American billionaire Elon Musk wants to bring fast internet to the world, including remote and regional Australia, launching a constellation of satellites into space. Beta trials are underway, and the results look promising.
It was about forty degrees in the shade and the man on my roof was having a meltdown.
His sweat painted a line across the corrugated roof as he walked back and forth trying to find a satellite signal. He’d arrived earlier from Bathurst, an hour and a half drive with a tail wind. It was 2016 and this was our second attempt at installing the internet at Warramba, our remote farmhouse in the Capertee Valley near Lithgow. It wasn’t going well. I offered him a Zooper Dooper to lift his mood and retreated to the shed. The NBN is not a spectator sport, although, in a way, it has become a spectacle. Now, though, an eccentric American entrepreneur is offering hope to the people who have been left behind, using his rockets to deliver the internet to the outback.
Australia has broadband internet speeds ahead of Serbia and Belarus but behind Estonia, Bulgaria and Trinidad and Tobago. This places us 57th in the world, and about 40 per cent slower than the average.*
In December 2020, Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher issued a press release declaring that the NBN rollout was complete. It was a whimpering end to 11 hellish years of a project that had been announced as the ‘single largest infrastructure decision in Australia’s history’ by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The press release was largely checkbox stuff: a step that had to be completed by 31st December in order to pave the way for privatisation. But while the Minister’s email hit journalists’ inboxes at varying speeds on a mongrel mix of technology, Lisa Powell was still looking for a signal.
‘Every time the kids said that the internet was bad, I felt like I was failing. I should have been better at it. I should have been able to find the solution, but there just wasn’t one,’ she says. Lisa has a Master’s degree in Business Information Systems from Monash University. She works for an area health service as an analyst. She should have been able to set up a stable internet connection.Living 20 minutes out of Shepparton in northern Victoria, it’s not what you’d called remote. Yet Lisa and her family have struggled for years to secure the internet service they need for work and study.
Lisa tried an array of different options and spent significant money on services such as NBN’s Sky Muster. And then she discovered Starlink.
Starlink is a relatively new internet service offered by billionaire engineer and entrepreneur, Elon Musk. It is an offshoot of his space exploration venture, SpaceX. Starlink is essentially a network—or ‘constellation’—of orbital satellites, launched into the sky on the back of the spacecraft of Musk’s childhood dreams. Since 2018, Musk has deployed approximately 1800 satellites and by the end of this year, Musk says, Starlink will be able to offer ‘near global’ coverage. The long-term plan is to have as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit.
The advantage of a satellite internet service is its ability to provide access for rural or remote communities, where internet delivered via ground-laid fibre-optic cable is not available. And the advantage of Starlink over other existing satellite services, such as the NBN’s, is in the way it’s delivered. Starlink uses teams of smaller satellites, linked by lasers, orbiting at approximately 550 kilometres from Earth. The NBN uses two larger satellites at a much greater distance, making Starlink appreciably faster and much more reliable, even at this early stage.
Starlink is currently ironing out the kinks with a beta stage ahead of a full rollout of the technology later this year. It is currently only available in Australia in northern Victoria and southern New South Wales—Lisa is one of only 400 Australian customers—but about 8000 Australians have pre-ordered Starlink, with more than half a million on the global waitlist.
I met Lisa via a Starlink group on Facebook, one of the places people patch together news about the service and share their joy at being connected to fast and reliable internet, many for the first time. The group occasionally discusses the risks of an experimental network owned by a foreign company, with only an app for customer support. Lisa is not concerned.
‘I still can’t believe it,’ she says. ‘I could wake up tomorrow, and all of Elon’s satellites could have dropped from the sky, and I’d be like, “We still had fast internet for a while”.’
The New South Wales Police force are using Starlink, and Paul Fletcher told Galah that the government is all for it: ‘The Morrison Government welcomes Starlink to Australia. The more choices of communications networks there are for regional and rural Australians, the better.’
Under the terms of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) licence granted to Starlink for five years in January, Starlink can only provide its service to ‘low and remote density areas’, but in Australia that’s anywhere other than Sydney, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth: covering roughly 10 million people and including Canberra, Hobart and big regional centres such as Newcastle and Townsville.
Any genuine concerns about the service centre on Musk himself. The unpredictable billionaire said in June that Starlink needs US$30 billion in funding to survive. ‘If we succeed in not going bankrupt, then that’ll be great, and we can move on from there.’ He made the comment wryly, but there was an edge of truth to it.
He has deep pockets, and while he has little competition, it’s coming. Amazon and others are circling, but Musk’s Starlink has one major advantage: the ability to launch and land satellite-carrying, orbital-class reusable rockets through SpaceX, almost at will.
If Starlink can overcome its commercial and regulatory challenges, it could stand to benefit millions of Australians, especially the 2.6 million Australians who do not have access to the internet.
Indeed, this is why Musk started the company, to provide equal access to the benefits the web brings—oh, and to fund his efforts to establish a permanent human colony on Mars (that is not a joke).
It’s the end of another long day at Warramba, and all I want to do is watch Nashville, a recent TV obsession. But the streaming service displays the ‘spinning wheel of death’, indicating that it does not have enough bandwidth. Let’s hope that the connection holds for my business call in the morning, or I’ll be doing another video call in my truck at the front gate, with the video turned off.
Reminded, I pick up my mobile phone, restart the connection, and type ‘starlink.com’ into the web browser. I tap in my street address. The website reads: ‘Starlink is targeting connections in your area in mid- to late 2021. You will receive a notification once your Starlink is ready to ship.’
I allow myself to imagine what life will be like if Starlink lives up to the hype, as I shift my attention back to Nashville, a show about an entrenched country star upended by a newcomer intent on giving the people what they want.
*Based on speedtest.net data in April 2021.
Join more than 15,000 readers and subscribe to our weekly newsy newsletter, keeping you up-to-date with the regional headlines that matter, as well as a round-up of events around the country.