This is the first part of a three part article series. In this first part, we talk about the growing need for fast internet, everywhere. In the second part, we analyze the practicality and appeal of Elon Musk’s Starlink internet service, and in the third part we look at other exciting new technologies that also promise to deliver fast affordable internet everywhere.
Elon Musk is a man with a mission – or, perhaps better to say, a man with many missions. One of his projects, closely linked to his broader SpaceX venture, is his Starlink service – a new constellation of low-earth orbit satellites promising to bring fast and low-priced internet to everyone, and in particular, to people in rural areas.
Excitingly, in this case, it isn’t all about Musk – there are other similar services also appearing, plus competing alternate ways of making good on this dream.
Before we look at these new services and their implications, to put things in context, let’s start with a look at how we got to the point we’re currently at, and the underlying need/opportunity for better internet access.
The Growing Digital Divide
The “digital divide” is an increasingly important problem, in the US and many other countries with areas of low-density populations. It could be said it is a “glass half empty” problem – should we appreciate the internet we have, rather than bemoan the internet we lack? But, as we explain, good internet service is moving from an unnecessary luxury and indulgence to now be one of life’s essential ingredients, along with plumbing and electricity.
Rural areas have always been less well serviced in all things than cities. Fewer newspapers, fewer radio and television stations, and not as many shopping opportunities. But these challenges have been possible to work around; the internet challenge not so much. Actually, to start with, in the early days of the internet (ie, the 1990s), when access was through dial-up modems, we all connected at the same 56kbps or slower speeds, pretty much no matter where in the country we were, and internet services were based on that limitation. There was no such thing as a digital divide. If you’re 35+ years old, this sound is probably familiar to you.
Faster speeds started to appear in the late 1990s, either in the form of DSL, with internet service “on the top of” normal phone lines, or in the form of cable modems, allowing internet to travel on television type cable wiring. This was beneficial not just because the connection speeds were faster, but also because the connections were “always on”, with no need to go through the dialup and connect process with a modem on a phone line – and they also didn’t take over your phone line while you were using them.
As these new connection methods become more prevalent, successively faster and faster, and more affordable (in the mid/late 1990s, a 1.5 Mbps “T-1” data line cost about $5,000 a month!), the concept of a digital divide started to appear, because these types of faster/always-connected/affordable connections were becoming popular where available, but were not available outside of towns and cities with reasonable population concentrations. Obviously, if you didn’t have cable service, you’d not get cable internet. Not so obvious is that DSL service over a regular phone line only works for short distances from central telephone offices/switching centers or signal repeaters – typically about three miles or so.
The problem has become more extreme in the two or so decades subsequently. Here are five reasons why.
- Increasing aspects of modern life and business/social services assume you have access to the internet. How could you work from home without the internet? What say you have a home security system – these are almost universally connected through the internet now. What would life be like without voice controlled internet assistants and services such as Amazon Alexa?
- Many services are increasingly designed with the assumption that you are always connected to the internet. Try making a flight booking without the internet. Or what do you do if your healthcare provider, during the Covid-crisis, is only doing on-line consultations? Or the convenience of online banking and bill paying – when did you last write out a check?
- Internet services increasingly assume your internet connection speed is fast. Even a “simple” seeming web page commonly has 3 or 4 MB of data on it. If you have a 10 Mbps internet connection, this will probably load in 2 – 3 seconds. But if you have a dialup modem connecting at say 40 kbps, that page will take you ten minutes. Maybe you enjoy watching Netflix or other video streaming services. They require connections with speeds in excess of 5 Mbps for best quality video, and if you want to enjoy the new 4K video resolution, your connection speed needs to be 15 Mbps or even 25 Mbps for 4K with HDR.
- The flipside of the speed expectation, and amplified with video streaming services, is that your internet connection is not just fast, but has an unlimited, or nearly unlimited, monthly allowance for data you receive. For example, every hour of HD video streaming uses nearly 2.5 GB of data (and 4K streaming can go over 10 GB/hour). How many hours of video does your household in total watch online each month – Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and so on? I’ll guess that I, alone, probably watch 50+ hours of video a month, so there’s 125GB of data just for that alone, then perhaps a similar amount for my daughter. My computer typically uses up to 5 GB of data every day (before allowing for any video streaming), even when it is “doing nothing”, so another 150 GB/month for that, plus then all the other devices – it is amazing how much “invisible” data your devices use every day.
- Faster and faster data services on cell phones – a valid alternate to wired DSL or cable internet for some people – are also clustered around higher population areas – the areas where you most could benefit from wireless data as an option are the areas where it is least likely to be available.
How Much Internet Speed and Data Do You Actually Use/Need?
Before going any further, you might find it helpful to understand your present personal situation.
Do you even know what your connection speed is? Do you know how much data you send and receive each month? You might know what your service speed reputedly is when you see the entry on your monthly bill from your internet service provider, but are you getting that speed?
There are a number of services that will test your internet speed quickly and for free, for example, the Speedcheck service. You can see the results from a check I did while writing this article – you might think from the results that I’m enjoying fast speed, but I’m paying for 500 Mbps service, and clearly am barely getting one quarter the speed I’m paying for.
But, while it is much less than I’m paying for, it is still, by most measures, fast, and is simultaneously both fast and also very affordable compared to what people in rural regions suffer.
Speedcheck tells you the speed of your connection (although keep in mind that if you have a slow Wi-Fi connection to your router, and a fast internet connection from there onwards, Speedcheck’s numbers will be limited by your local Wi-Fi, not your internet connection) and also reports on your latency (to be discussed further, below) and the stability of the internet connection (sometimes also measured as “jitter”) – clearly a higher number here is better than a lower number.
There’s another useful thing to know – how many GB of data you are using each month. You could simply ask your ISP for your monthly usage numbers. If they don’t/won’t give you this data, you can probably get the information from your Wi-Fi router – log in to the unit, and then go to whichever menu option reports on data usage/internet traffic. You might want to first reset it, so you know how long the data is being accumulated for, then wait several days before analyzing and extrapolating the totals.
My main router lists nearly 40 different devices in my house that are connected to the internet, and you can see one of the pages of data here. The biggest user of data, unsurprisingly, is my video streaming unit.
This can be a time-consuming exercise, trying to puzzle out MAC addresses and identifying every unit on your network, but it might also be interesting and rewarding. For example, I’m wondering what my Amazon Fire TV stick did this afternoon in the three hours since I reset the statistics. It hasn’t been used and as far as I knew, was essentially switched off, but it has somehow consumed 34 MB of data. Sure, that’s not a lot of data or bandwidth per se, but it makes it the most mysterious active device on my network. Lots of other devices are using more data, but I know what they are all doing. What is the Amazon Fire TV stick doing? In comparison, my Roku Ultra, also unused and, I thought, powered down, has consumed a mere 481 kB of data in the same time period – almost 100 times less. (Actually, after 21 hours of tracking, the Roku, still unused, has now totaled 16 MB of data – a surprising amount for a device supposedly doing nothing.)
The Growing Need for Broadband Internet
We listed five factors above that related to the need for broadband internet. These have been slowly growing, but access to broadband internet became much more a talking point due to many people needing to work from home during the Covid outbreak.
To be clear, decent internet is no longer just a luxury, like a heated indoor swimming pool might be. It is close to an essential service for more and more people, and limits where people can live due to work related needs to be able to use the internet from home. If you’re a remote call center operator or in any of most other sorts of work-from-home occupations, or if you do video calling, you need robust, reliable, and fast internet. This applies not just to full-time remote workers. Some people have an option to spend one or two days working from home each week, but without decent internet, that too is impossible to enjoy.
In other less essential cases, the lack of good internet still represents an unacceptable loss of “quality-of-life” and a forced retreat back to a pre-internet world, a world most of us no longer experience and indeed, can only vaguely remember. Imagine not being able to use Amazon Echo and other services for instant access to internet knowledge, not being able to enjoy video streaming, even not being able to listen to internet radio stations from all around the world. Imagine your only connection to the outside world being a phone line, and some non-interactive television channels. Lacking the internet today is somewhat akin to lacking electricity 100 years earlier. What is the point of having a lovely home in a lovely area if you can’t enjoy a matching comfortable internet-enhanced lifestyle?
The internet spills over, semi-invisibly, into other increasingly essential elements of modern life. For example, in areas where there’s poor cell-phone service, a modern phone and modern Wi-Fi router gives you access to your normal phone service around your home via your Wi-Fi service and the internet rather than via cellular towers.
So how well (or poorly) covered is the country with fast internet at present? An FCC study in 2018 estimated that more than 14 million Americans have no access to the internet at all, and more than 25 million people have no access to “broadband” internet. Those numbers are probably undercounts due to how the FCC determined them, and Microsoft suggests the true number of people with no access to broadband is 163 million people (this is a great analysis). Half the country is either totally without internet, or severely underserved.
The FCC numbers also fail to account for people who do not live in no-internet areas, but who would like to, if internet was available. Many people, especially now with Covid, are seeking to move out and away from big cities, prefering a rural easy lifestyle with less crime, less traffic, and lower housing costs. Their requirements are simple – as long as they’re not too far from a hospital, from a Costco, and from a freeway and moderate sized airport, they are happy. But they also must have fast internet.
What Actually is Broadband Internet
One more point to keep in mind. What is “broadband” – how fast a connection do you need in order to have “fast enough” internet service? The FCC currently defines broadband as being 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed, and that is probably adequate for a single user.
But it is possible, in a household, you might have two, three or four people all wanting internet access simultaneously, and particularly with video streaming and video calling, they all need 5 Mbps or faster, plus a bit of “spare” speed for other things going on in the background, and it is easy to see 25 Mbps becoming slow. Even as the only user on my connection, I noticed a perceptible difference in page loading speeds when upgrading from a 35 Mbps to a 500 Mbps speed connection. There are suggestions the FCC should revise its current definition.
I discuss the interesting concept of how much internet speed you actually need in this article, “Internet Speed Overkill”. The short answer, if you don’t want to read the article (it was written in 2019 but remains completely relevant today) is that for a single user, once you start going over about 50 Mbps you stop noticing much benefit.
Rural internet is not only often very slow, but it can be very expensive, too. I’m paying $40/month for my 500 Mbps connection; the company providing it also offers 30 Mbps for a mere $20/month and a maximum 1 Gbps for $60/month, all with no limits on how much data a month you use. Rural internet quickly goes over $100/month, in return for which you might be getting 10 Mbps, and possibly with a ridiculously small data allowance.
Why Traditional Satellite Based Internet is Not Adequate
There has long been a solution offering coverage to almost everywhere in the United States – satellite based internet, these days offered by two different companies, Viasat and Hughesnet. They have very similar service offerings (surprise, surprise….). Both offer geosynchronous satellites, located about
After an initial discounted three month period, at a location I was investigating, Viasat offered 12 Mbps service (they have faster speeds in some areas but not where I was looking) and a total of 65GB of data a month for $200/month. Hughesnet offer a faster 25 Mbps service, and “unlimited” data – in the strange vocabulary of Hughesnet, “unlimited” actually means 50GB, at a cost of $164/month (and then data at an unusable crawling speed over the 50 GB).
The obvious problem are the data-caps. Remember I’m using at least 250 GB of data a month, so I’d be getting one week of service from Viasat, and less than a week from Hughesnet. I suppose I could have four or five satellite dishes and accounts, and switch between them each month, at a cost of about $800/month, maybe more. (I’ve seen references online to higher data allowances at higher monthly costs without needing to open multiple accounts, but neither rep was aware of any such programs when I spoke to them in April 2021).
As for the actual connection speed, the 12 Mbps is palpably slow and inadequate for most purposes. The 25 Mbps is slow but perhaps adequate. However, connection speed is only part of the puzzle. There’s another issue as well, what is termed latency – the time it takes for a signal to be sent and a response received back. This is explained and shown in my Internet Speed Overkill article.
A good internet connection has very low latency. How low is low? It depends whether you are testing the latency or ping time to a nearby server or gateway, or to somewhere further afield. It takes my connection only 3 msec to get out of my house and to the ISP’s gateway. It can ping Google.com in the same time, and takes 6 msecs to ping my blog.thetravelinsider.info website (much faster than quoted in the earlier article – I’ve optimized the blog and website’s content delivery network since then).
But a satellite is unavoidably 10 – 20 times slower, with latencies of up to 700 – 800 msec. This does not matter too much with email, and usually is not noticeable when you are streaming video either (it just means it takes an extra second or two for the video feed to start) but it becomes very noticeable when loading web pages where there might be 10, 20, even 50 or 100 different sets of data elements to download, so you could potentially multiply the extra latency by five or ten to reflect on the extra time it takes to sequentially load the different elements of a web page, just because of the latency alone.
If that seems bad, wait until you see what happens with voice or video calling. The latency there means that what you hear is half a second or longer after the other person has spoken it. That means you are always talking over the top of each other, because you start talking and it is half a second before the other person hears you and knows to be quiet. It also adds gaps between when each person speaks. A rule of thumb is that 250 msec is the maximum acceptable latency for speech.
So latency can greatly slow down web page loading, and interfere with the natural feel and rhythm of any voice/video calling.
There is nothing that can be done to prevent this with the Hughesnet and Viasat services. The latency is caused by the need for the internet to travel from you up to their satellite, which is 22,200 miles above the equator, and so potentially 25,000 – 30,000 miles from you, then be beamed down from there to a ground station in the US, then be sent on from there to the actual website, then the response to go back to the ground station, up to the satellite, and back down to you again. That’s 100,000 miles or more in roundtrip travel. With the speed of light being 186,000 miles per second, after adding a bit of delay for switching and other imperfections, there you are with 700 – 800 msec of latency.
But, wait. There’s one more problem, too. The satellite service is influenced by weather. Heavy rain can greatly interfere with the quality of your connection, which means that effective speeds reduce. Very heavy rain and thunderstorms can cause complete loss of signal for a while, and Murphy’s Law mandates that such problems will invariably be at the most critical times when you truly need your internet.
So – impossibly low data allowances. Inconveniently slow data speeds, long latency, and unreliable signals. Plus high monthly costs. Are these two satellite services better than nothing? Definitely. But are they adequate allowing a rural recreation of a typical urban broadband experience? Definitely not.
Better Solutions for Rural and Everywhere Broadband Internet
There has been one other type of internet service offered in some regions, particularly if the terrain is reasonably flat rather than hilly. And now Starlink and a number of other companies are coming up with a new type of satellite service that offers fast speeds, low latency, no data limits, and reasonable monthly costs.
How is this possible when the laws of physics remain unchanged? To answer that question, please see the second part of this article series, where we drill down into the reality of how Starlink works. And then, in part three, we look at still more new internet distribution technologies.