Getting connected: northern schools switch to Musk’s internet technology

·4 min read

New satellite dishes are Frontier School Division’s solution to the digital divide in rural and remote classrooms across northern Manitoba — a long-standing issue that became even more dire at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One year ago, the division, which oversees the education of roughly 6,700 students — many of whom live in communities where internet access is unreliable or doesn’t exist — officially installed its first Starlink saucer and connected to the accompanying network.

Sixteen schools can now access the internet via the up-and-coming aerospace technology.

“It creates a level of digital literacy that we didn’t have before. It opens up the door for learning and teaching strategies that we didn’t have access to before, and it allows for a different way of communicating,” said chief superintendent Reg Klassen.

“What it really means is that our schools are a lot less isolated.”

Starlink is a new broadband satellite internet network that can beam web access to customers who live anywhere in the world and cannot easily access conventional internet providers, be it due to their remote location or otherwise.

What sets the service apart from traditional satellites is how close its spacecraft are to the planet’s surface — an altitude of approximately 550 kilometres, in comparison to nearly 36,000 kilometres — and as a result, how quickly they can transmit information.

SpaceX, one of technology mogul Elon Musk’s companies, began launching satellites into what is known as “low Earth orbit” to create Starlink in 2019.

Soon after, Frontier leaders started researching how they could take advantage of the low latency system the company boasted about.

Being the largest geographical school division in Manitoba, Frontier uses a patchwork of solutions to address varying connectivity levels in Brochet, Red Sucker Lake and dozens of other communities. Residents and workers north of the 53rd parallel rely on a mix of traditional satellites, fiber-optic cable and dial-up internet, among other options, all of which offer a range in quality.

As a result, simple tasks school administrators in Winnipeg have long taken for granted, such as sharing daily attendance data with a division office, are major challenges in northern Manitoba due to slow upload speeds, Klassen said.

The chief superintendent said it has not been uncommon for a principal to wait 10 or 15 minutes to simply log into their email or for schools to have to block internet access to their entire community so a single employee can upload academic information.

In K-12 buildings that have a Starlink dish installed on a roof, internet users are able to access roughly 150 megabits per second (Mbps) during a weekday. Their previous set-ups allowed for between one and four Mbps, with rare spikes providing up to 15 Mbps.

“It changes a whole lot. It allows us to get closer to what’s happening in southern Manitoba or even Winnipeg in schools, in terms of the internet. It doesn’t put us there, but it allows us to move closer,” said Klassen, noting teachers are suddenly able to screen educational videos without issue and assign online research tasks that can be completed in real-time.

The switch also allows for division-wide meetings to be held via videoconferencing and educators to engage in professional development virtually so they do not have to make costly travel plans, he added.

Citing the success throughout 2021-22, division leaders plan to end their contracts with Xplornet and roll out Starlink to three-quarters of Frontier’s approximately 40 schools. The remaining buildings have adequate access at present.

The price tag is high, but Klassen said it is a necessary cost and will only be slightly more expensive than Xplornet due to the frequent overages that Frontier has paid in the past.

“This is going to tie them over for a while. Is it part of the solution? Probably, yes. But the only solution? No. It’s still satellite. It’s weather susceptible. There are some tech issues,” said Joel Templeman, executive director of the Manitoba chapter of the Internet Society.

The international advocacy organization, whose mission is to support the development of the internet to enrich lives and better society as an open, secure and trustworthy resource accessible to all, has concerns about Starlink because of it’s so new.

Templeman said there are worries about how low Earth orbit satellites will be regulated in space and the future of old, broken and lost vessels.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, inconsistent internet and slow speeds have made e-learning from home a challenge — if not impossible, for the majority of students in Frontier. While the division’s latest investment will not address communitywide issues, it significantly improves access inside schools.

The chief executive officer at Tech Manitoba said the pandemic has been a “tipping point” for many Manitobans, including cabin owners who want to work remotely by the lake, to sign up for Starlink.

While calling it “an incredible resource,” Kelly Fournel noted Canadian governments’ failures to invest in internet infrastructure has resulted in Manitobans buying an American product.

“It’s really important that (internet access) is no longer seen as something that is nice to have,” Fournel said. “Connectivity really equals quality of life.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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