Northern Ontario looks to Elon Musk for internet service

Published: October 1, 2020

Starlink Satellite Photo by Shutterstock/AleksandrMorrisovich

In a recent meeting in Hearst, Ont., the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), discussed the possibility of using Elon Musk’s Starlink program to bring much-needed internet service to the surrounding areas.

Speaking on the phone from his office in Temiskaming Shores, a two and a half drive north east of Sudbury, FONOM president Danny Whalen says, “I can go five miles out of town and there’s no cell service or internet.” Whalen estimates that approximately 60 per cent of FONOM’s 110 affiliate municipalities have access to the 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 10 Mbps upload speed promised by the federal government. In its 2019 budget, the government allocated $5 billion to be invested in bringing broadband to rural communities over the next 10 years.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for high-speed internet service in rural communities. “Town council meetings have gone online. Students are online in increasing numbers. Most of our documentation with the province for a municipality is done online. The court system wants to start with virtual court,” Whalen says. “And then we keep hearing about virtual medicine. In Northern Ontario, virtual medicine would be a godsend. You can’t have a doctor in Sudbury dealing with a patient in Moosonee and have the system crash.”

As a result, FONOM has adopted a resolution to support the use of Starlink in Canada. Starlink is a satellite internet service designed by Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX). Currently, the company has 775 satellites in orbit as it continues to launch 60 at a time. The company’s goal is to provide high-speed internet to the Northern U.S. and Canada by the end of 2020, and expand to global coverage in 2021 by eventually launching 12,000 satellites.

The program is still in beta testing, but after a satellite launch on September 3, SpaceX tweeted that the tests have shown “download speeds greater than 100 Mbps—fast enough to stream multiple HD movies at once and still have bandwidth to spare.”

Starlink’s satellites orbit approximately 550 kilometres above the earth, much closer than typical satellites, which tend to orbit over 1,000 kilometres above the earth. Due to their close orbit, there have been concerns over Starlink’s satellites obscuring night views and cluttering space. To address these concerns, SpaceX is experimenting with VisorSats, sunshades modelled after sun visors on a car windshield that, ostensibly, make the satellites invisible to earth-bound observers. The satellites are also equipped with propulsion systems. When a Starlink satellite reaches the end of its life, it uses the propulsion system to de-orbit the earth, burning up in the atmosphere within one to five years. Other satellites at higher altitudes can take hundreds or thousands of years to burn up.

In June, SpaceX applied for a Basic International Telecommunications Services (BITS) licence to gain permission to provide internet to Canadians. Musk seems keen to work with Canada, likely for business reasons but possibly due to some feeling of patriotism—Musk’s mother, Maye, was born in Regina, Sask. Whalen says the only thing holding the company back is receiving approval from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

“We’ve been talking about broadband cellular here for 20 years,” Whalen says, “and every year, the federal government, who control CRTC, tell us we’re getting invested in that cellular across the north. But it’s 20 years later, and like I said, I can drive five miles out of town and it disconnects.”

 

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