Learning from a family's experience of the Starlink internet service
Stepping out of a dusty rental car, I take in my surroundings of the west Texas landscape. I am standing in a community known for its affinity for remote, off-grid living, West Odessa.
It is almost Spring of 2022.
The horizon is as flat as can be. The homes around me are an assorted distribution of smaller ranch homes and double wide trailers on different sized lots. Not as many satellite dishes as you'd think. There is virtually no green.
It is a partly cloudy day. When I look up, I feel small under a sky that seems to stretch on forever in all directions.
A single cell tower stands thinly on the horizon towards the east. It is at least a mile away. I know from research that there is only one cable provider in the area, and its home internet service offers a meager top download speed. But I am here to learn about a new and different internet service.
And how these families in rural Texas experience it.
Starlink is a division of SpaceX. The company’s regular deployments of rockets and spacecraft afford SpaceX the opportunity to continually launch thousands of low-earth orbit satellites capable of delivering high-speed internet service to households via a dish on the ground. The Starlink service was deployed in beta in late 2020 just as the pandemic was taking hold. As students across the country were learning to learn remotely, Starlink and Ector County Independent School District (ECISD) partnered to pilot the internet service with about a hundred and fifty households around Odessa that did not have any.
ECISD became the first school district in the country to provide the service to their families. A year or so later (early 2022), most households in the pilot are connected, but some are having challenges setting up the equipment. I am here today in an official capacity to observe a roof installation and answer any questions the homeowner might have about the service, (if I can). Unofficially, I want to see the service’s impact on the family.
I walk up the driveway and Luis, the homeowner, greets me and we introduce ourselves. We chat about his neighborhood and home while waiting for the technicians to arrive. Luis tells me they’ve never had internet service in the home and his mobile carrier’s signal is inconsistent. The family has three children: toddler, Kindergarten, and 6th grade.
I ask Luis to take a speed test on his phone to see what kind of performance his mobile phone was receiving, (his only internet service in the house). It returns a result of 6 Mbps download speed.
The technicians, who are essentially master electricians, arrive directed by their team leader, Gustave (Gus). We begin discussing the location on the roof that would be best, and then how to wire it into the house.
Gus and team get to work setting up their ladders.
As is well documented, the Starlink dish itself can be up and running in minutes. And so it is. It powers up and quickly connects to the Starlink constellation. As we learned, a household with fairly tech-savvy family members (often the children) is likely to get their dish up and running easily if they have a clear view of the sky. But many might struggle with installation, especially up on a roof, drilling holes and feeding cable into the house. But, with the skills of Gus and team, Luis’ family is up and running on Wi-Fi in less than an hour.
Once we are online, I ask Luis to take another speed test: 181 Mbps download speed.
Luis stares at his phone for a moment. He takes a deep breath. He is smiling, transfixed on the screen. He looks up at us. “Thank you...” he gets it out, but chokes up a little. ECISD deserved the thanks and I tell him I will relay it to them.
Luis’ children would be able to log in and gain access to their assignments that afternoon.
I spoke at ECISD’s State of the District event that evening and told an abridged version of the above story. Later that night, I was grabbing dinner and two gentlemen approached I didn’t recognize. They thanked me for everything we were doing for the community, shook my hand and then quickly moved on to wherever they were going. It was the briefest of moments, but one I’ll never forget.
The thing is, our team at Thru is not made up of broadband infrastructure experts. We don’t show up to our work with all the answers. Instead, we are inspired by visionary superintendents and the families they serve. And our approach is guided by their experiences and insights.
We provide strategic advice to organizations. But we first try to learn from humans.
“Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.”