Analysis: Why Won’t the Biden Administration Embrace Starlink Like Alberta, Canada, Just Did?

Nov 17, 2023

By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband

Washington, D.C., Nov. 17, 2023 – America’s broadband’s policy elite – leaders who want to spend billions to carpet the country with fiber – need to be more creative and less wanton with taxpayer dollars. They need to jettison their costly, multiyear fiber-first approach and embrace new ideas on closing the digital divide at an accelerated pace.

One place to look for inspiration is Alberta, Canada. Yesterday, Alberta’s provincial government effectively declared that fiber would bust the budget if provided throughout its vast territory, which includes places like Calgary, Edmonton and breathtaking Banff National Park.

Instead, Alberta has decided to pivot in a new direction, forming a partnership with Starlink – the fast-growing broadband satellite service owned by billionaire Elon Musk – to connect the unserved in a limited pilot program that started yesterday and runs until Feb. 16, 2024.

One news article reporting on the Starlink announcement captured the moment this way: “It’s potentially the biggest thing to hit rural Alberta since cable television and private telephone lines.”

Alberta’s government will allow unserved residents and businesses in three rural counties that are close to, or contiguous with, the Montana border to sign up during the enrollment period. The government will provide a rebate of $1,000 per eligible recipient to cover the cost of Starlink’s hardware, including shipping and taxes.

Starlink gear retails for $599.00 (though refurbished kits can be half that price) and monthly service is $120.00. Starlink download speeds range from 25 to 220 Mbps, which are evidently sufficient to meet the battlefield needs of Ukraine’s military in its war with Russia.

Compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars often used to cost out fiber builds, Starlink without a doubt is a steal.

It’s important to note that the point of the Starlink pilot program is two-fold – not just to connect the unserved but to do so fast.

“This pilot program represents another way that communities that don’t have fiber connections can get access to critical connectivity quickly,” said Shauna Feth, President and CEO of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce.

It’s not hard to understand Alberta’s decision to support Starlink. The gigantic province is sligthly smaller than Texas and with 4.2 million people is 86% smaller in population than the Lone Star State. If Alberta were part of the U.S., it would rank 46th in population density, between New Mexico and South Dakota.

Seeing a foreign nation take the lead in innovating on behalf of those on the wrong side of the digital divide should shake up Biden Adminstration leaders like Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who is overseeing the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program – Team Biden’s signature broadband subsidy effort that seems to be moving along at a crawl.

In the U.S., Starlink is not just being ignored. It seems to be on someone’s kill list.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission under Democratic Chair Jessica Rosenworcel refused to honor Starlink's winning auction bids of $885.5 million. Starlink had bid to provide service to 640,000 unserved locations in 35 states. And the Pentagon reportedly held up payments to cover Starlink's costs aiding the Ukraine government.

Under the BEAD program, Raimondo’s team is bent on a fiber-first approach that is not only too expensive in rural areas, but it is also going to take years to reach many of the 8.3 million unserved locations with this so-called gold standard level of technology. It’s quite possible that those who are being promised fiber in the future if they will just be a little patient will, in the end, never receive it under current law.

A fiber funding deficit is likely to materialize under BEAD. The cause will be higher inflation and interest rates, in addition to permitting delays by government and private property owners. Coordinating the timing of access to privately owned utility poles and public rights of way with the sequencing of the arrival of supplies and work crews exerts even more financial pressure and delays deployment.

According to a new study, large scale fiber operators planned to deploy to nearly 7.7 million homes in 2022 but fell short by 1 million homes.

The shortfall was attributed to “permitting issues, general construction challenges, and supply chain delays – coupled with operational issues, such as multi-departmental coordination and protracted build-planning processes."

It’s quite likely the Alberta model has it right. Instead of mapping where fiber should go in a tedious process favored by Raimondo’s staff and inflicted on every state in the Union, plannners should be doing just the opposite.

Like Alberta, Commerce officials should be breaking out their Sharpies, drawing big circles around entire rural counties and then hiring FedEx to ship Starlink gear to every requesting home and business.

That’s how you start to close the digital divide. Overnight.