By now, you’ve probably heard the story of the boy who walked miles to his school every day so he could log into its Wi-Fi to do schoolwork. The good news is that his family now has Internet access thanks to a generous donor who also set up a GoFundMe to provide Internet access to other families in need.
His story has highlighted one of the biggest challenges for low-income families who were forced into “virtual learning” due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Very often, they do not have reliable access to the Internet and hanging out in public venues with Wi-Fi access has not been a viable option because many of them were also closed and would have had limited capacity even if they were open.
SpaceX aims to demonstrate the capacity of its Starlink satellite constellation to solve situations like these in which lack of Internet access may pose a major hurdle for less fortunate families. It has arranged to provide free satellite Internet access for dozens of families in Texas’ Ector County Independent School District beginning in early 2021.
The plan will initially connect 45 families to Starlink, with plans to add another 90 families soon afterward. The project will last one year and cost $300,000, with half that money being provided by Chiefs for Change.
The school district has cited lack of broadband Internet access as a major concern for its students. A recent survey indicates that 39% of its families do not have reliable Internet access. Officials have called the partnership between SpaceX and the school district a great reprieve for students who may still have to stay home until COVID-19 subsides, but it is still only temporary.
“We need solutions that provide permanent solutions, permanent opportunities for kids not only in ECISD but across our state and across our nation,” said school superintendent Scott Muri.
Experts have referred to lack of Internet access in impoverished regions in the United States and around the world as the “digital divide”. The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that 4.1 billion people, about 53.6%, of the world’s population, were “using the Internet” at the end of the 2019. In this case, “using the Internet” could be interpreted rather loosely: Some of those people could have been lucky enough to get close to a wireless hot spot with their cell phones at some point in the past year and that got logged as new devices logging onto the Internet, with presumably new people using them.
Even allowing for that, it means that nearly half of the human population still does not have access to the Internet on a regular basis even though, according to United Nations documentation, Internet access was declared a human right in 2016. This simply highlights the complexities involved in actually providing services that most people might call a “human right,” especially for less advantaged populations.
Some private corporations such as the ones that were initially involved in OneWeb have shown an interest in making the investment to bring Internet services to these populations, though it likely wasn’t purely about charity. The Virgin Group, for instance, might have benefitted from both providing launch services for OneWeb and selling cheap cell phones in regions that could have been reached by the OneWeb constellation. However, as evidenced that OneWeb has recently been bought out of bankruptcy, the cost can be prohibitively high.
Companies like SpaceX aim to solve that problem by using satellite technology to help close the digital divide. Starlink is already being used by the Native American Hoh Tribe to access virtual learning opportunities and telehealth options, with the possibility of future online job opportunities in the near future. Competitors like Amazon’s Project Kuiper could theoretically begin launching satellites of their own within the next few years if things go smoothly.
The COVID-19 epidemic has especially highlighted the need for reliable Internet access for students who have to do some or all of their schoolwork online. Many families, especially low-income ones, may not have been prepared for at-home learning and the lack of Internet access was a big part of that. SpaceX’s Starlink is aiming to change that by bringing low-cost satellite Internet access to families that may suffer the effects of the digital divide.