Can Starlink solve northern Ontario’s broadband problem?

Many residents see the satellite service as a solution to their long-standing internet issues. But some experts caution that uptake of the new system could come with downsides
By Nick Dunne - Published on Mar 31, 2021
Seguin resident Andrew Ryeland set up his Starlink satellite dish in February. (Courtesy of Andrew Ryeland)

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In February, Andrew Ryeland shovelled the snow off his dock and set up his new Starlink satellite dish. Then he carried the cable back to his lakeside home and plugged it in. Setting up the dish, he says, was “no harder than opening a can of beans.”

Ryeland lives in Seguin, near Parry Sound, where he runs an ATV touring business and volunteers for Smart Now Parry Sound, a broadband advocacy group. Like many in the region, he had had a difficult time finding a solution to unreliable broadband connectivity. The speeds were a huge improvement, “like Christmas times 10,” he says.

Previously, he says, data overages could push his bill to up to nearly $400 per month, and slow speeds meant that simple tasks, such as streaming Netflix, were a challenge.

Enter Starlink, a low Earth orbit (LEO) high-speed satellite-internet service run by Elon

man with a white beard stands in front of a satellite dish
Andrew Ryeland lives in Seguin, near Parry
​​​​​​​Sound. (Courtesy of Andrew Ryeland)

Musk’s SpaceX, which aims to provide reliable broadband connection without significant local infrastructure. The company opened service to the Canadian public on a limited basis on November 14 and expanded access in January. Many northern Ontario customers, such as Ryeland, say it’s solved the stubborn problem of unreliable and expensive connectivity; he paid $649 for the dish and pays $129 monthly for speeds of up to 393 megabits per second. Some broadband experts, however, are concerned that the excitement around satellite internet is misguided — and that uptake of the new system could lead to downsides.

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Roughly 12 per cent of Ontarians do not have access to reliable internet, and more than one-third of 82,000 dwellings surveyed by NeoNet (a regional broadband group overseeing the Highway 11 corridor from Temagami to Moosonee) had download speeds of less than five megabits per second or no coverage at all.

For years, broadband advocates and industry experts have said that fibre optic connectivity represents the best long-term solution for northern Ontario. “It’s future-proof,” says Amadeo Bernardi, a broadband consultant and founder of Canada's Rural and Remote Broadband Conference. Once the infrastructure — towers, lines, tunnels, and so on — has been built, he says, the cables and technology are easy to replace over time: “What you're doing is you're just enhancing the electronics, but the highway is still there.”

But many say the infrastructure isn’t being built quickly enough. Jeff Buell, project manager at Blue Sky Net, a regional broadband network for the North Bay-Parry Sound area, says funding is often insufficient. In the federal Connect to Innovate program, “There was $4.4 billion worth of projects asking for $500 million of money available,” he says, adding that attracting investment from governments and service providers to a sparsely populated area such as northern Ontario can be a challenge.

The geography doesn’t help, says Ashleigh Weeden, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph’s school of environmental design and rural development: “Southern Ontario is far different than [northern Ontario] where you’re trying to bury cable or string cable along the Canadian Shield. It's different than trying to freeze-dry muskeg.” 

The federal government’s Universal Broadband Fund (UBF), launched in November 2020, has earmarked $1.75 billion in investment, with the goal of connecting 98 per cent of Canadians to broadband internet by 2026. "Even before the COVID-19 crisis began, the Government of Canada recognized that fast, reliable and affordable high-speed Internet is a necessity, not a luxury, for all Canadians, including those living in rural and remote communities," says an Innovation Canada spokesperson in an email to TVO.org.

Weeden says the UBF is a good step forward, but notes that an auditor general’s report pegged the price of fibre connectivity for all Canadians at between $40 billion and $50 billion. She also says that it fails to address the underlying systemic problems that have made progress slow in Canada. “We really need to get down and find the root causes of these things, which I think are default monopolies in a lot of regions with telco providers, unambitious speed targets, and insufficient oversight or regulatory strength to ensure that this public investment is governed and spent in public interest.”

In an email to TVO.org, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Infrastructure says that the province pledged $2.8 billion in broadband infrastructure through 2025, for a total projected spending of $4 billion from 2019 to 2025 — and that “LEO technology services like Starlink can provide high speed internet services with relatively little delay, especially in remote and northern areas where the deployment of the necessary infrastructure is challenging.”

For many, the advent of Starlink seemed like at least a partial answer to the region’s connectivity issues. In September 2020 the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, which represents towns and cities in the northeast, advocated for Starlink’s telecom licence. “We know today our citizens require greater connectivity than 50/10 megabits per second,” organization president Danny Whalen said in a September 2020 press release. “FONOM believes that the Starlink program is our best option.”

But experts caution that the service could come with some drawbacks. Weeden, for example, points to its contribution to the proliferation of space junk. “There is some concern to be said about shooting hundreds and hundreds of satellites [into orbit] that have a five-year orbit life that become space junk or deorbit and burn up upon returning,” she says. (TVO.org reached out to Starlink for comment but did not receive a response by publication time.)

She is also wary about relying on a private American company for a critical service such as broadband and notes that there are concerns around data retention and use and the degree to which Canada can regulate Starlink’s use of Canadian data. “It's not unheard of right now for broadband infrastructure-related cases to go to our Supreme Court, such as the Bell wholesale rate case, so can we drag Starlink up in front of that?” says Weeden, who previously worked for the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology, a non-profit rural broadband partnership in southwestern Ontario.

Bernardi understands why many have embraced the service. “Residents can just sign up and get a dish sent to them from Starlink, and suddenly they're getting phenomenal speed. That's fantastic,” he says. But he’s skeptical that the high speeds will last. “As there's more and more people coming, your piece of pie gets smaller, so your bandwidth gets smaller and your speeds are impacted,” he says. “What happens in a few years from now when they hit that tipping point?”

In his view, Starlink may work well for individual consumers who can afford it, but it doesn’t solve the underlying regional issues as “it’s really a singular retail type of solution.” Tackling those, he suggests, requires greater co-operation between governments and service providers: “I would say the first step before you put a shovel in the ground right now is try to get that pricing in line,” with greater support from upper levels of government.

Weeden wants to see governments take more aggressive action, for example by introducing higher target speeds and more “placed-based” policies that take into account the specific geographic and capacity challenges of a region. “The cavalry isn't coming in, as it were, for other more necessary broadband projects around fibre,” she says. “You get the worst possible solutions when we're not actively trying to do the thing we know we need to do.”

Still, Weeden understands Starlink’s appeal: she herself recently signed up. “We would prefer to go with the local, small ISP that's currently building on fibre,” she says. “[But] can I wait two years for that bill to maybe finally connect our farm and in the interim continue to be frustrated and have inadequate service from our current provider?”

Ryeland says Starlink has changed his home for the better. His grandson can play on his tablet, he can video chat with family across the country, and he can send photos and videos to prospective clients. “Even 2022 is too long. We’ve been waiting for 10 years already,” he says.

He agrees, though, that fibre would be best in the long run. “Of course, I'd rather have [it],” he says. “But that policy should have should have been existing at the beginning of this decade.” And he has little hope for fibre, at least in the near future: “There is no light at the end of the tunnel here.”

For more on this topic, read Nathaniel Basen's story "'The iceberg you can’t see’: How a lack of reliable internet is creating a digital divide."

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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