Elon Musk’s Starlink internet beta testing program reaches Manitoulin Island users

Gore Bay’s Brad Wright has mounted his Starlink dish on his roof.

MANITOULIN – Internet speeds on Manitoulin Island just got incomparably faster for a few select users who have received beta-tester invitations to join Elon Musk’s Starlink internet service, run by his SpaceX company, and they say the new service may revolutionize life on the Island.

“I signed up the minute the link went live,” said Gore Bay’s Brad Wright, a beta tester of the new service. “I got an email Friday night that said what the (hardware) price would be, I ordered it and it showed up in a couple of days.”

SpaceX is the astronomical brainchild of Elon Musk, who founded and heads electric automobile maker Tesla. SpaceX makes aerospace equipment and provides extraterrestrial transportation and other services, such as Starlink satellite internet.

It opened sign-ups for beta testers earlier this year and began to issue offers to selected Canadian users within the past couple of weeks.

The internet service comes with a substantial set-up cost. The hardware (a motorized receiver dish, an internal switch and an optional wireless router) costs $649 CAD plus tax and monthly service fees run at $129.

Despite the substantial cost, early users say the vast service improvements are worth the added expense.

“My biggest issue was I was paying for a certain level of internet and receiving very little from that. For me to pay a little bit up front and a slightly higher monthly fee, and get something 30 times faster, is kind of a no-brainer for my wife and I,” Mr. Wright said.

Mr. Wright has long been a supporter of Mr. Musk’s endeavours; he was the first year-round Islander who bought a Tesla as his daily drive.

Little Current’s David Tuerk tried to sign up as a beta tester but Little Current was not part of the initial service area. He enrolled his Mindemoya-based parents (Jeff and Lisa Tuerk) instead and they got their invitation around the same time as Mr. Wright.

Getting away from the dominant internet provider near Mindemoya was a significant factor for the family.

The $649 setup kit contains a dish that will soon have ice-melting heaters enabled, as well as all other necessary components.

“They have a monopoly here in town and they have no interest in improving the experience they sell. I think that was another big driving force in ordering the kit and getting it installed; it’s definitely been a good experience so far,” Mr. Tuerk said.

Because the service is still in beta, there are a few small hiccups that the company is working to resolve. Over a 24-hour period, there may be a total of approximately five minutes where the service will not connect, usually in small outages lasting a few seconds.

Mr. Tuerk also said he was greatly disappointed with the setup process, but for reasons that others may not find problematic.

“I was a little disappointed it was so easy; I wanted to geek out a bit,” he said with a laugh. Mr. Tuerk works as a technology solutions specialist at Manitoulin Health Centre and said he prefers to do a little more tinkering. “When you actually set up the device, you basically just mount the dish in a good location (that the Starlink app helps you to find), run a cable inside and that’s basically it.”

Speed improvements are stark. Mr. Wright said his old service offered 5 Mbps (megabits per second; a megabit is one-eighth the size of a megabyte) for download speeds, while Starlink has peaked out at 150 Mbps and averaged around 130.

Mr. Tuerk said his folks have seen speeds as high as 175 Mbps. By contrast, the federal government’s target for broadband speeds is just 50 Mbps download.

He added that he has noticed a moderate slowdown in cloudy conditions and is waiting to see how snow will affect the signal. However, Starlink has promised a firmware update that will enable in-dish heaters to melt off snow and ice.

Starlink has been “a game changer” for Catherine Joyce, another early-access Islander. Before the beta came online, her three children in virtual school faced uncertain connectivity for their learning.

She is also completing online education at Contact North but has had to leave class because the webpages simply will not load. 

“No one is allowed to touch the TV or device while I’m in class,” she said, adding that she was working out some ongoing connectivity issues for a couple of her devices.

Mr. Musk has established a name for himself as an eccentric billionaire who finds innovative and unconventional solutions, though some have expressed concern on a person of that nature having so much control over people’s lives.

For the two beta users, however, they are no more concerned about his access to their internet traffic as opposed to any other.

“At the end of the day, just about all of your online interactions are monitored anyways,” said Mr. Tuerk. “It’s not a whole lot different from any other internet service provider, the traffic still passes through all their infrastructure.”

Mr. Wright shared similar sentiment and stressed that the addition of reliable high-speed internet would revolutionize life on Manitoulin. He has been working from home for quite some time and has found his existing network frustrating when internet calls drop; when his daughter was home last year and trying to learn online the connection was all but unusable.

“The biggest challenge I see for the Island is our connectivity. If people have high-speed internet and can live here and work remotely, as a lot of people are doing now, that will bring more people to the Island. It won’t be a barrier to living in the beautiful place we live in,” he said.