Can Satellite Internet Help Solve Students’ At-Home Connectivity Woes?

Contributing Writer

Leaders of a rural school district in Texas that has struggled to provide students with at-home connectivity believe they may have found an innovative workaround: satellite technology. 

Thirty-nine percent of families in the Ector County School District in Odessa had limited to no internet connectivity at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.  

In an effort to get around those barriers, district officials last fall began a satellite internet partnership with Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX. The company has said that its goal with the technology, the SpaceX Starlink Satellite System, is to provide internet access to as many people as possible. 

The technology has shown promise, even with its limited capabilities, in communities where traditional connectivity options are costly or impractical, said Amy McLaughlin, cybersecurity project director at CoSN.  

“Satellite Wi-Fi isn’t constrained by the wire or the distance that you can beam a connection,” McLaughlin said. “It makes it so that you are not constrained by the physical details. That means that you can get satellite connectivity to places where you couldn’t otherwise get connectivity.” 

Ector County’s Chief Technology Officer Kellie Wilks says the satellite internet has outperformed their traditional connectivity options.  

Satellite internet has 90 megabits per second download speed and 30 megabits per second upload speed. The other option families have is fixed wireless, which offers speeds typically at around 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. 

The district, located five hours west of Austin, serves neighborhoods with varying connectivity levels. Right now, in-town families are working with local providers like AT&T and Sparklight, while rural communities are part of the SpaceX partnership.  

Musk is in the process of establishing a much bigger footprint in Texas. He recently announced plans to move the headquarters of his carmaker, Tesla, to the state, from California. He has donated millions of dollars to school districts in communities in the state that are near SpaceX facilities.

Limits on Capacity

Satellite internet can get to the most remote places on earth and might be the best option available if there’s no landline connection, according to Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, an organization that works to close the K-12 classroom connectivity gap. In some communities without landline connections, it might be the best available option to connect kids to the internet.  

However, Marwell isn’t so sure of satellite’s efficiency in a virtual classroom setting. 

“It just doesn’t have the kind of capacity that you need to really use digital learning in the classroom,” he said. “Delays, latency, and the connection make it hard to use it for anything that’s sort of real-time, including video and having conversations.” 

He added: “We shouldn’t rule out satellite by any stretch of the imagination, but it would never be the first thing that we would recommend to a school for turning up their digital learning.” 

School districts’ sudden shift into remote learning when the pandemic took hold nearly two years ago forced them to adjust everything from digital curriculum materials and teaching methods. For students to reap the benefits of web-based resources while working at home, they must be able to get online – which many school districts quickly discovered was no sure thing. 

According to May 4 report by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), between 15 and 17 million students didn’t have internet connectivity to do virtual learning. The report recommended that households should have a minimum upload and download speed of 12 megabits per second.  

Meanwhile, the FCC suggested minimum is 25 megabits per second to download and 3 megabits per second to upload. This recommendation isn’t fast enough to support a single virtual student. 

Concerns about students’ lack of internet access at home – the so-called “homework gap” — have grown over the years, prompting action from the federal level and individual districts. 

District leaders, principals, and teachers believe the homework gap does more harm than simply impeding individual students’ efforts to get online. It also restricts the ability of teachers to host collaborative, interactive virtual discussions and other group work.  

In addition to working with Ector County, SpaceX has also connected 45 families in Wise County Public Schools in Virginia. 

Chief Technology Officer Wilks said there are no problems with families of four to five getting online with satellite. However, when three students get on a videoconference call at the same time, the video quality is affected. 

As technology improves, the expanded use of satellite technology in education will hinge on how comfortable policymakers are with it, and what kinds of parameters they put on how it can be used. SpaceX has reportedly deployed more than 1,000 satellites into orbit. 

“The technology is always evolving, and I really think it has to do with what the government does with restrictions and regulations on satellites in the sky. The more people that want to use satellite internet is going to require more satellites.”

Image credit iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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