- Researchers are testing several wireless internet technologies in remote areas of North Carolina.
- The new services are bringing broadband to places that traditional internet vendors rejected.
- The cost of Starlink — $499 up front plus $99 per month — could be too high for some families.
Former professional wrestler Reby Hardy and other people who live or have businesses in remote or rural parts of North Carolina have had a problem for years: Limited or no access to high-speed internet connections in a 21st-century society and business world that demands it.
That is starting to change.
New technologies in development promise to bring broadband speeds to remote and sparsely populated communities. Traditional internet service providers, such as cable and telecommunications companies, have long eschewed these potential customers due to the cost of extending their infrastructure to them.
Further, North Carolina law has prevented city and county governments from trying to fill the gap the private sector refused to address.
“If nothing else, the COVID pandemic has showed us that broadband is not merely a service. It should be viewed as infrastructure,” said Republican state Rep. John Szoka of Cumberland County. When the schools closed and shifted to remote learning online in spring 2020 because of the crisis, many children were left without any way to attend school, he said.
Szoka sees high-speed internet as much a societal necessity as public streets, electrical service, and water and sewer service. He has has long sought laws to foster internet access to underserved areas.
The private sector is beginning to step in with new ideas.
Hardy signed up her family for Starlink, a new satellite-based broadband internet service that billionaire Elon Musk is putting into low Earth orbit with his SpaceX rocketry company. Online retail giant Amazon and another company called OneWeb are developing similar satellite-based internet services.
Meanwhile, The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State University is testing Starlink plus two new ground-based wireless technologies in remote parts of North Carolina. The project is focused on school children who need internet access to complete their homework assignments but whose families have been unable to get it.
Pro wrestling stars stream through Starlink
Reby Hardy said she and her husband, professional wrestler Matt Hardy, have long wanted high-speed internet at their home, which is in a rural area of Moore County. Until last month, the Hardys couldn’t get it.
“We tried at least twice a year to call every company,” Reby Hardy said. “We’ve tried bribes. We’ve tried offering more money. We’ve tried begging.”
The broadband providers told the Hardys they live too far away for the companies to run the wires to extend service to them, she said.
Reby Hardy needed a fast connection for her work in graphic design. She makes art for professional wrestlers’ promotional work and websites, she said, and she designs custom artwork for pinball machines. She also wanted faster internet to help her get resources as she home-schools their children.
Matt Hardy needed the speed so he could upload promotional videos for his wrestling, Reby Hardy said.
The couple used to drive 25 minutes to a nearby IHOP, she said, to transmit their large data files with an internet connection the restaurant provides to its customers.
At their home, the Hardys had tried an internet service offered by their local landline telephone company, Hardy said, but found it poor. Then they subscribed to a satellite service called HughesNet.
HugheNet was better than the telephone company’s service, Hardy said, but still too slow for their needs and it cost nearly $140 per month.
“Our internet was terrible. It was horrible,” Matt Hardy told the couple’s wrestling fans at the start of an live video stream Monday night on the Twitch.tv service. The family couldn’t watch online video or do video chats during the COVID-19 lockdown, he said.
“And then we discovered this Starlink, and it has been a hit. It has worked great for us,” he said. The Twitch stream was broadcast from his home through Starlink.
The Hardys set up their “househardy” channel on Twitch this month. Matt’s Monday night appearance was his debut Twitch Q&A session with his fans. He spoke with them for about an hour.
Occasionally Hardy’s image froze or got blurry while the audio continued, and a couple times the entire signal paused momentarily. But overall it worked.
“It’s opened up another method of revenue for the family,” Reby Hardy said.
Starlink slows when the weather is cloudy or rainy, but the service is far more functional than their prior service, she said.
Starlink in February began accepting applications from the public to subscribe and participate in its beta testing phase, which is still underway. Reby Hardy said she put her name on Starlink’s waiting list as soon as a friend told her about it several months ago.
Her Starlink satellite dish and equipment arrived in early May. It cost $499, and the service runs $99 per month.
Internet speeds are measured in megabits per second, or Mbps.
Hardy said her HughesNet service’s download speed was 24 Mbps, while her Starlink speed was as as 140 Mbps the first day she connected to it. “I just do speed tests for fun now, because I’m so happy to see the numbers,” she said a week-and-a-half later.
As of mid-June, Starlink had 1,800 satellites to connect the Hardys and other customers to the internet. According to SpaceNews, Starlink aims to put as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit.
Starlink isn’t the only high speed satellite internet service under development.
Amazon has its $10 billion Project Kuiper, which is to launch 3,236 satellites.
Another company, OneWeb, has been launching satellites for an internet service. CNBC reported that OneWeb is focused more on selling its services to businesses than to consumers.
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Testing Starlink, other services for school kids
The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State University is using grant money to study how well emerging wireless broadband internet technologies can help the children of rural families close what’s known as the “homework gap,” said Ray Zeisz. He is the senior director of the Institute’s Technology Infrastructure Lab.
Children in the homework gap are those who are assigned homework for which they need internet access to complete, but they don’t have the internet at home.
The institute arranged to give Starlink on an experimental basis to families with school children who had who had no internet access at home, Zeisz said. The first groups are about 30 families are in the western North Carolina mountains in Swain County and about 40 families in eastern North Carolina on Ocracoke Island in Hyde County.
A few families had difficulty with Starlink if they were not able to position the satellite dish optimally, with a clear view of the northern sky, Zeisz said, while the rest “have been very happy with it.”
“They never thought they would have this level of connectivity,” he said.
Starlink service stops for a few minutes daily because it doesn’t yet have all its satellites in orbit to maintain a constant signal for all its customers, Zeisz said. He predicted the signal gaps will subside as more satellites are added.
The 30 families Swain County received Starlink in March, and plans are to expand it to 30 more families there, he said, while the ones on Ocracoke Island have had it since April.
“Most of the counties in the far west, we’re rural, we’re very mountainous, and most of us, especially in the farthest part of the west, don’t have a lot of internet,” said Karen Cook, technology director at Swain County Schools.
“When COVID hit last spring, we were in the throes of figuring out how we we’re going to get connectivity to all these children who are now trying to work remotely,” she said. Since Starlink was installed this year, “the comments we have received from parents have been, for the most part, very positive.”
But in the long term, Starlink’s $499 up-front expense and $99 monthly fee may prevent families in the area from purchasing the service.
“We are worried about that cost,” Cook said. “Some folks, they’re not going to blink at that because they’re already paying something similar. But for most of our families, that’s a lot.”
The Friday Institute is using its grant to test two other developing wireless technologies that could spread the internet, Zeisz said.
The Friday Institute is working on two other systems to wirelessly transmit high-speed internet.
One uses television signal “white spaces” — frequencies not used by local TV stations — “to shoot what effectively is a wi-fi signal many miles out to a — to a home,” Zeisz said. In the spring, an internet service provider in Hyde County provider began broadcasting signals from antennas mounted on a water tower to precisely positioned antennas at people’s homes, he said.
It works well, although it’s not as fast as Starlink, Zeisz said.
In the near future, the Friday Institute’s program will start testing a system called Citizen Broadband Radio Service, Zeisz said. It is to transmit fast internet to about 30 residences in a low-income mobile home park in central North Carolina.
CBRS uses radio frequencies that once were used for Navy radar systems, he said, and it operates like a small, private cellular phone network.
Reporter Brian Gordon in Asheville contributed to this report.
Senior North Carolina reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and [email protected]