Turning to Starlink, Canada Races Ahead of U.S. in Serving the Hardest Cases with Broadband Quickly
By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband
Washington, D.C., Nov 27, 2023 – Canada is racing ahead of the U.S. in delivering broadband Internet to its most vulnerable population within the far reaches of its vast territory. In the U.S., the Biden Administration is focused on delivering fiber broadband to unserved and underseved locations at the expense of a third category: The unservable.
Some Canadian provincial governments like Nova Scotia decided to attack their “unservable” problem head-on. In the U.S., federal and state leaders – despite having billions of dollars in broadband subsidies at their disposal – have failed to draw up similar plans to provide potentially instant relief to those most desperately in need of broadband Internet.
In Canada, officials decided that an exclusively terrestrial broadband deployment strategy for all was unaffordable. They opted instead to target hyper-rural zones with Starlink, the satellite-delivered Internet service run by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corp. that is operating in more than 60 countries and has 2 million subscribers globally. Starlink told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that it could meet the CRTC’s minimum upload and download speeds
By partnering with Starlink, Canada overnight started closing gaps in the country’s digital divide for thousands who otherwise would have had to wait years to receive some form of terrestrial broadband service. Because of cost hurdles presented by distance and topography, some in Canada may never see fiber optic cable come within miles of their front door.
“I highly recommend Starlink,” said one member of the Starlink Nova Scotia Facebook page who participated in the Starlink program. “The cost of $161 dollars [a month] is worth the peace of mind for us.”
Sitting across from Maine’s upper northeast coast, the Nova Scotia peninsula has about 1 million people, with 41% classified as living in rural areas, compared to 17.8% for all of Canada, the second largest country in the world by land mass.
Nova Scotia’s approach to addressing its unservable problem centered on a simple rebate program devoid of red tape.
Starting in mid-2022, Nova Scotia broadband officials identified about 5,900 local homes and business that qualified for the Starlink program. To be eligible, a location had to have no Internet at all or was not expected to receive high-speed service before 2024. As of August, 4,600 had entered the Starlink program.
Nova Scotia officials added $8.5 million to the Nova Scotia Internet Funding Trust to finance the Starlink program. The program has issued rebates up to $1,000 to eligible participants, who need to document their purchase of a Starlink system, which includes a small mountable dish, a router, and other equipment. According to one report confirmed by a Nova Scotia official, checks arrive in eight to 10 weeks.
A year ago, Nova Scotia began to accept applications from unserved and underserved residents and business owners across the province, widening the Starlink program applicant pool by an additional 35,000 locations. This provided an interim solution for many Nova Scotians, who could rely on Starlink until fiber became available, a Nova Scotia official said.
Some residents located in high-speed Internet project areas soon to be completed preferred to wait for the arrival of fiber or fixed wireless instead of starting with Starlink and switching, the official added.
In August, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) profiled a Nova Scotia husband and wife who bought a home four years ago in an unservable zone. They attached a Starlink dish to their roof after their spotty cell phone data plan started costing hundreds of dollars a month.
“For them, Starlink has made a huge difference,” the CBC report said. “They can work from home, and they hooked Starlink up to their generator when Hurricane Fiona [in Sept. 2022] knocked out power for nearly two weeks.”
Quebec and Alberta have also rolled out Starlink subsidy programs. Alberta two weeks ago announced a small pilot program that includes homes and business in three rural counties near the Montana border. It includes the same $1,000 hardware rebate promotion.
Quebec’s $136 million program, launched more than two years ago, not only includes the Starlink equipment rebate, but also a $40 monthly service reimbursement for three years.
“We sold the first 15,000 kits very quickly. The demand is stronger than we thought,” Gilles Bélanger, parliamentary assistant to Quebec Premier François Legault, told a news outlet in April.
In the U.S., the federal government and the states have not adopted Starlink rebate programs used in Canada.
Meanwhile, the Nebraska Farm Bureau, with 55,000 member families, recently began a partnership program with Starlink that calls for providing NEFB’s farmers and ranchers free Starlink for the first two months.
Last week, Brent Christensen, President and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, a trade association for private broadband providers in the state, acknowledged that Starlink will have a role in bringing broadband to some of the state’s 10% to 20% without high-speed Internet today.
"Our goal is to get broadband to all Minnesotans," Christensen told CBS Minnesota. "We know that there will be a play at some point for, and a need for, Starlink to get to some of the people that we can't."
Editor's Note: This article was updated on Nov. 29, 2023