Rural Broadband Under Attack by ISP Lobbyists
Starlink has brought broadband access to approximately 10,000 Americans, but not everyone is happy about this. It’s no surprise that terrestrial ISPs are threatened by the Silicon Valley startup’s potential and beta-level success. The new kid on the block is getting all the attention, and the big players are realizing that the game is changing.
Note: This article was not solicited, commissioned, or paid for by anyone. Everything written here is a result of my direct experience, research, and opinion.
I live in rural Montana, working remotely for DriveStrike from my home office. My family’s experience with internet service providers (ISPs) is a history of unfulfilled promises, unmet expectations, and general frustration. Here is a quick rundown:
- We tried the Verizon LTE Home Internet router, which promised speeds of at least 25 Mbps. It was $450 for the router and $40/mo for the service. We were excited at the prospect of such a high speed and economical offering. But the reality was extremely disappointing: our connection was flaky at best (and so unstable it was unusable at worst). When the service would connect, we could never get more than 10 Mbps.
- We also tried AT&T 5G internet service. The routers were $250 and the service was $130/mo for a promised 12 Mbps. But while LTE and 5G are reported as being available in our area, the towers cannot effectively reach us. We were again out of luck, and without any other high speed alternatives. After being burned twice by traditional ISPs, we have learned to be very skeptical about their (overblown) promises in our rural area.
- We also tried CenturyLink. The ironic part about all of this is that we are in a Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) funded area. Under this federal subsidy, CenturyLink is required to deliver at least 10 Mbps. However, because the service density in our area is not high enough, they have delayed upgrading the local infrastructure. CenturyLink told us we would need to pay $30,000 per year (with a minimum 5 year commitment) for them to lay fiber to our house — the only way to get better service from them.
We have been incredibly frustrated for almost a decade that the best speed we could get for reliable service was 3 Mbps DSL from CenturyLink. We have appealed numerous times to CenturyLink, the FCC, and our state and federal representatives. The net result is zero action and zero improvement. We have been disappointed and ignored time and time again by multiple ISPs.
Dishy To The Rescue
Out of desperation, we applied for the Starlink Beta program — even though we were skeptical that bouncing a signal over 300 miles to orbit would give us better service than a cell tower just a few miles away.
“Dishy” (a nickname Redditors use for the Starlink dish) came in the mail about a week ago. We got it set up and installed without much hassle. And I have to say, my internet access through Starlink has been absolutely incredible.
We are currently getting between 50 and 150 Mbps. I have good internet access at this very moment, even though it is snowing heavily. I can’t believe I can get this kind of bandwidth here in rural Montana, where the best reliable alternative is between 3–10 Mbps. The Starlink website mentions that there will be “brief periods of no connectivity at all” for beta customers. For us, outages occur about three to four times a day, and last around 15 seconds. While these lapses may frustrate urban netizens, realize that even with these beta outages, Starlink service is far more reliable than any terrestrial offering we have tried in the past.
People in rural areas, especially remote workers like me, are at a disadvantage in this internet age when our speed lags so far behind the rest of the country and connectivity goes out for hours with no explanation. I’ve longed for fast and reliable internet service for years…and that’s what Starlink provides.
That’s a good thing, right?
Well, not for existing ISPs who are competing for FCC funding.
The Monopolies Are Upset
Does Starlink deserve funding from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)? Local ISPs are calling for changes in the approval process after Starlink won $855 million, as one of 180 winners. The FCC could still revoke funding even though the winners have been chosen.
At first glance, it is understandable why existing ISPs would not want Starlink to get this FCC funding. New technology is risky, and it is not as though Elon Musk is strapped for cash. But when it comes to market subsidies, the FCC needs to consider what is best for the consumer, not what preserves funding for existing ISPs that have already had years to prove themselves. A report from BroadbandNow indicates that 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband — about twice as many as the FCC estimate of 21.3 million. The FCC’s reporting flaw disproportionately affects rural areas. If the FCC truly wants to close this gap, it is vital that they put the needs of rural Americans before the complaints of interest groups and lobbyists.
We have seen many ISPs squander funding before, and we are already seeing promising results from Starlink. Even Starlink’s average beta speed of 70 Mbps is far better than the traditional offerings in many rural areas across the country. And SpaceX is planning to provide 10 Gbps by the end of 2024. It is hypocritical for existing local ISPs to question whether Starlink can deliver on its promises, after those ISPs have failed to deliver on their own promises for much slower speeds.
The only standard to beat is what the ISP industry has set for itself. In rural areas, that standard has been slow performance and unreliable connectivity. It is not Starlink’s fault that such a low bar has been set, and no one can really blame them for trying to raise it. Simply going by the numbers, the Starlink beta program is far outperforming every other ISP available to us. In my opinion, the bar has already been raised.
A Closer Look at the Ugly Truth
On the surface, these interest groups’ claims may seem justifiable. However, a deeper look into the RDOF program reveals their selfish agenda. The fact is that SpaceX was only one of 180 winners — that means that 179 other ISPs also won. Even CenturyLink, which has missed CAF II deadlines and consistently broken promises, was one of the lucky winners. Some winners are members of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), the organization most outspoken against SpaceX receiving funding.
Starlink was assigned to the highest number of states and the second highest number of locations among all the winners, yet did not receive the most funding. CCO Holdings LLC, LTD Broadband LLC, and Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium were awarded over a billion dollars each.
It is also strange that these groups are calling for a stringent vetting process since the kind of strictness they want is already in effect. The RDOF fact sheet states that “Entities will also be required to provide high-level technical information to demonstrate they have the technical qualifications to meet the applicable performance tier and latency requirements.” The more I look into the RDOF, the more it frustrates me that lobbyists are trying to prevent people like me from getting access to high speed internet by keeping funding out of the hands of those who deserve it. The hypocrisy is disgusting.
Funding should honor results. Starlink has promised to provide high speed internet to more areas than organizations that have been given more funding. If Starlink is successful in RDOF Phase I, other ISPs will need to step up their game to continue competing in rural markets. In a few years, RDOF Phase II will dole out over $11 billion to improve broadband access in areas not served in Phase I. By that time the FCC will have a clearer idea of who is worthy of funding and who is not. The RDOF should focus on serving the people it is meant to serve, not stuffing the pocketbooks of lobbyists or their clients. In addition to the 103 CAF II winners from 2015, all 180 RDOF Phase I winners should be held accountable to serving their assigned locations and delivering their promised speeds before receiving additional funding.
High Speeds on the Horizon
With all the bad news and incessant problems over the past year, the world is more than ready for some good news. Even something as simple as internet broadband can make a huge difference. The population in Montana is growing (our county grew more than 30% last year alone), so internet access is in increasingly high demand. Ubiquitous high speed internet access would provide some needed relief to those reeling from the impacts of Covid: teachers and students navigating remote learning, employees working remotely to provide for their families, and small businesses trying to stay afloat by extending their online presence.
The only people who want to halt progress toward ubiquitous high speed internet access are those who dominate the ISP industry right now — the companies that get your money regardless of service, support, or satisfaction. Everyone else — business owners, gamers, remote workers, and other regular internet users — simply want the fast and more reliable internet access that Starlink provides. If ISPs are going to complain about a promising new technology receiving their precious funding, we need to hold them accountable for their performance against moneys they have already been given.
Technology is all about innovation. Is innovation going to stop when the norm is threatened? Or will the norm change for the better?