Tehkummah Township may be first Ontario municipality to use Starlink

A small microwave dish atop the Tehkummah municipal office powers the building with much faster internet speeds.

TEHKUMMAH – The Township of Tehkummah in southeastern Manitoulin Island may have become the first municipality in Ontario to begin using entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service when it received its equipment in early April, allowing the municipality to offer enhanced services for its residents and find new opportunities for efficiency.

“Down here at the end of the (DSL) line, we were lucky if we would be getting four, five megabits per second. Especially with meetings going to Zoom and stuff it was impossible, even here in the office if we have more than one person searching for something,” said Tehkummah clerk-administrator Silvio Berti.

That inspired the township to apply for Starlink’s beta test service, which now has more than 10,000 users testing the service worldwide.

Starlink is a division of SpaceX, an extraterrestrial corporation helmed by Tesla founder Elon Musk. It involves dozens of low-Earth-orbit satellites circling the globe, beaming high-speed internet down to earthbound receivers.

Its users have largely been individual households to date but some groups have also signed up, notably Pikangikum First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, a fly-in reserve that is now receiving community-wide connection speeds rivalling those of Northern cities.

Tehkummah signed up for the beta program and received the necessary hardware in early April. It worked with its computer support provider EncompassIT, of Sudbury, to hook up and manage the device.

“It’s a little bit more money a month than Amtelecom (Tehkummah’s existing provider) but you’re getting what you’re paying for in this one. It’s still in the beta testing phase but we haven’t noticed any drops or anything like that,” Mr. Berti said. “I’d get it for my house if I could spare a few hundred dollars.”

EncompassIT, based out of Sudbury, offers IT services to about 50 small municipalities in Northern and central Ontario. Sales director Mark Anderson said Tehkummah is its first client using the service (which the township initiated on its own) and the company is now recommending its other municipalities to also sign up.

“It’s such a dramatic change in speed that’s available to rural municipalities … it’s a profound improvement, and long-awaited,” said Mr. Anderson, noting that his company is not affiliated with Starlink and does not make any money through recommending the service.

Mr. Anderson ran a remote speed test on Tehkummah’s network during the interview and found the connection pushing speeds of 158 Mbps (megabits per second; a megabit is one-eighth the size of a megabyte and internet speeds use Mbps as their metric) download, and about 30 Mbps upload.

On the previous connection, Tehkummah would only see speeds in the low-single range of Mbps for downloads and less than one Mbps for uploads. Zoom, the popular video conferencing platform that has become the home for council meetings during the pandemic, requires a consistent minimum speed of about five Mbps in order to fully function. 

When more than one person uses a single connection, as would happen in a shared space like a municipal office, the available speed drops significantly.

Mr. Anderson said there has been considerable interest among the townships EncompassIT serves, particularly along the North Shore of Lake Huron, with some later submitting applications to join the beta program after Tehkummah’s early successes.

The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) endorsed Starlink in September 2020 as the best solution currently available to many rural and Northern communities. President Danny Whalen was unsure if Tehkummah was the first municipality to sign up.

FSET, the Kenora-based company that set up Pikangikum’s Starlink connection, has been working with more than 100 First Nations and a handful of municipal governments to launch Starlink services for their operations, as well as transitioning them to cloud-based models for their systems.

“This allows for an agile and scalable work-from-home/work-from anywhere model that helps navigate the challenges of COVID while also delivering a higher degree of risk mitigation and business continuity going forward,” CEO Dave Brown told The Expositor.

The program is not cheap—Tehkummah spent $806.82 in buying the hardware and will pay $145.77 monthly to access the service, which is a relatively small increase from the monthly costs of its previous provider, though the speeds are incomparable.

The move to Starlink comes as a coalition of municipalities on Manitoulin Island and the North Shore are exploring a community-owned fibre optic internet project to deliver fibre-optic backed broadband connections to all interested homes in the area.

That project remains in active development while Starlink was able to get Tehkummah online nearly immediately.

“We’re still talking about, long-term, bringing fibre optics, but when is that going to happen? We can always cancel (Starlink) for something better and cheaper when that comes,” Mr. Berti said. “If (the Huron Shores-Manitoulin community-owned fibre network) comes through, then we will hook up to that and end this, but that could be years.”

The new connection will benefit more than just the core municipal services through making more services available online, Mr. Berti said. The township can expand its connection to the adjacent fire hall and into the public library, which is a crucial internet access point for many community members who don’t own computers or cannot get sufficient internet at their homes.

“People do sometimes sit in our driveway and use the library connection and with the number of people that come in to the library (in non-restricted times), it’s definitely going to be helpful for the whole community,” Mr. Berti said.