Native Americans Use SpaceX’s Starlink to Close Digital Divide

The Native American Hoh Tribe is making use of SpaceX’s Starlink to gain affordable access to high-speed Internet service. The tribe says that the access is being used for access to online learning and assistance with health care.

On Tuesday, SpaceX launched 60 more satellites for a total of 700 Starlink satellites currently in orbit. When fully deployed, the constellation will have as many as 12,000 satellites and, SpaceX claims, will be capable of speeds up to 1 Gbps with a latency, or signal response time, as low as 20 milliseconds.

Elon Musk says that Starlink now has enough capacity for a public beta. SpaceX has previously conducted a private beta that reportedly achieved download speeds of up to 60 Mbps — roughly comparable to speeds that Internet access in rural areas can achieve.

SpaceX’s plans for Starlink include reaching these rural areas and impoverished populations that have been neglected by “traditional” Internet service providers. These Internet deserts have been cited as a factor that holds back populations who live there simply because they can’t access the same services and opportunities as those who live in the connected world.

Observers have referred to the lack of Internet access in some areas, including the Hoh Tribe’s reserve in Washington, as a “digital divide” that makes it difficult for their residents to access the same services as those in more connected regions. Many people in these areas do not even have an email address. Hoh Tribe Vice Chairman Melvinjohn Ashue described attempts to make do with previously existing communications infrastructure as “paddling up-river with a spoon.”

Services like Starlink can help close the gaps caused by the digital divide despite complaints from astronomy enthusiasts that the large constellation will interfere with viewing. Some skywatchers have reported that they could spot the satellites on occasion.

Public officials reported that setting a Starlink terminal up takes no more than ten minutes and they can get latency of less than 30 milliseconds. This is already better than existing satellite Internet services, which can take longer to set up and usually makes use of satellites in a distant geostationary orbit, which can slow down signal response times due to the “speed of light” limit set by Einsteinian physics. Starlink can improve latency by keeping its satellites in low Earth orbit, which is likely to make it popular with gamers and individuals who want to use Zoom or Skype to videochat with distant relatives and friends, but unfortunately live in an Internet desert.

Hoh Tribe officials are certainly enthusiastic about the new connectivity. “We’re helping create partnerships and find resources so every community in our state can access this critical bridge to jobs, education, healthcare and so much more,” said Ashue.