WORLD Radio – Internet service expansion
While the government focuses on existing technology, innovators are looking for new ways to get rural communities connected
PAUL BUTLER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 10th of August, 2021.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Paul Butler.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
First up, broadband technology.
The infrastructure bill working its way through Congress includes $65 billion dollars to bring broadband internet access to rural areas. Much of that money is likely to go toward installing a physical network: electric lines and underground cables.
BUTLER: But that’s expensive and not always practical. So what’s the alternative? WORLD’S Sarah Schweinsberg reports.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Jason Leininger thought living near a city meant having fast internet. His home is six miles outside Springfield, Missouri.
LEININGER: Being that close to a city of 160,000, you’d think that you’d have pretty good internet. But when we arrived here, it was like going back to dial up.
Leininger has tried three different solutions: phone line or DSL internet, satellite internet, and now, two cell phone hotspots.
LEININGER: When there’s high call volume, or like from 3 to 7 o’clock at night, they really drop off in their sense of productivity and capacity.
Millions of Americans and 3 billion people around the world have a similar story. They all lack access to high-speed internet or broadband of any kind. That increasingly hinders economic development, education, and communication.
But some companies are coming up with creative solutions. That has consumers like Jason Leininger excited.
LEININGER: Yeah, so like, isn’t Elon Musk putting up all those little satellites?
Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial project is called Starlink. It’s made up of thousands of satellites hovering close to the earth, beaming the internet to homes. Eventually, Starlink plans to launch 42,000 LEOs or Low Earth Orbiting satellites.
Traditional communication satellites travel about 22,000 miles above the earth’s surface. LEOs hover as low as 300 miles.
Jeffrey Westling studies technology and innovation at the R-Street Institute. He says bringing satellites closer to the earth could eliminate major issues with current satellite internet: time delays and signal interference.
WESTLING: The tricky thing for satellites has always been latency, right. The low Earth orbital side of it tries to fix that by shortening the signal length.
Because the satellites are closer, it takes less time for a signal to travel to a router. That also means less possibility for signal disturbance.
Westling and other tech analysts say Starlink’s technology has big potential. Radio waves can travel quicker through the vacuum of space than infrared light-waves can move through fiber-optic cables. So LEO satellites could eventually rival or even beat the fastest ground-based networks.
But right now the service can cost more than many people pay for wired internet.
WESTLING: The materials are expensive, the technology is expensive for development. So it’s like they cost a lot to recoup the costs of just manufacturing them.
Westlink expects those costs will come down eventually.
WESTLING: I’ve talked to satellite folks who think they’re going to continue to be able to lower those prices and are optimistic about it.
And Elon Musk isn’t the only tech titan banking on satellite technology. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission gave Amazon permission to launch its own LEO satellite constellation called Project Kuiper.
But some analysts say LEOs still have to prove their worth. Josh Koenig is the co-founder of Pantheon, a software and web-services platform.
KOENIG: A satellite has to like, ricochet the signal around and get it back down to the ground somewhere, that actually can start to introduce an amount of lag that people will notice. Hypothetically, from the laws of physics standpoint, it’s totally possible to do, but it’s complicated.
Koenig and Jeffrey Westling at R-Street say there are other internet innovations that could connect hard-to-reach places. One of those is Internet balloons.
WESTLING: You’re going to have a radio up above, and then you’ll be able to send the signal down to a community that’s within the range of that.
Internet balloons act as floating cell phone towers hovering 12 miles up in the sky. Google was one of the first companies to develop them. It launched what it calls Project Loon in 2011.
Google envisioned its balloons providing internet to rural places as well as disaster areas. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Google’s balloons provided internet access for 100,000 people on the island. Then in 2020, its balloons started servicing Kenya.
But earlier this year, Google announced it was abandoning the project. It said the balloons cost too much to maintain. It also noted many people in poorer countries can’t afford the equipment needed to connect to the internet.
R-Street’s Jeffrey Westling says that doesn’t mean internet balloons are gone forever. For now, they just might be better in specific situations.
WESTLING: I do think they’ve got a lot of applications for like emergency usage and getting, you know, temporary coverage out there to rural areas that maybe are hit by a disaster and can’t get connected.
5G cell phone networks are also giving rural internet users hope. The network eventually promises to provide lightning fast loading speeds that will make using data and hotspots on phones better than ever.
Pantheon’s Josh Koenig says the technology is coming out just as more Americans than ever surf the web on their phones.
KOENIG: Last year was finally the tipping point of more than half of all web traffic being on mobile devices.
But so far, 5G’s struggling through a slow rollout. That’s because the network requires new towers. And a lot more of them.
KOENIG: The way in which 5G works to provide the amount of bandwidth that it does, requires the radio frequencies that are there to like, not get distorted at all, which is why it doesn’t have great range. Because it’s a short range technology, the amount of infrastructure that has to get rolled out to really get 5G everywhere is really significant.
Koenig says he isn’t sure which of these technologies will be the answer to rural internet woes. Or if any of them will. But he’s confident we’ll eventually get a solution.
KOENIG: You do have a lot of people working on it from multiple fronts, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be a solved problem.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.
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This is a good story and very timely. If I may be a little picky, one technical detail is not correct. Low-earth-orbit satellites do not hover. They actually fly over and disappear below the horizon very quickly. A large number of satellites must be properly arranged in different orbits to allow a receiver on the ground continuous coverage.
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