Elon Musk venture has a successful partnership with another rural Virginia county
The wheels of innovation are turning in Rappahannock this week as county officials pursue their options for addressing the county’s broadband dead zones. On Monday, three county officials met with Donald Purdie, president of the Appalachian Council for Innovation (ACI), and Jack Kennedy, an original founder of the ACI, to discuss the possibility of providing high-speed satellite internet to Rappahannock schoolchildren who currently have no broadband access at home.
Representing Rappahannock were Debbie Donehey, chair of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, Garrey Curry, county administrator, and Dr. Robin Bolt, executive director of administrative services for Rappahannock County Public Schools.
Earlier this year, Bolt and Curry worked with the Rappahannock Rapidan Regional Commission to map areas of the county where families had limited or no broadband access. Sixty-five families currently have school-issued WiFi hotspots, Bolt said, but “those are only kids that have cell phone service — a lot of our kids don’t have cell phone service.”
Kennedy, a Wise County native and lifelong aerospace buff, was instrumental in helping his local public schools pilot a program which provided high-speed broadband to students who had no service at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The schools partnered with SpaceX, an aerospace company pioneering low-orbit satellite internet technology. SpaceX is still in the process of beta testing its Starlink internet service throughout the rural U.S.
In 2020, Kennedy reached out to SpaceX and offered Wise County as a beta “laboratory” for Starlink. “They agreed and we did 45 accounts starting in January of this year,” Kennedy said. “It has been an absolute blockbuster hit.”
Unlike HughesNet, whose satellites orbit Earth 22,000 miles above sea level, Starlink uses satellites that fly roughly 340 miles above sea level. The proximity of the satellites to Earth allows Starlink to offer high-speed internet with very little lag time or latency, even as the number of users increases.
Wise County’s program was such a success that the Appalachian Council for Innovation has helped expand it into other counties throughout southwestern Virginia. “I expect before the end of the year we’re going to see hundreds more with accounts with contracts. The counties are … being encouraged to be little laboratories, because part of the equation in trying to expand broadband is not only access but sustainability and affordability,” Kennedy said.
In its beta phase, Starlink equipment costs $499, followed by a monthly service fee of $99.
“Counties are largely stepping up into the void so to speak, to buy into the hardware, the router and the phased array antenna, and then looking to subsidize the service itself. Some counties are using the American [Rescue Plan] Act for the hardware, and then they’re looking at foundations and philanthropists, and local county funds … or school funds to subsidize the affordability component.”
Responding to a question from Dr. Bolt about Starlink installation, Kennedy said it was a straightforward process, but if a family required assistance, the technology staff at the local school district would spend 30 to 45 minutes in the home to help.
“This this is a way to help bridge that last mile economically … [because] the business case to get [terrestrial internet service] to some households is just not there,” Purdie added. “[Starlink] solves that issue. And it’s not that we’re necessarily trying to compete with terrestrials, it’s just … Starlink can get there much quicker and easier and more cost effective, in some instances.”
SpaceX currently has only about 1,500 of its planned 12,000 satellites in orbit. According to the industry publication SpaceNews, the company has obtained approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch up to 30,000 satellites. The company won more than $885 million from the (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction in December, promising to deliver Starlink service to rural communities in 35 states, including Virginia. In Rappahannock County, the company was awarded slightly more than $170,000 to provide service.
“I think I need to talk to my students that don’t have [internet] and see who would be interested,” Bolt said. “I think we need to find out if they’re willing to do this … there’s money out there [to fund a Starlink program] but I think … picking up the phone and calling all these parents and seeing who’s interested would be our next step.”