MORGANTOWN — When Jonas Buzzo moved to a new house in the hills just north of Morgantown last year, he wasn’t worried about the internet.
He was told that a local cable company serviced other houses in the area and his in-laws, who lived up the hill, were on AT&T.
But once he moved in, Buzzo realized his mistake. Atlantic Broadband dodged service requests for a month, he said, and then told him it would cost thousands of dollars to lay a new cable line to serve his street. AT&T, it turned out, no longer offered an unlimited household plan in the area.
The family was taking care of his wife’s 7-year-old sister, who was stuck at home thanks to the pandemic. They routinely blew through their monthly data cap on Sprint, and for many weeks resorted to driving to his wife’s grandmother’s house every day for her sister to complete her homework. Buzzo, who’d been forced to give up online gaming, sold his Xbox.
Then, Starlink arrived. Buzzo is one of the service’s first customers in West Virginia. “It’s life-changing,” he said from his front porch on Saturday, where he’d installed the satellite dish on a railing with a bucket and ratchet straps. He’d just got off a night shift at the Morgantown post office, and was looking forward to relaxing in front of Netflix. A cord ran through a window to a modem in his living room, where it was pumping internet at cable-like speeds to his Macbook and TV.
Starlink marks the latest step by SpaceX — the private spacecraft company founded by Elon Musk and backed by NASA — toward fulfilling a promise made to federal regulators that it will offer high-speed internet to underserved areas of the state. And early adopters, willing and able to pay the $580 upfront equipment fee and a $100 monthly subscription, are ecstatic.
“I think it’s the way of the future,” Buzzo said.
Starlink has committed to serving nearly 10,000 households in West Virginia in exchange for federal subsidies, and if its ambitious plans are any indication, it wants to sign up many, many more.
But despite Starlink’s initial success — the company has already launched more than 1,000 satellites into space and Musk is promising to double the service’s speeds by the end of the year, making it faster than many cable competitors — not everyone is as optimistic.
Broadband industry groups have criticized the technology for being unable to serve as many customers as traditional telecommunications companies. Critics predict a “capacity shortfall” by 2028, particularly along the East Coast — and parts of West Virginia — as demand overwhelms the network’s limited number of satellites and ground base stations. Although Starlink can be ordered right now in many areas of the state, the beta has a “limited number of users” and “orders will be fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis,” according to its website.
Satellites have long been promoted as a solution to the nation’s rural digital divide. But they’ve largely underperformed. West Virginians who have signed up for other satellite services like ViaSat or HughesNet can attest to their low bandwidth caps and exorbitant cost.
Starlink uses different technology. Its satellites orbit lower, reducing latency — and there are more of them, increasing available bandwidth. As a result, the Federal Communications Commission has tentatively agreed to give SpaceX $900 million over the next decade to build out its network in areas of the country unserved by traditional internet providers, like much of West Virginia.
Still, worries about the technology’s long-term prospects linger. Although the FCC has — reluctantly and after a pitched battle — embraced it, some lawmakers and analysts have hesitated, concerned about the best use of government money.
“With Starlink, the technology is largely untested. There are a lot of open questions as to whether investing in satellite technology is a good use of funds at this point,” said Kathryn de Wit, a researcher who studies state and local broadband initiatives for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
She also raised concerns about the service’s affordability.
“Maybe satellites can provide a connection for those hard to serve communities — those nearly impossible to serve communities — but at what cost?” she said.
Delegate Daniel Linville, who is leading efforts in West Virginia’s House of Delegates to introduce a state-funded broadband expansion program, is similarly reluctant to spend taxpayer money on satellite technology. The Cabell County Republican outlined a proposal on the House floor to give $10 million to internet providers to build high speed internet to 10,000 new homes over the next year. But he told Mountain State Spotlight that only “terrestrial” providers would be included.
He praised Starlink — ”I applaud their efforts,” he said, and wished them “every success in the world” — but noted that fiber remains the “gold-standard” in modern broadband networks. It’s capable of delivering speeds of up to 1 terabit per second, orders of magnitude faster than the speeds currently offered by SpaceX — or for that matter, almost anyone else.
“We feel that investing in the infrastructure terrestrially is, from a government policy perspective, what we need to do,” Linville said.
Not everyone agrees. Danny Lutz, who ran as the Mountain Party candidate in the state’s 2020 gubernatorial election, has been advocating for a state-run satellite program using the same “low Earth orbit” technology used by Starlink. It would be an unprecedented program, and would cost, he claims, $150 million. That is the same amount of money that Gov. Jim Justice and Republican lawmakers have committed to spend on fixing the state’s broadband woes over the next three years.
‘Better than nothing‘
Lutz’s hypothetical program would not be Starlink’s only competitor. Amazon has committed $10 billion to a similar program, and ViaSat has begun launching its own low-orbit satellites. But Starlink has been the quickest to market — and the flashiest.
In a series of highly publicized launches, SpaceX has used custom-built rockets — designed to one day send astronauts to Mars — to send dozens of Starlink satellites into space at a time. The more satellites it can get into space, the more customers it can serve — at faster and faster speeds. In a recent presentation to the Federal Communications Commission, the company claimed it would eventually offer speeds at 10 gigabits per second. It just raised $850 million dollars in additional funding.
But for now, early users will have to make do with speeds that fluctuate around 50 to 150 megabits per second, according to SpaceX — and occasional blackouts as satellites orbit out of view. The FCC defines high-speed internet as 25 megabits per second.
“Sometimes I’ll get it all the way up to like 160 or 170. Yeah. And other times it’s 20,” said Joel George, Buzzo’s uncle-in-law, who lives across the road and just got Starlink equipment as well. The first night he had it, the service cut out altogether.
But he’s confident it will only get better as more satellites are launched. His house, up a dirt road overlooking a picturesque valley, has long been unserved by traditional cable internet providers. Even in the earliest stage of its rollout — a “Better Than Nothing Beta,” according to the company — Starlink is far ahead of the DSL service offered by Frontier Communications, the primary internet provider in rural West Virginia. And, for now, Starlink offers an unlimited data plan.
“We love living out here, but the two downsides are the internet and the road,” George said. He’s been working at home doing IT administration for West Virginia University.
“Now, this solves at least one problem,” he said.
Zach Bloom, a band teacher in Harrison County, is another early Starlink subscriber. He recently installed his dish on his family’s tomato farm in Berkeley Springs, where it replaced Frontier’s sluggish DSL service. Over the summer, when the family sheltered there during the pandemic, Zoom calls would drop out after only a few minutes.
Bloom knew the DSL was just as bad for others. His students struggled to upload videos of themselves practicing their instruments while schools closed during the pandemic. “They messaged me late at night, panicked: ‘Hey, I can’t submit this. What should I do?’” he said.
He thinks Starlink can be a “game changer for the region” — that is, if the price goes down. He said the upfront price tag was the biggest concern among the friends and neighbors he’d talked to.
Lowering the price will not be easy. Musk called it “our most difficult technical challenge” in a tweet late last year. A representative for SpaceX declined to comment on the company’s future plans.
But Bloom is holding out hope that Musk’s vision pans out. Despite Frontier being set to receive hundreds of millions from the federal government to build out a fiber network over the next decade, Bloom doesn’t have much faith in the incumbent telecommunications giant’s ability to deliver on its promises.
“I think Starlink getting their prices down as a more realistic shot of happening then Frontier revamping their network to be actual decent broadband — instead of this DSL nonsense,” he said.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misstated the FCC definition of high-speed internet. It is 25 megabits per second.