Roger Whitehouse and his family have benefited after a phased array dish was attached to the roof of their home in Chesterville. The dish enables Whitehouse, shown with it on Thursday, and his family to upload data and receive information through high-speed internet. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Around a campfire late last fall, a friend of Joe Meadows looked up at the clear night sky and noticed a string of lights.

“Hey, I think that’s those satellites.”

Meadows glanced skyward and nodded. It was a good reminder. The following day he signed up for Starlink, a broadband internet service made possible by a constellation of satellites in orbit 341 miles above the Earth.

The new service is unlike anything before it in the sense that it promises fast speeds from virtually any location with line-of-sight access to the northern sky. That could be ideal for rural Mainers, but one of the state’s leading broadband advocates expressed concerns about Starlink’s cost, reliability and potential to kill momentum for more community-minded broadband projects.

Entrepreneurial superstar Elon Musk’s SpaceX program launched another 60 satellites Thursday to raise the current Starlink total to 1,205, although several dozen are not active or have failed. Those remaining in orbit, however, have allowed Meadows to operate his management consulting business not from the suburban Philadelphia office building where it originated, but from what in pre-pandemic times was to be his vacation home on an island not far from Lake St. George State Park in Liberty.

Joe Meadows, right, and Jay Babin check the installation of the Starlink system on Meadows’ home in Liberty. Photo courtesy of Joe Meadows

“When the pandemic hit, we came up and decided that’s it,” said Meadows, 57, who had been vacationing in midcoast Maine with his wife for more than 20 years and bought their home in August 2019. “We’re just going to accelerate our plan and move up here five to 10 years early. We made the decision in late February (last winter) and by March 8 we were already up here. Phenomenal community here in Liberty.”

Back in Pennsylvania, the half dozen employees began working from home, thanks to available fiber optic connections. In Liberty, Meadows lives on an island, nearly two miles down a private dirt road, in Stevens Pond. For the foreseeable future, he will not have a fiber optic connection.

So he cobbled together a system with wireless feeds from three different providers, along with a router that could switch between them. The system cost roughly $350 a month, but it allowed Meadows to run his business, which often requires him to be on conference calls up to six hours a day.

Meanwhile, Starlink began testing what it called “Better Than Nothing Beta” in late October for users located in certain northern latitudes. As more satellites are placed into use (full deployment calls for nearly 12,000), the service becomes available farther south. In Maine, that southern range has yet to reach Brunswick but as of February encompassed Liberty.

After moving off the Starlink wait list in late January, Meadows received a small satellite dish, mounting tripod, power brick, two cables and a WiFi router. For the first week he stationed the dish on a table in his yard and has since moved it onto his roof, using the mount from a Dish television satellite installed by the home’s previous owner.

The equipment cost him more than $500 with shipping and taxes, and the service is roughly $100 per month. There is no cap on data usage, and connection speeds are much faster, although there are occasional drops due to an obstruction (often a tree) or as the signal is transferred between satellites.

Meadows said his Starlink service averages 50 to 60 Megabits per second downstream and between 14 and 17 Mbps up, but is getting progressively faster and more reliable. Last week, his service registered a download speed of 117 Mbps.

With his former set-up, Meadows said he averaged 7 up and 2.5 down, but noted recent investments by Redzone allowed for an upstream peak of 15 Mbps.

The broadband baseline set in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission is 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, although lawmakers including U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, are urging the Biden administration to update that standard to a symmetrical 100 Mbps up and down.

“The pandemic has reinforced the importance of high-speed broadband and underscored the cost of the persistent digital divide in our country,” wrote King and Sens. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in a letter to the FCC on Thursday. The letter notes that millions of Americans still lack access to broadband, even at a standard well below the average speeds available in the world’s top five countries, which range from 175 to 226 Mbps.

Roger Whitehouse and family have benefitted after a phased array dish was attached to the roof of their home in Chesterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“For someone like me, Starlink is a great solution,” said Meadows, who volunteers both as a firefighter and as a member of the Southwest Waldo County Broadband Coalition. “But frankly, for a lot of folks a hundred bucks a month is not affordable.”

Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the pro-broadband ConnectMaine Authority, is another Starlink beta tester at a vacation home in Lubec. Initially, Schaffer thought she would be able to work from there, but the service cuts out too much.

“For recreational use, it’s mildly annoying to have to continually hit refresh as you’re watching Netflix,” she said. “But for Zoom calls, it’s really impossible. You can’t lose service on a Zoom call for three seconds; it kicks you out. So that’s problematic.”

On the other hand, Starlink is faster than her previous satellite broadband provider, HughesNet, for which she was paying $70 per month. The better service means she can stream movies for the first time in 10 years.

In terms of statewide broadband policy, however, she has some questions. Starlink is a welcome option for Mainers in hard-to-reach locations and for those who don’t like their current internet service provider. It’s an expensive option, though, and it doesn’t address the issue of equity.

“We want to make sure everybody has broadband,” she said, “so that no matter what your economic status is, you have access to this tool for education, for working, for health care, for community and civic activity.”

The Starlinks disk attached to the Meadows home in Liberty. Photo courtesy of Joe Meadows

In an area currently without high-speed service, she pointed out, if all the folks who can afford Starlink opt for the satellite system, those left behind won’t make fertile ground for a local fiber-optic network. In other words, the potential income wouldn’t be enough for an internet service provider to invest in infrastructure.

“So what happens is that we cannot bring equity to those areas,” Shaffer said, “because the people who cannot afford this service can’t get it and the people who can afford it, have got it. That is not an equation that is good for Maine.”

The FCC views Starlink as part of the solution for rural broadband access, as evidenced by its awarding SpaceX $886 million in the most recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to subsidize service in 35 states. The Maine portion of that pie was $34 million, with funding paid out over a decade.

Whether Starlink’s technology will be able to keep up with changing usage is another question. If more bandwidth is needed for future applications, can the service provide that? How long will the satellites last? Can they be upgraded?

Roger Whitehouse, who lives in Chesterville, calls Starlink a game changer. He had been paying for two separate DSL lines through Consolidated Communications and equipment to combine them, for a total of roughly $120 per month.

“We needed it because our household has four active users and most of us are tying to work from home,” said Whitehouse, 37. “We had to get a second line just to be able to work online, and most of the time it was still too slow.”

His Starlink equipment arrived in early February and he mounted the dish to a van that won’t be used until summer. Last week, he noted a maximum download speed of 267 Mbps and upload of 32 Mbps.

Neither rain nor snow nor sleet has disrupted service, he said, noting a heating element built in to the small dish receiver.

“We’re almost a month into Starlink and I’m absolutely loving it,” he said. “Besides the fact that it goes down randomly, I have nothing but praise for this system. It’s awesome.”

Theresa Bunch of Swan’s Island returned her Starlink equipment within the 30-day trial period. She had moved to the island south of Mount Desert last fall from Biddeford, but needed a virtual private network link for her job as a tool designer. That link required a constant connection.

“That was the only issue I had,” she said, adding that she may give Starlink another shot when its coverage is more consistent.

Mike Butera, another Swan’s Island resident, runs a musical technology startup from his home. Video calls have long been necessary for his company. He had been using his cellphone as a hot spot to enable videoconferencing, until Starlink became available.

He still has a DSL line with TDS Telecom, but the promise of 100 Mbps service has yet to be fulfilled. Current DSL bandwidth remains unusable for video.

“I would not have invested in the Starlink beta if we had stable, regular broadband,” said Butera, whose computer is able to switch over to his AT&T cell service during gaps in the Starlink connection. “But at this point, this is the only way to get high-speed service.”

Butera said Starlink was very clear that coverage would not be constant during the beta testing phase, that there would be brief periods of no connectivity. He said by summer he expects those outages to disappear, due to enhancements and more satellites.

Even so, he worries about the affordability aspect. He is a former sociology professor and serves on the Swan’s Island Broadband Committee. He said he thinks high-speed internet access ought to be treated as another utility.

“We all agree that people should have access to electricity,” he said. “I think the internet is that fundamental now. I hope that’s obvious at this point.”

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