New satellite technology already providing high-speed internet to Vermonters

Published: Feb. 11, 2021 at 1:27 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The pandemic has shed a light on what happens when Vermonters don’t have access to reliable internet. Students learning remotely can’t do their classes easily and parents working from home struggle to get their jobs done. While the state has taken a number of steps to address the problem, one possible solution is Starlink, the brainchild of Elon Musk and his company SpaceX. We found out some Vermonters are already testing it.

Around the back of Tom Evslin’s house in Stowe are breathtaking views of Mount Mansfield, and half-buried in snow, a tiny dish.

The setup, just a couple feet off the ground, is Evslin’s new internet service provider -- Starlink. The company’s network of low-orbit satellites promises out-of-this-world speeds to residents in rural areas who are fed up with slow internet and a lack of options. “Getting the kind of internet access I want has been a struggle since we moved here in 2004,” Evslin said. “The first that I heard a beta was available -- which was a couple months ago -- I put my name on the list.”

Evslin’s dish arrived at the end of January and he says the installation was a cinch. “It’s spookily easy to install,” he said. He says the dish has a small motor inside so it aims itself to find satellites in the sky. The hardest part was figuring out how to run a wire into his house. He’s already seeing the difference. “I’m getting speeds between 60 and 200 Mbps -- which is rocket fast. The latency is low which means the video and audio are good.”

But Evslin says there are two main drawbacks. One -- Starlink is still working out the bugs. He’s had his internet dip out at times, though that appeared to resolve itself after a couple of weeks. “They call it ‘better than nothing’ beta. Well, it is better than nothing, but it’s also beta. It’s not perfect yet,” he said.

The other drawback is the $600 price tag for setup and delivery, plus about $100 a month after that -- with no contract. He knows many rural Vermonters won’t be able to afford the upfront cost and says he encourages the state to consider whether they could help. “I think this may be where we want to put a great deal of our money, but I think we want to wait a little while to see if it gets over that reliability threshold,” Evslin said.

We found out the Vermont Department of Public Service is already in talks with Starlink. “It’s been a lot of spitballing I would say,” said Clay Purvis, the state’s director of connectivity. He says there’s nothing official yet, but they’re exploring whether Starlink could be a solution to gaps in remote learning and remote work if they can bring down the cost and increase the capacity. “I think it might be a game-changer for rural Vermont if they can really meet the demand that we have.”

Purvis says the state is open to the idea of creating a program that would help Vermonters who can’t afford the upfront cost of the equipment.

Towns with eligible areas range from Troy and Newport on the northern border to Guilford on the southern border. But not everyone’s home in every town will be a good fit. “Anyone that can have a clear view of the sky from their rooftop should be able to access that service,” Evslin said.

He says give it a week and he’ll ditch his DSL service, but this self-professed “belt and suspenders guy” says he’s not pulling the plug on his other wireless internet provider yet. He recommends Starlink to anyone who can get it right now, especially those who currently don’t have any high-speed internet. “It is better than nothing, and this is a terrible time to have nothing,” he said.

SpaceX isn’t the only company working to get rural Vermonters connected. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Vermont Department of Public Service estimated about 70,000 Vermont households lacked broadband access. With a $12 million investment, they were able to cover about 10,000 of them. Then, the Federal Communications Commission announced investments that would help 20,000 more. That leaves about 40,000 or so who are still looking for high-speed internet solutions.

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