Satellite internet a ‘game changer’ for rural and northern Ontario, but some say fibre should still come first

Nick Lavoie unboxes a Starlink dish that he’s about to hang the roof of a lakeside home near Capreol in Greater Sudbury.

The owner of Northern Intenet Solutions knows his way around the big black box that Elon Musk’s SpaceX company sends out to new customers.

“On a good day I do about three to five installations,” says Lavoie, who sometimes gets people pulling him over on the side of the road to ask about the Starlink services advertised on his truck. 

“The customers are just as ecstatic as I am. Compared to their old internet provider, it’s night and day.”

Nick Lavoie of Northern Internet Solutions searches for satellite signal while installing a Starlink dish on a lakeside home near Capreol in Greater Sudbury. (Erik White/CBC )

Phillip Wishlow moved from Cambridge up to the small northern town of Iron Bridge two years ago and struggled along with expensive, slow internet, before getting Starlink in July.

He says for $145 a month, he now gets speeds of 168 down and 40 up, compared to 10 and 1 with his previous provider.

“It’s like I’m back down south. I’m getting better speeds with Starlink than Rogers was providing to me in a major urban setting,” he says.

But Wishlow, who lives not far off the TransCanada Highway, would rather have fibreoptic cable running into his house and wants governments to continue spending millions on internet infrastructure.

Nick Lavoie says Starlink has become a big part of his business in the past few months, doing a dozen installations in the Sudbury area every week. (Erik White/CBC )

“We’re a first world nation, our government does need to step up to the plate in that regard,” he says.

Rick Smith, who lives just outside of the town of Englehart in the northern Temiskaming district, got his Starlink set up last week. 

“Now I can watch Coronation Street without it stopping and starting and stopping and starting. It’s awesome,” says the retired man, who is also enjoying videochatting with his children and grandchildren.

Smith thinks private sector satellite might be the way to get everybody online, rather than the millions being spent by governments on cables and towers.

“The government they’re going to overcharge us for everything they do, so I think Elon’s got the right idea. He’s the right man to do the job,” he says. 

The Ontario government is promising to extend broadband service to all the remote nooks and crannies of the province by 2025 and the federal government says it can do the same for the entire country by 2030.

Danny Whalen, a Temiskaming Shores city councillor and the president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, expects those promises to be broken.  

“They keep promising and it slowly is happening. It will be 15 years before some of our northern communities even get a hint of it,” he says.

Experts say Starlink has so far provided much faster internet for a much cheaper price, but say the real test will come when more customers are on the network. (Nick Lavoie)

Whalen has been a vocal supporter of Starlink, but says it doesn’t eliminate the need for public internet infrastructure.

“It’s important to recognize that wired broadband is the ultimate broadband,” he says. 

“But in the interim if taxpayers dollars can’t get it to the customer, private dollars can. And this is proof of it.”

Susan Church, the executive director of North Bay-based Blue Sky Net, has spent years trying to connect private firms with public dollars and get more of northern Ontario online.

She sees Starlink as part of the solution and of a future internet ecosystem where some are on fibre, some on wireless and some on satellite.

“They still don’t have the number of low earth orbit satellites, so it certainly isn’t available everywhere,” she says.

“But it’s a market that’s pretty open to them, because there’s no one else serving it.”

Helen Hambly, the leader of the Regional and Rural Broadband Project at the University of Guelph, says she’s already seeing some grumbling about delays in getting hooked up to Starlink and the costs of the dish, which can run upwards of $800.

While some see satellite internet as the ultimate solution to filling the connectivity gap, others say there is still a need to extend fibreoptic networks and build wireless towers. (Erik White/CBC )

“The way forward has got to be with less of a fragmented project-based approach,” she says. 

“And something that’s more coordinated and broader and strategic in getting communities served.”

Hambly notes that Starlink, which did not respond to CBC’s requests for comment, has several competitors looking to launch satellites in coming years.

One of them is Canadian firm Telesat, which recently got a $1.4 billion investment from the federal government for its planned Lightspeed service.

Michelle Beck, the company’s senior vice-president of sales, says they hope to have a constellation of low orbit satellites over northern Canada by 2025.

She says the plan is to provide trunk internet service to a town or First Nation and let another company handle individual customers. 

“It connects the entirety of the community with the right levels of service that they need to operate and to prosper,” says Beck. 

“You know, it’s not connecting consumers in individual households.”

She says one advantage of satellite service is that it will keep operating through floods, forest fires and other natural disasters expected to increase in the coming years that will likely knock out towers and fibreoptic networks. 

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