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Starlink is No Star

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The Why

Over the years I have written over 30 articles, mostly here, on the issues of public broadband. I have given countless presentations, engaged hundreds of people individually and at events, advised and educated many public officials, been in one film, conducted interviews, been interviewed for articles, and much more. I’ve done all this as a volunteer because I love this community, but I estimate that if I were being paid my normal on-site support rate, I have given the community at least $150,000 worth of my time and expertise. Don’t get me wrong, I am not bitter about it. I love this community and want what’s best for it. I knew early in my career that if I started playing the big telecom game, I would not be able to speak freely about what was going on with broadband in Bellingham or Washington state or in general. This is a trap so many of our tech industry employees, governmental officials, and employees in Bellingham fall into. Some of them are happy to be trapped and some are not. But none of them are allowed to talk about the realities of telecom here or they would lose their jobs, homes, and possibly more. In spite of all that, the pandemic has made the need for a public fiber-optic network clear.

Beware Internet Bias

The single most important fact for consumers to keep in mind is that most people don’t have a technology background or education and therefore they lack the proper caution when dealing with tech companies. For instance, when searching for information, most people never consider that search engines intentionally produce biased results. This bias extends to searches for YouTube tech videos or reading magazine articles from “experts” who are, in the background, sponsored by tech companies. In short, there is a lot of big money out there driving a lot of articles that seem legit but are actually elaborate, paid-for advertisements. Which is why we need citizen journalism and why NWCitizen exists. Are you really surprised you don’t find articles like this in the Herald? Just look at how many big telecoms advertise in the Herald and you’ll have your answer.

IIn Leslie Shankman’s excellent article “Untangling the Wires” she does a stellar job explaining to readers how different network technologies actually work, and why we should not consider them to be equivalent. In no area is this more evident than when we compare less reliable technologies, like wireless and satellite tech, to fiber-optic technology. Sadly, this is still not widely understood. Why? Well, try searching on a major search engine, like Google, for “Starlink.” What you usually get, before any results related to what you’re actually looking for, are all of the paid-for ads regarding the tech first, then the sites the most people have looked at, which are usually the paid-for ads since they appear first, and on down the list. This is what we call search engine bias. However, if you search in the “right way,” or use a search engine designed to help remove bias like Million Short, you have a better chance of getting what you’re after and you’ll find that the “truth” about Starlink, like 5G, is borderline propaganda. That is until you turn on the TV and the cycle starts all over again. This is not surprising to those of us who have worked on broadband and with large networks. We know that fiber is the best solution and that everything needs fiber in the background to work correctly anyway, including Starlink, but the public still needs to be educated on this topic, so let’s get to it :).

First, it’s important we accept that the internet is a heavily biased place and that tech companies spend a lot of money to keep it that way so they can push new products, most of which do not live up to their stated abilities. Starlink is no exception. So, let’s start with:

What is Starlink

I’m just going to use the excellent definition from Wikipedia, “Starlink is a satellite internet constellation being constructed by SpaceX providing satellite Internet access. The constellation will consist of thousands of mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), working in combination with ground transceivers. SpaceX also plans to sell some of the satellites for military, scientific, or exploratory purposes.” It will consist of about 42,000 satellites when it is completed. Most of the articles you read probably go on to say that it’s a revolution and the greatest thing since sliced bread. Many articles claim it will be available everywhere, close the digital divide, and many more inaccuracies. But just like 5G, the reality is very different from the hype, as we will explore in this article.

The Basics

Before I start, let’s review some basics. When we look at network performance, we can look at many factors, but we usually talk about Download and Upload speeds as measured in Megabits per second (Mbps). This is the speed at which you can get information from another computer or send information back to it, respectively. “Latency” is the length of time from when you demand the service until you actually get the service. Think of latency in this way: When you turn on the hot water tap in the morning, latency is like the time it takes for the tap water to warm up to the temperature you want.

In the digital world, fiber has the lowest latency (takes the least time), and for communications to be reliable, no matter how your signal starts out, you need to get it onto fiber as quickly as possible if you want good performance. Here’s where we currently stand: The new proposed standard for the U.S. is 100 Mbps Symmetrical (down and up). We hope that will be with less than 20 milliseconds of latency, but this standard is being fought hard by our captured FCC, big telecom, and other special interests, (so expect a compromise of something inadequate instead.) For comparison, Canada’s “internet as a right” standard is 50 Mbps down and 10 up. In the U.S., the current obsolete high speed standard is 25 Mbps down and 3 up which is very inadequate and only kept at that level to appease DSL, satellite, and wireless providers. Big telecom low-income connections come in well below even this low standard, making them virtually worthless.

Performance

Starlink, Comcast, CenturyLink, Verizon, and everyone not using the superior technology of fiber to the home puts a little asterisk (*) in front of their performance ratings. This (*) means “up to” a certain speed, which you almost never get and even if you do, it comes with a lot of other transmission errors that simply don’t exist with fiber.

Now you’ll say, but the “expert” told me that wireless signals in the air and in the vacuum of space travel faster than in a fiber cable. Technically that’s true, but the difference is incredibly negligible and this slight advantage is far outweighed by the reliability, longevity, and durability of fiber. If your connection is dropping packets of data all the time, like with wireless and satellites, then the speed doesn’t matter that much since you have to resend the same data many times.

And while Starlink boasts the potential advantage of sending data directly from satellite to satellite in “the vacuum of space,” consider that the distance between satellites is huge and that there are a number of issues that will affect the transmissions sent back to the Earth, including the weather. Now consider that fiber has been getting better, too, and we already have fiber spanning the globe, including a network of undersea fiber cables.

The Down-Sides

Satellites are also affected by environmental conditions and work best with line of sight transmission. That’s part of the reason that current satellite internet services are so bad, and why Starlink wants 42,000 satellites to be placed in low Earth orbit. Starlink also uses very directional microwaves, like 4G/5G does, to transmit its signals. So they all have the same problems and raise the same concerns. This is another technology whose effects have not been adequately tested for their effects on living things and yet it will blanket the entire globe.

There is also a very dark side to SpaceX, Starlink, and government contracts too. Starlink will be a big player in military use and part of Orewellian style surveillance.

The only major advantage to Starlink is that satellites can send signals directly to each other in the vacuum of space and the satellites are going to be much closer to the Earth than previous communications satellites which will make communication distances much shorter. While this will increase performance to a possible 100 Mbps every once in a while, this is nothing compared to cities like Anacortes that are offering Gigabit fiber to the home for $10 less than Starlink, and Chatanooga which offers up to 10 Gbps. Even Elon Musk points out that Starlink is no threat to big telecom in this article. While many claims are being made to lower the much higher latency of Starlink and increase its speed, initial tests of Starlink have not been promising and there are many other environmental drawbacks. Again, all of this for a technology that doesn’t perform nearly as well as the fiber backing it up.

So what about the speeds? Well, with only a few thousand satellites launched so far the initial speed tests have been poor and may remain that way even with more satellites. Still, with only beta tests out there, it’s tough to get your hands on a connection to properly load test. With speeds of only about 30 Mbps to 100 Mbps sometimes, and a latency that averages about 30 - 50 milliseconds but can be much higher depending on conditions, it is just not a real infrastructure replacement for fiber. While this is probably much better than anything you’re getting from Comcast in Bellingham, or any of the big wireless companies, we still don’t know a lot about Starlink and how it will work in real world scenarios.

While Starlink may help fill coverage gaps in some cases, there is still nothing better than fiber and no good reason not to run fiber to everyone. Anyone who has electrical service can have fiber. See the Rural Electrification Act for more information on how we ran much larger electrical wires to virtually all Americans, with less tech, in the 1930’s. Interestingly enough, some of the best fiber is manufactured in space.

How much better is fiber?

I’ve written about this extensively so I’ll just put it this way. The latency of modern fiber is being calculated a whole order of magnitude lower than cable, wireless, or satellite service in microseconds instead of milliseconds. While latency does increase with distance in a cable, it’s pretty obvious that Starlink’s satellites are still pretty far away from us. Still, as I mentioned earlier, it is unfair and inappropriate for telecoms to compare these technologies with fiber. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Elon Musk vs. Steve Jobs

Whatever Jon, Elon Musk is the smartest guy in the world, so it’ll be amazing. He’ll defy the laws of physics if necessary to make this great. This argument reminds me of the years I spent working for Apple and on Apple computers. I never worshipped Steve Jobs as many of my coworkers did; they really thought he could perform miracles. Morally, he had a lot of issues, and as a boss he simply wasn’t the guy that made anything work, so why would I, as a technician, have any respect for him? He was mostly just the figurehead that the banks would loan money to. Steve Wozniak was initially the brains behind the company and he left largely because of how poorly Jobs treated people. Many other talented people would follow and be treated poorly by Apple, who often considered their corporate culture ahead of more important issues like reliability.

While I have no reason to consider Musk just like Jobs, it is important to remember the parallel we see between them as a figurehead that is the front for a much better team of minds in the background. Like Jobs, Musk doesn’t really run Starlink on a daily basis. That task falls to a woman named Gwynne Shotwell, and even she doesn’t do the actual work. That work falls to her team of highly skilled employees. So we need to get past looking to the top for inspiration and recognize that it’s the workers that make the “miracles” happen.

A Staggering Environmental Impact

Well fellow stargazers, as much as we might like everything to do with the peaceful exploration of space, Starlink is already being called out for the horrific impact it will have on being able to study the stars from Earth.

On top of this, the resources necessary to put the satellites into space are enormous. As stated in this excellent article from the local advocacy group Whatcom Citizens for Responsible Technology, “The Earth’s ozone layer is of vital importance as it protects us from harmful aspects of our sun’s radiation. Rockets that use solid fuel are hugely destructive to the ozone layer. Rocket’s that use liquid fuel damage the ozone less, but produce massive amounts of carbon soot. 5G satellites have a short life span, as little as 3-5 years, which will necessitate ongoing rocket launches every year. Computer models suggest that, given a likely 10x increase in annual rocket launches for 5G satellites, the combined effect of ozone depletion and black soot could produce a 3-degree warming effect over the Antarctic and reduce the atmospheric ozone by 4%. This is a projected 10-20 fold increase in environmental damage over what is happening today.”

I should note that what WCRT has to say here applies to Starlink as well. In fact, on Starlink’s own site they discuss the life cycle of their satellites, including controlled reentry and worst case-scenario burn-up on re-entry. Fiber, especially when installed via a Dig Once Policy, has virtually no impact when compared with wireless or satellite.

The Price

As most of you know, I originally got involved with the push for public fiber-optics to help close the digital divide. At $80 a month with DSL-like performance, Starlink, like it’s wireless counterparts, simply costs too much to do this, especially when compared with what other cities are doing with their public fiber. A free, 50 Mbps symmetrical low-income fiber connection in Chattanooga greatly outperforms not only just about any paid connection you can get in Bellingham, but Starlink too. Gigabit connections are $70 a month in Chattanooga, Wilson, NC, and Anacortes, and 10 Gigabit connections are less than $300 a month in Chattanooga. Starlink, Comcast, Verizon, and the big telecoms in general won’t come close to matching the affordability, reliability, safety, and performance of a publicly owned fiber-optic network. All of their lesser tech must be backed up by fiber anyway.

The Government

So why are the state, county executive, some members of the County Council and others pushing Starlink so hard? In this poorly researched and heavily biased PCMagazine article that many of our politicians are using to push Starlink, I see many problems. The article has no real data in it, certainly no real test data, and is mostly an advertisement for Starlink and our recently established State Broadband Office. In fact, they avoid a real discussion of numbers as well as previous providers. We even see a video placed here on behalf of the Washington State Department of Commerce. But I know from first hand experience that the DOC, the state in general, and Whatcom County have always ignored their responsibilities to our Native American populations in relation to broadband, as I will make clear. And Starlink doesn’t really address that issue, as I will explain.

In the video from PCMag, no one discusses the actual performance of Starlink. Yes, the Hoh Tribe had very poor internet access that was well below even our inadequate federal standards at 0.7 Mbps down and 0.3 Mbps up. The list of internet providers in Forks is dismal, as it was in Mazama, in the Methow Valley, when I visited there. In Mazama, like Forks, the main game in town was poorly maintained, inadequate CenturyLink DSL. I tested the CenturyLink connection in the location I was staying in Mazama and found it to be around what the Hoh Tribe was getting. But notice that the state does not mention who the provider was (CenturyLink), they then urge you to use their deeply flawed speed test that I wrote about here.

Now to the part where the state did a lot more for Starlink in the long run than the Hoh Tribe. All the state did was introduce them to Starlink; Starlink did the work. So why is the state taking so much credit? Well, it gets even worse. The state is trying to cover up decades of ignoring their responsibilities to connect all their citizens. You see, the state has public fiber resources all over Washington. For example, they have lots of fiber running up and down many roads, including I-5. This is why, when I started working on the broadband issue years ago before there was even a State Broadband Office, I approached the state about running fiber to our local tribes. Native American lands are not bound by the same odd first-service laws that the rest of our state is. Our pro-big-telecom laws are so strange they earned us a red marking on the community broadband networks map; but again, this isn’t an issue on tribal lands. So the state could have run fiber to our tribes decades ago.

What did they do instead? They are now trying to pass themselves off as heroes when the truth is they ignored their responsibilities to all of our citizens in order to protect big telecom, for decades. In a conversation I had with Russ Elliott, the director of the State Broadband Office, he talked about two key items in this article. First, he reminded me that Starlink needs fiber on the ground, so he reinforced the importance of fiber. Second, he talked about telecom history and how he felt that we asked the big telecoms to solve our connectivity problems for us years ago. He then emphasized the importance of “honoring the big telecoms” as we move to more modern technologies. Honoring them?! For what? Stealing from us? Attacking the First Amendment? Providing the worst service at the highest prices? It’s hardly like the big telecoms are a charity.

In general, the State Broadband Office does support public fiber, but they are unwilling to say it too loudly. This is light years better than the Department of Commerce. When I simply asked the DOC’s technology lead, Steven Maheshwary, how he was and then what he thought about public fiber, he immediately redirected me to a PR person. He’s all about fake speed tests and giving our tax dollars to big telecom, too.

So let’s not pretend that the Inslee administration is going to do right by our Native American populations and run fiber to them as they need to. At best, they will introduce them to companies like Starlink, take credit for it, and then wash their hands of any further intervention, even when the Tribe’s needs outgrow their service.

Will Starlink meet tribal needs, especially for 2-way video communication, telemedicine, education and more, as they state in the video (which also includes no real data)? Well, we have to put a big “probably not” on that, and a “definitely not” in the way fiber could for the long run. Sadly, the state knows that. Remember, Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth tells us that the need for bandwidth grows 50% a year. In a few years, Starlink, 4G/5G wireless, and non-fiber tech will likely feel as outdated as DSL does now, but we’ll have all the waste and environmental damage on top of it, too. It’s not a good trade off.

Rural Washington

On top of this, most of our rural communities remain poorly connected and in need of fiber. The standard the state is using is simply to “get you connected,” but what does that mean? It means they will give you a virtually worthless connection and call it good; then they will run ads about how amazing they are. Remember, the Canadian standard for free internet is 50 Mbps down and 10 Up, the U.S. federal standard for high-speed internet is only 25 Mbps down and 3 up. The low-income connections from Comcast are, at best, 15 Mbps down and 2 up. The Hoh Tribe was getting 0.7 down and 0.3 up. All the while the media, and our own state government, was happy to push through “best case scenario” advertisements for 5G and Starlink, when we often found the reality was quite different.

The bar was so low for the Hoh, that even if a company went in there with the same low-income connections we have in Bellingham, the ones that prove inadequate for our everyday needs, it would have seemed like a great boost. The truth is that the Hoh people still need fiber, and it’s sad that the state, including our governor, used them to promote a private company that is giving them slightly better service, instead of doing the right thing and running fiber to them instead. Starlink is simply another band-aid solution and we need to recognize that.

The Cost

There is enough expertise now at the Port, PUD, COB and county government to know that they ultimately need to run fiber to everyone. I urge you to contact them and ask them what is going on. I think they expect satellite technology to magically solve all of our connectivity problems, but like 4G/5G wireless, it will ultimately be only as good as the fiber backing it up. What’s really sad is that between the Port, PUD, COB and the county, there is more than enough expertise and money to get fiber installed and there has been for decades. A county-wide fiber network, according to the Port, would cost about $50 million with some aerial runs. If everything was put underground it might cost $160 million. But when you look at all the benefits and the fact that it pays for itself, and then compare it to other governmental projects, that’s a great deal. Fiber doesn’t cost money, it makes money via leasing and attracting next generation businesses and more. It also helps us address virtually all our social and environmental concerns, too. On top of all of this, there a lot of the money being put into rural broadband solutions comes in the form of grants.

The Environment

But Jon, you can do things with satellite and wireless that you can’t do with wired connection, right? All wireless and satellite technologies work best with direct line of sight communications and they all must be backed up by fiber. That means no obstructions like pesky trees in the way. But fortunately we live in the arid desert environment of Bellingham, so trees aren’t a problem. Seriously though, just like with 5G, we will have to mow down a lot of critical trees to make this work well, and even then, it will never work as well as the fiber backing it up. And, one last time, it has been confirmed many times that all this tech is only as good as the wired networks backing them up. So either way, we need to build fiber infrastructure. (Although, if your goal is to watch HBO Max in the Bermuda Triangle, Starlink may be your only option; but it probably won’t perform too well there either.) We need to realize that whenever we hear about a new internet technology, the words “and fiber” should be attached to them. There is no separating the two.

The Bottom Line

Whether you are for or against Starlink, 4G/5G, and other emerging tech, there is no way to get around the need for fiber infrastructure. If you want a system to be reliable and work well, you need fiber to back up everything. Companies would not be going to the trouble to keep improving fiber if they really thought there was a threat from Starlink, and as Musk himself told us (above), Starlink isn’t a threat to big telecoms.

Fortunately, once you actually get your hands on fiber, you’ll find that most of us have no real need for newer wireless and satellite technologies to get what is, ultimately, a connection that is inferior to fiber, especially at the expense of our environment. Sadly, wireless and satellite also costs too much to close the digital divide. We’ll still need fiber for that, too.

The good news is, Democrats have proposed $100 billion to build out fiber networks nationwide, but the devil will be in the details. We need to make sure the money isn’t just given to big telecoms, again. We gave the big telecoms about $400 billion dollars to build a nationwide fiber network by 2010 in the past and they basically just stole it. So the key is to invest in public infrastructure, but to make sure it is public infrastructure, and say goodbye to big telecom. There are many alternatives to their services, and most of them are free, like internet calling, as I’ll explore in my next article.

In Closing

Finally, I will just remind everyone that while these numbers may look big, you have to remember that fiber pays for itself, and 99.99% of the time, even generates more revenue than it costs.

The pandemic has shown us that we would have been a lot better off if we’d had a fiber network. The schools are partially reopening, largely because of a lack of good, reliable, affordable, broadband connections. This creates a high potential for kids to get sick and pass coronavirus to others, including elderly caregivers. And all of this because our government is withholding public fiber resources we’ve already paid for, dragging their feet on establishing a broadband committee, and refusing to start work on fiber installation with grant money they’ve already been given to do so. Our government entities obviously don’t consider themselves at all accountable to citizens, and that needs to change because, ultimately, it’s going to cost lives.

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