Owl Creek Farm » Life in Alberta » Rural Internet Part 1

Rural Internet Part 1

by Amy

It’s common knowledge among those who know me, that I’m a little a bit of a nerd and geek. I love technology. I love watching how the collective intelligence of humanity is making lives easier (somehow life still feels quite hard, doesn’t it, though?), life spans are longer, work is easier, and play is more often and more enjoyable.

The internet, for all it’s many, many faults, is a place of freedom and learning. At it’s most basic, it gives a voice to the voiceless and an ear to the repressed. Every one of us (in first world countries) knows something that we might never have known or known we wanted to know, without the internet.

The internet has become a need, and a right. It is possible to be completely offline, for sure, but it’ll be a little lonelier than it was 30 years ago. People don’t like to use the phone like we once did, and while faxes are still hanging around, they’ll be a relic soon enough, so it’s become a little harder to chat with people without email, texting, and social media as a go between. Schooling is more and more online, especially in the age of covid, and it’ll likely stay that way to ease the disturbance when kids have to miss school. Everything from getting your paycheck, to paying for groceries, to listening to music, is connected in a small or not so small way to the internet.

Starlink “Dishy” providing broadband internet in rural locations | image credit starlink.com

From a farming perspective, we are able to look up prices on feed, shelters, fencing, medicines, and more, as well as join local communities of others like us to find animals, information about auctions and other avenues of sales, and so, so much more. It would be significantly slower and more frustrating with no internet!

Having access to truly fast broadband internet (50mbps or more download speed) is now at the point of also being a need, and a right. Governments know this: Canada created the Universal Broadband Fund to incentivize companies to get rural areas connected to broadband, and in the US, the FCC has the same kind of program. This is where I gleefully get to the point: Starlink, by SpaceX.

Starlink, currently in beta* is a high speed, low latency broadband connection, using low orbit satellites and individual dishes for each subscriber, very similar to satellite TV setups you’re probably familiar with.

Starlink satellites going into orbit | image credit starlink.com

The difference between traditional satellites is not easy to see from where we sit, but it’s huge: Starlink satellites are a bit under 600 miles above the planet, while all the other ones are ~60,000 miles up. So far up, that there is a significant delay (high latency) in data going back and forth that it is disruptive to many types of internet traffic, like video conferencing and calls, to online video games that maintain a consistent connection to the game server.

Starlink is so close in fact, that it’s generally better (lower latency, as well as speed) than DSL, satellite, fixed wireless, and 4g/lte. For our farm, it’ll be about 150x or more faster than our current fixed wireless, which requires a line of sight to a tower that in our case, is not clear with trees in the way.

Currently the only downside to Starlink is it’s availability. There is only about 1000 satellites above us, out of planned 42,000. Each satellite can provide only so much bandwidth at a time, so they’re limiting the number of beta testers able to sign up. Pre-ordering is available now (and of course we pre-ordered) but it could be to the end of 2021 before we get connected.

There’s one other possible downside, and that is the cost. For Canadians, it’s over $700 for the kit that comes with the dish, modem, cables, etc and $129/month service, which is currently unlimited (subject to change). It’s crazy easy to set up: you can literally put the dish in a clear area of your yard (finding that is easy with the Starlink Find Obstructions tool in the app), plug it in to router and power, and give it about 15 minutes. It aligns itself to find the satellites! No more needing walkie talkies to yell back and forth “Up! No, left a little!”.

Starlink has some competition, sort of. OneWeb for example, is trying to get going. Competition is good, but I’m favoring Starlink. Starlink has shaken up the ISP world with big name satellite companies losing their minds and trying to stop Starlink’s expansion. They are the company that is forcing disruption and change in a way that benefits every person on the planet. So, they get my money. None of the others wanted to risk it to the detriment of us. They can piss off.

*Beta means it’s in it’s early testing phase, before service goes live for everyone that wants it

This is Part 1, Part 2 will come when we have Starlink and we’ve had time to give it a proper review.

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