When Kati Stage moved from the Twin Cities to Embarrass in rural northern Minnesota last summer, her only choice for internet was HughesNet, a satellite service she said was slow “since day one.”
Then, in November, she one day noticed a “strange long line of lights” pass above her in the sky. After some Googling, she found out what it was: Starlink.
The service, owned by Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, offers broadband through a growing network of low-orbiting satellites, which now number more than 1,700 and can look like a string of lights as they move.
The sign from above led Stage to sign up for Starlink internet, and she said she loves the service, which she uses for work and entertainment. “We paid Hughes off and sent their modem back immediately after seeing the difference,” Stage said.
Experts say Starlink’s novel technology has the potential to connect swaths of rural Minnesota where high-speed internet is expensive to build and hard to come by. It’s heralded by some as practically a silver bullet for broadband woes in the state.
But Starlink has also stirred up plenty of debate — and even frustration — among Minnesota officials, who at times see the company as something of a distraction from efforts to publicly fund more traditional types of broadband such as fiber-optic cables.
“Starlink is kind of the shiny new penny that’s dangling,” said Michelle Marotzke, an economic development official with the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission in Willmar. “A lot of people ask about it: ‘Well, what about Starlink? That’s going to fix all of our problems.’”
Why Starlink is different
There are parts of Minnesota where people still don’t have access to quality broadband.
As of October 2020, 16.9 percent of state residents in rural areas did not have access to internet with download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. The state has a goal to provide 25/3 Mbps access to everyone in Minnesota by 2022.
Peter Peterson, a computer science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said high-speed internet has primarily come through cable television infrastructure since the 1990s, and that cable equipment wasn’t built in many rural areas largely because it is more costly to bury cable in sparsely populated areas with fewer potential customers to recoup costs. Public subsidies created a nationwide telephone network, but phone lines don’t have the same capacity for speedy broadband, Peterson said.
The state has lately subsidized construction of broadband infrastructure, namely fiber-optic cable, spending more than $126 million on a grant program for developers since 2014 before lawmakers approved another $70 million earlier this year as part of Minnesota’s latest two-year budget.
Fiber is reliable and fast, but it is also expensive to build, and other technologies have become more popular lately, too, including fixed wireless, in which homes get service from a signal placed high on a nearby building. There’s also traditional satellite internet.