The Starlink dish from the roof of Lucy Taylor's home in East Blackpool. (Submitted photo)

Starlink internet is in Clearwater, but still has high cost of entry

SpaceX’s low-orbit satellite system promises fast speeds and better connectivity, even in beta

Twenty kilometres east of Clearwater, down Dunn Lake Road, Lucy Taylor has a homestead, where she lives with her husband and two children. In addition to being a councillor for Clearwater, she’s worked in the financial sector for over 20 years, and currently works for a financial company based in Ontario.

Taylor works from home through a virtual private network, or VPN, server connection to the office in Ontario so she can securly send and receive data over work devices. A VPN connection, however, requires a fast ping, or latency, which is the number of milliseconds it takes to make an action on a computer and it being received through the server.

The Taylor’s home has a very weak, if present at all, cell signal, so the family uses a signal booster, and doesn’t have access to a cable network. Their options for internet were traditional satellite, through Xplornet, or the Telus smart hub, which provides its service through a cell signal.

The latency through traditional satellite service was too low for Taylor to effectively do her work from home, so they opted for the smart hub, in 2017.

“It was a game changer,” she told the Times. “I was able to very effectively work from home.”

That carried on until about the summer of 2019, when the service started to degrade and they noticed their connection getting slower.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Taylor said their internet was so unworkable, she ended up renting an office in town in order to do her work.

“When everyone else switched to working from home, all of a sudden I was the only person in my company of 20,000 who was having to commute,” she said. “I went from being the only remote worker in our Canada office to being the only one not working from home.”

Then, SpaceX started to request addresses for eligibility in its new Starlink satellite service. To date, the company has put more than 800 satellites into orbit, just a fraction of the 12,000 SpaceX plans to send up in total.

The beta service began in October 2020, sending invitations through email to those wanting to participate, to order the dish and other equipment. At first, residents in the Clearwater area were only able to take part in the beta service by invitation, but now residents who would like to partake can go to the Starlink website, enter a valid address and email into the spaces provided, and can order the equipment.

Taylor entered their information in June and when they received their invitation over the holidays, she said it was an easy decision for them, but did acknowledge it may not be an easy decision for all — the cost for the equipment is just shy of $800, after shipping and handling and taxes. After that, the monthly bill is around $130.

While under the beta service, tests are run and service may drop momentarily, impacting performance, and they are only able to offer the service in certain areas due to a lack of satellites and ground stations.

But Taylor said it was worth the risk.

After putting in the order, the package arrived, already connected in the box with almost comical instructions on how to hook it up.

“When we first connected it that first Saturday, we ran the first speed test — it came back with 181 Mpbs download speed!” said Taylor. “We spent the whole day just in awe of the fact that you click buttons and things happen. My son, he’s 10, he’s like, ‘Mom, I pressed next episode on Netflix and it came up straight away!”

READ MORE: Telecom companies temporarily remove interet data caps amid COVID-19

She added that the new system has put things back to a form of normal for them. No longer is she renting the office in town and that means she can pick up her son from the bus stop again. She called it a “game changer.”

Clearwater local Lorne Selbee has had a similar experience with his family’s new Starlink set-up. They’ve had the unit for a few weeks and said it’s difficult to compare his old internet service to the new Starlink one. He and his family live in the Wyndhaven subdivision and said they have limited internet options.

They had the Telus high speed landline and said they experienced lag quite often, adding with two adults and teenagers in the house, there seemed to always be a bandwidth issue as everyone hopped on a device. And while Starlink was promising faster speeds and an overall better connection, the decision to hop on the beta wasn’t necessarily an easy one.

“It is fairly expensive,” said Selbee, adding the costs of the hardware for previous systems also adds up over time. “It’s also just being aware of what the options are in the area…The appeal is so big. If everything works properly and things get better over time, the price could come down a little bit, that’d be amazing.”

He said the Starlink system has been pretty impressive so far, and the installation was simple. If the system continues to get better with time, as SpaceX increases the number of satellites and they work out the bugs as they become more established, Selbee said he thinks it could be a game changer for internet access in the area.

“The struggles that we have locally with internet coverages in general, and I know the local companies have been working hard to come up with a solution, but I haven’t heard anything on the table that’s even approaching the kind of speed and access that this thing has.”

In contrast, Larry Borsa stuck with his internet service with Mascon because of the cost to entry. He lives in Sunshine Valley with his family and used to work for Telus when dial-up was the only service available for an internet connection. Over the years, though, the service has improved, he said, and eventually had the Telus smart hub, but experienced similar issues with low bandwidth as more people hopped on — much like Taylor and her family.

Now, he has high speed internet through Mascon and said it works quite well. Despite Starlink offering faster speeds and better connectivity, Borsa said the cost was just too much for both the monthly cost and initial start-up.

He agrees, though, that the Starlink system could be a game changer for the Clearwater area. Not only by giving residents better, faster internet, but by also creating a little competition.

“The only thing that’ll make Telus or Bell or any of the other outfits do something is if they’re embarrassed,” said Borsa. “That’s the only thing that motivates them.”

Something that also helps motivate new start-ups and bring new technology to the masses are grant funding programs through both the provincial and federal governments. Government funding can help companies either lower the barrier to entry on the user side or fund the company side to offer lower prices.

READ MORE: High-speed internet coming to 200 rural B.C. communities

During their Jan. 19 regular council meeting, District of Clearwater councillors discussed the eligibility of the Starlink system of any potential grants after Coun. Taylor told her story about the family’s experience with the new Starlink set-up.

Council decided to move forward with writing a letter to the local provincial and federal representatives, MLA Peter Milobar and MP Cathy McLeod, to see if the Starlink system is even eligible for any grant programs.

“It was just that question of, ‘Are some of those programs available to newer entrants and newer innovations in this space as opposed to the traditional telecom companies who are accessing these grants to try to improve connectivity?’” said Taylor.

A low-orbit satellite system like Starlink is the first of its kind and the goal of council is to find out if as a community, Clearwater could access funds to be able to lower the cost of entry so more residents can benefit from the product and experience the same internet connection as someone in a larger city centre, like Kamloops.

“Starlink has one price point right now,” said Taylor. “It’s super fast and it’s unlimited, so it’s worth it, but if you just want something basic, that works, and you don’t want to be paying over $100 per month, what are those lower price point options and is there a way a program could be expanded to support some of that?”

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