SpaceX role in bringing broadband internet to Coconino County

Illustration by Aleah Green

During a Feb. 2 Coconino County Board of Supervisors meeting, the board entered an executive session to discuss and receive direction regarding the use of SpaceX’s Starlink as a rural internet provider for northern Arizona. 

Starlink is SpaceX’s plan to build an interconnected internet network with thousands of satellites, arranged in a constellation pattern to deliver high-speed internet to anywhere on the planet. 

Matt Fowler, Coconino County information technology services department director, said the county has been working with SpaceX since October 2019. 

“Coconino County is working on several parallel initiatives in an effort to improve services across northern Arizona,” Fowler said. “We have been exploring the use of Starlink’s beta internet options prior to public release.”

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is reallocating the money from the $20.4 billion in its Universal Service Fund to subsidize eligible companies to help build out broadband infrastructure in underserved areas of the United States through the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

Starlink was one of 180 bidders who received $888.5 million in federal subsidies to boost high-speed internet service to the rural U.S. from the first phase auction

The subsidies are designed to be an incentive for broadband providers to bring service to the underserved and hard-to-reach areas of the rural U.S. Funding will be distributed over the next 10 years with the intended goal of bringing high-speed broadband with speeds of about 100/20 megabytes per second, with 85% of users receiving gigabyte-speed broadband, according to a press release.

A plethora of providers, including satellite companies, cable operators, electric cooperatives and fixed wireless providers were part of the bidding process. However, Geolinks and Starry Connect were the only two providers to join Starlink to bring coverage to northern Arizona. 

Although the endeavor will close the gap of inequality when it comes to reliable internet access, the use of low-Earth satellites, such as Starlink’s and many other startups when it comes to the internet space race, has led to astronomists sounding the alarm on the impacts. 

Jeffrey Hall, director of Lowell Observatory and chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee (AAS) on Light Pollution, Radio Interference and Space Debris, said he has had conversations with SpaceX’s Starlink on the effects low-orbit satellites have on astronomers, specifically with the highly reflective metal coatings on each satellite. 

“The natural night sky is a resource not just for astronomers ,but for all who look upward to understand and enjoy the splendor of the universe and its degradation has many negative impacts beyond the astronomical,” Hall said. “I appreciate the initial conversation we have already had with SpaceX, and I look forward to working with my AAS colleagues and with all stakeholders to understand and mitigate the effects of the rapidly increasing numbers of satellites in near-Earth orbit.”

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) have expressed its concerns with the reflections from the sun before sunrise and sunset caused by reflective coatings.

“Although most of these reflections may be so faint that they are hard to pick out with the naked eye, they can be detrimental to the sensitive capabilities of large ground-based astronomical telescopes,” the IAU reported in a statement.

Moreover, SpaceX, which operates Starlink, has said on its website that the company is taking steps to reduce the overall impact the Starlink satellite constellation has on astronomy. 

The steps the company plans to take include changing the way the satellites fly to their operational altitude away from the sun, to the process of connecting a deployable visor to the satellite to block sunlight from hitting the brightest parts of the spacecraft and applying a dark coating to the reflective antennae on the satellite’s ground-facing side. 

“SpaceX is launching Starlink to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband connectivity across the globe, including to locations where the internet has traditionally been too expensive, unreliable or entirely unavailable,” the website said. “We also firmly believe in the importance of a natural night sky for all of us to enjoy, which is why we have been working with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the specifics of their observations and engineering changes we can make to reduce satellite brightness.”

Even though the Coconino County Board of Supervisors has publicly announced its involvement with bringing SpaceX’s Starlink to northern Arizona, the board has not yet revealed the role it will take.