State to help Eau Claire County launch SpaceX broadband pilot program

Starlink launch
A SpaceX rocket launches as part of a Starlink mission (SpaceX | CC BY-NC 2.0)

Some residents of Eau Claire County will soon get their internet through SpaceX, the rocket company owned by billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk that is partnering with NASA for the first manned mission to the moon since 1972. 

The internet access will come through a pilot program announced Thursday by Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). The pilot program will test SpaceX’s Starlink program, which launches satellites into low-Earth orbit in an attempt to provide internet to areas that are otherwise hard to reach with traditional broadband lines. 

The pilot will begin with 50 residents and businesses in rural Eau Claire County. The Starlink website advertises upload speeds of between 50 and 150 megabytes per second, which is above the state’s goal of providing residents with at least 25 Mb/s. 

The program is paid for by a WEDC grant of $27,500, in addition to funding from Marshfield Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Hospital Sisters Health System, Chippewa Valley Technical College and PESI Online Learning. The funding from WEDC, Eau Claire County and others is helping residents pay the $499 installation fee plus a $99 monthly service fee for one year. 

“We know that having access to reliable, affordable internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Evers said in a statement. “Making sure that every Wisconsinite has access to this vital service is going to require creativity and innovation, and that’s the kind of approach WEDC’s investment in Starlink demonstrates.”

Starlink satellites orbit closer to the ground than those used in traditional satellite internet, allowing  for the faster speeds because there’s less time for information to travel up to space and back. The Starlink website advertises that feature as an advantage for video calls and gaming. 

The Eau Claire pilot program is designed to test Starlink’s viability as a broader solution to Wisconsin’s broadband internet challenges. Providing internet to residents in addition to the partnerships with health care systems and schools will test how well the service works for everyday internet use in addition to things like telehealth and online learning

Starlink is still in a beta testing phase as it works to get more satellites in the air and more stations on the ground. As the service expands the internet speeds should improve, according to the website. 

“The pandemic has demonstrated that reliable, high-speed internet access is essential today for work, for school and to access healthcare,” Missy Hughes, WEDC secretary and CEO, said. “Getting broadband out to everyone in this state isn’t a moon shot, but it will require a variety of creative, innovative approaches because there’s no one one-size-fits-all solution.”

Evers made expanding broadband access a priority in his recent budget proposal, dedicating $150 million to expanding services to unserved areas over the next two years. In addition to helping internet service providers and local governments pay for projects to expand cable and fiber optic lines, that grant money is meant to help fund innovative ways to increase internet access. 

Earlier this year, a $100,000 pilot program was announced that would help the Northland Pines School District expand internet access by using drones tethered to the ground

SpaceX isn’t the first Elon Musk-owned company to promise improved infrastructure to municipalities. In 2018, Musk — who also owns Tesla, the electric car company — and then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a collaboration between Chicago and Musk’s The Boring Company that would build a high-speed mass transit system in tunnels under the city that would help people travel from downtown to O’Hare airport in record speed. 

That project has gone nowhere and Emanuel left office soon after it was announced. 

But, Eau Claire County’s project doesn’t include any grandiose predictions from the world’s second-richest man. The pilot is a small test of an existing infrastructure’s viability — a far cry from digging a tunnel under most of Chicago’s north side. 

“We’re testing this technology in an area that’s unserved and underserved and testing this in a way that it gives all of these entities information on how it works for their applications,” Eau Claire County information systems director Dave Hayden said. “The real goal of this is to prove the technology.”

Despite the program’s extraterrestrial nature, Eau Claire is not going to be the location of any future rocket launches. The most recent Starlink satellite launch occurred in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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