded area, and their connection speed with Starlink varies between 100 and 200 MPps download and 10 to 20 MBps upload. “Before, on our previous satellite provider, we ranged 10 to 20 MPbs download and 1 MBbs upload, with strict data caps,” Deel said.
Another perk for the Wise County beta testers – the school system is covering the tab for the first 12 months, including the equipment, which Starlink prices at $499, plus a monthly subscription fee of $99.
After Wise County’s success in the initial testing phase, the division sought to expand the project to offer other localities to join. In April, it partnered with the Appalachian Council for Innovation (ACI), a non-profit group promoting technology solutions to business and community concerns, to secure more funding and assist with data collection from the surrounding counties.
Kennedy, who played a key role in coordinating the effort, managed to secure $500,000 in state funding – an appropriation by the 2021 Virginia General Assembly to the Virginia Department of Housing & Community Development and to the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, matched by local public and private contributions.
To date, 360 accounts have been funded, and another 140 to 160 are in queue for hardware and a two-year service. “The so-called rollout is a larger area than just Wise County,” Kennedy said. “The Appalachian Council for Innovation picked up the project and spread it throughout Wise County and into Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell approaching 400 accounts, and likely one of the highest concentrations per capita on Earth.”
Once funding was approved, state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, hailed the partnership between Wise County Public Schools and Starlink as one of the first such collaborations in the nation to connect students to the internet via space. “This project, funded with $500,000 in the state budget, supports the expansion of high-speed satellite-based broadband within the Lenowisco and Cumberland Plateau Planning Districts for educational and telemedicine purposes,” Pillion said in a statement, adding that the partnership served “as the basis for securing state dollars to expand the project.”
Scott Kiser, director of technology at Wise County Public schools, was tasked with identifying the homes to be connected via Starlink, and working with parents to get the information necessary for the ACI to upload them into the system. “Once accounts are uploaded, the parents then receive an email from Starlink that asks them to verify their physical address,” Kiser said. When this process is completed, Wise County Public Schools receives all equipment and coordinates delivery to the surrounding counties that are participating.
“While the task of getting the sign up process completed has been a challenge, it is very much worth the effort to know that we are serving so many school children homes with internet where it was previously unavailable,” Kiser said. “Many of these homes would have been years away from a viable solution, and with no guarantee of that happening, Starlink has truly been an appreciated service to these families.” The funds and the effort required to make this happen are “more than worth it when you experience the jubilation of that family that has sought service for so long with no viable option,” Kiser said.
The goal is to get a total of 650 students – from K-12 to college, homeschools, private to religious schools – broadband access by Christmas, said ACI President Donald Purdie, calling Starlink “a game changer” in getting people online. “Students were having to sit in the library or in a McDonald’s parking lot trying to get their homework done, and COVID-19 exacerbated that problem,” Purdie said. “All it takes is one of those kids to invent the next big thing that changes lives, and that makes it worthwhile.”
However, state officials remain cautious. Evan Fineman, Northam’s senior broadband advisor, believes that despite the successes of the Starlink project in Southwest Virginia, fiber optic technology remains the “preferred option” for statewide broadband access.
Starlink is going to be, once in its final form, “an important and useful part of the broadband portfolio of solutions for Virginia connectivity.” But traditional technologies, especially fiber-to-home, are more reliable, Fineman said. “Starlink would characterize their product being an innovator test, and that means we need to be cautious as policy makers and people entrusted to deploy tax payer dollars to regard the product at least as skeptically as those who made the product.”
That said, there are a set of locations so remote that it would never make sense for the public to subsidize a fiber connection, Fineman said. “Those are great candidates for Starlink, as are our agricultural locations or airline and mobile shipping needs. What we don’t want to do is put a ton of our eggs into one basket, when we know we have proven solutions that we are ready to deploy.”
Kennedy disagrees. “I stand with one foot in the future, not clinging to the legacy of the past,” he said. “Space-based broadband is a telecommunications game changer, and one not to be characterized as a limited rural hillbilly-thing. That view is both narrow-minded and a short-term roadblock to progress.”
Kennedy said that just 1% of the $800 million allocated for statewide broadband expansion would cover the cost of about 3,000 accounts within the Virginia Appalachian Regional Commission service area to expand the pilot to the next regional stage, working with school districts to get broadband to students that still do not have internet access. The funds would cover hardware, at least one year of service, after which the parent or head of household would take over the monthly subscription, Kennedy said. “The pilot clearly indicates it can work. The 1% just takes it to the next step in the area of high poverty and below average state income. We should diminish zip code as the determining factor for online education, health care and remote work opportunities,” he said.
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said that the Federal Government can help fund access to broadband alternatives like satellite internet, and it has done so through programs such as last year’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase 1 auction. “Since putting down fiber is an expensive option for expanding broadband, especially in rural and mountainous areas, alternatives such as satellites can offer adequate connectivity,” Griffith said in an email. “From what I saw in the last school year, the project (in Wise County) has been a success. Students were greatly helped, and parents and administrators were glowing in their reports.”
For consumers like the Deels in Big Stone Gap, having access to faster, more reliable internet has been life-changing for their family, Jennifer Deel said. “Starlink has opened the world to us.”