Elon Musk’s satellite internet is spreading under the radar in public schools across the country

Fixed fiber optic cables are still the best option for most people at home due to cost and reliability, but off the beaten path, Starlink may be the cheapest option or the only fast option for the foreseeable future, he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a million households that Starlink would be a good solution for, and it could be higher,” he said, not including households outside the US or non-resident customers.

Starlink avoids the need for a fixed fiber infrastructure by using satellites to provide wireless internet. while he Not the first company to offer such a servicehas quickly become one of the leaders in the industry, with around 3,000 satellites now in orbit and planning to Up to 12,000 in total. She has also won acclaim for her work in Bringing Internet to Ukrainians during its constant efforts to repel the Russian invasion.

Starlink has faced its challenges. The company was hit last month when federal regulators scrapped a plan to put nearly $900 million into service.

Schools with money to spend have been a bright spot. In southwest Virginia, about 400 families with 640 students spread across several counties use Starlink through local school systems, according to the Appalachian Council on Innovation, a local group that supports the technology industry and education.

They generally did not have reliable broadband internet access previously or could not afford it, and the coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the need.

We needed a solution that served students and now serves them. “We didn’t have time to wait for the terrestrial fibers to be laid,” said Scott Keeser, school technology director in Wise County, Virginia.

The Virginia government contributed $500,000 to offset the cost. Local counties also contributed, but it’s not clear how long the state or counties will continue to do so.

“As it stands now, the grant has purchased equipment and a two-year subscription, so there is another year or so before this runs out,” said Donald Purdy, former president of the Appalachian Innovation Council and director of its Starlink Project Program. .

After that, each resident will be responsible for their own monthly Starlink fee or local officials will come up with another source of money. “There is no answer at this point,” he said.

There is some hope that while Starlink provides a temporary hiatus, the fixed broadband infrastructure will continue to expand With $42 billion in new capital spending. In the most optimistic scenario, internet customers in rural areas including school districts finally get more choices about how to spend their broadband money, whether it’s on satellite internet or fiber optic cable.

Who has the best mousetrap? Purdy said. “The market will determine that.”

Amazon’s Kuiper internet service is a potential competitor to Starlink. She plans to launch the first satellites By the end of this year.

Starlink’s entry into rural school districts across the country has received little attention. The company owns Referred In passing videos online, local news outlets published reports on individual projects.

Bianca Reinhardt, Starlink’s director of sales, told NBC News in an interview that school districts and counties have been a priority for the service since it launched early in the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Schools are already closed, so having the internet at home has become a necessity in order to actually participate in the school,” Reinhardt said. “So we’re very focused on working with school districts to get students home.”

Bianca Reinhardt, center, and Lauren Dreyer, right, of SpaceX discuss Starlink with NBC News reporter Cal Perry.
Bianca Reinhardt, center, and Lauren Dreyer, right, of SpaceX discuss Starlink with NBC News reporter Cal Perry.NBC News

She said some school districts have no option to connect their students’ homes to the Internet other than using government funds on Starlink.

Lauren Dreyer, Starlink’s director of commercial operations, added that the company could lower the price of the service in the future.

“I think we as a company have a strong track record of constantly trying to keep costs down,” she said. “And we’ll continue, I think, to look at what we can offer customers to help them connect.”

Musk is the richest person in the world according to Bloomberg Newsreceived government support and contracts for some of his other institutions, including Tesla and missile work SpaceX.

Starlink, still in its infancy, has made strides in two years. He. She The public examination has begun In 2020 with the slogan “Better than Nothing” and Entered a wider version Last year, although the company was still working on launching satellites, not all regions of the planet could be reached.

The company said in May that it did so Over 400,000 subscribers All over the world, some investors believe that Starlink can eventually be born More money for SpaceX than its rocket business does.

It seems that sea and air are next. Royal Caribbean Cruises said Tuesday that it will begin offering Starlink internet service on board All her cruise ships, with installation due to be completed early next year. Hawaiian Airlines announce plans To offer free internet via Starlink early next year. The company also has a file Contract worth $1.9 million With the US Air Force to assist bases in Europe and Africa.

“For satellite internet, you have to put together a bunch of niche markets in order to make it a paid service,” said Harold Field, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a Washington advocacy group that pushes for broadband expansion and support.

“For SpaceX, especially at this point, the fact that they can go after a number of these hard-to-serve markets is a huge advantage of their technology,” he added.

On the other hand, Field said he is concerned about whether Starlink will remain committed to rural school districts in the long term.

“It’s all well and good for these guys to serve airlines, cruise lines, and RVs, but they’ve been given a lot of regulatory privileges to serve rural America, and that should remain their main business,” he said.

People pass by a SpaceX rocket on display outside the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
People pass by a SpaceX rocket on display outside the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.NBC News

The first school district to use Starlink was the Ector County Independent School District in West Texas, where in 2020 the charitable arms of local oil and gas companies paid to provide service to student homes. Scott Morey, supervisor, and a nearby district in Pecos said 130 families are now using it She has followed suit.

Morey said the school district isn’t sure if the local industry will pay the cost indefinitely, and he’s looking to other sources of money including the Federal Communications Commission.

“Hopefully, state and federal governments will make this available to families who don’t have the resources,” he said.

The FCC was the agency that last month suspended a Trump Era Plan To give SpaceX $886 million to build Starlink in 35 states. The panel cited data showing that Starlink download speeds are declining.

“We cannot support projects that do not deliver promised speeds or are unlikely to meet program requirements,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworsel said in a statement at the time.

At least some Starlink users are satisfied with the speeds, especially compared to other options – and as long as the price is competitive.

“Our lives have changed,” said Brandon Hunaker, a community college teacher who acquired Starlink in October 2021 with two children at a school in rural Tazewell County, Virginia.

He said, “If fiber comes up and expands in our area, I would consider switching to fiber depending on the price, but frankly, Starlink does everything we need to do.”

David Ingram reported from San Francisco. Kelani Koenig and Cal Perry reported from Cuba, New Mexico, and Hawthorne, California.

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