How SpaceX teamed up with a small Canadian IT company to bring its Starlink internet service to an indigenous community
- The first location in Canada to receive SpaceX's Starlink internet service was Pikangikum, a remote 3,000-person indigenous community in north-western Ontario.
- The project was initiated by a Canadian IT company called FSET. The CEO, Dave Brown told Business Insider how he went about contacting SpaceX to get help for the community.
- Residents were only receiving 3 megabites per second (Mbps). With Starlink, they're receiving around 130.
- The community can access education, healthcare, and contact friends and relatives from outside of Pikangikum. Starlink technology is not just about quality of life, it's about saving them," Brown said.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
SpaceX's first Starlink customer in Canada being a remote indigenous community is probably not what you were expecting.
Pikangikum First Nation, based in north-western Ontario, was connected to Elon Musk's satellite-internet system on December 2 with the help of SpaceX and information and technology services company, FSET.
Despite being surrounded by lakes, forests and nature, Pikangikum has struggled with high suicide rates among younger people over the years. With very limited internet service, children weren't able to receive higher education or counselling.
Since Starlink was installed, the 3,000-person community has been able to access everything from healthcare services, to education and businesses. It's fair to say it's changed their lives.
"We took a community that was one of the most technologically disadvantaged anywhere in the world," said Dave Brown, CEO of FSET. "They've now become one of the most technologically advanced, yet still remote, living where they are and not having to move."
Brown became aware of Pikangikum's internet and communication difficulties when his company started working with the community on other technical projects.
Residents were only getting 3 megabites per second before Kenora-based FSET and SpaceX stepped in.
"As a tech company, we were very aware of what the challenges of not having connectivity can bring to an organization. It's hard to understand what the impact has when it's an entire community," Brown told Business Insider.
How a small Kenora-based firm got in touch with SpaceX
FSET went down the path of terrestial-based solutions, but it proved cumbersome as the process wasn't agile, would have taken years, and is very expensive in western Canada, according to Brown. He said delivering the infrastructure to a community that can only be reached by plane, or by car when the lake freezes over in winter, would have been difficult.
After going eight months without finding anything suitable, FSET turned to SpaceX to see if Starlink could lift Pikangikum out of the dark with its satellite-internet service.
At least 820 working Starlink satellites are in orbit. The aerospace company, founded by Musk in 2002, wants to launch up to 12,000 Starlink satellites by mid-2027, but this could rise to 42,000.
Brown joked with his team, saying "I'm gonna get hold of Elon," but it wasn't really a joke.
He adds: "I never got hold of Elon… but I did get put in touch with the right people that needed to hear this story."
The people FSET contacted in late spring relayed the story of Pikangikum to senior staff at SpaceX. Brown said the experience of working with SpaceX was a complete 180 degree turn from working with other telecommunication companies.
Installing Starlink in the remote community was quick and easy
Space X got approval to operate in Canada in October, followed by regulatory approval for use of satellite-internet service in early November.
By the time Starlink was authorized for use in early November, FSET received 60 Starlink kits within days, Brown said. The kit took minutes to set up in Pikangikum.
"Anybody can set these things up. It doesn't require a lot of knowledge and technical ability to do it," Brown said.
SpaceX didn't join FSET in setting up Starlink in the community, mainly because it wasn't necessary. One person from FSET went around the Pikangikum installing the satellite dishes – known as user terminals – in businesses and institutions to make sure they were online. Once the company set up 15 businesses, the community took over and began to do it themselves.
So, who is paying for this?
A subscription to SpaceX's internet service, known as the "Better Than Nothing Beta," is $99 a month. It costs an additional $499 for the Starlink kit, which includes a mounting tripod, a WiFi router, and a terminal to connect to the satellites.
According to Brown, Pikangikum is paying for the service and never asked for additional funding. Starlink's monthly fee is CAN$129 ($101), on top of the CAN$649 for the kit.
Brown said it's a bit more than what residents in Kenora would pay for internet service but nowhere near what the cost could have been delivering other solutions to the community.
For the price of four sites through terrestial-based solutions, FSET is able to set up 60 sites, 15 businesses and 45 homes in the community and have money left over with SpaceX's Starlink, Brown said. "The comparison isn't even close when you have context around it."
FSET didn't charge Pikangikum for any consulting, installations, or calls that took place, he said.
Now that Pikangikum residents can do more things virtually, it cuts the costs of people travelling to and from the community.
Before Starlink, court services required the attorneys, the defense, and judicial officers to be flown in and out of the area. "The cost of flying all of these people in and out of the community is really high," he said.
Read more: EXCLUSIVE: SpaceX is looking to raise another big round of funding and wants to double its valuation to up to $92 billion
Although the traditional court system will still be used, Brown said there's a number of processes that can now be done virtually. The same goes for education, counselling, and medical services, except for the more extreme cases.
"Maybe the next Elon Musk comes from Pinkangikum!"
Having 130 Mbps of internet means young people have education at their fingertips, especially as the world has become more virtual since the COVID-19 pandemic.
SpaceX told beta-test subscribers in October to expect speeds of 50 to 150 Mbps, but some users have said they're getting even faster download speeds.
With this high-speed internet, students in Pikangikum can hop online and work towards obtaining a college degree from one of the most remote locations in Ontario. They don't have to leave their homes to attend university.
With a high-speed internet service like Starlink, Brown wanted "to level the playing field for children so they can determine what the future holds for them."
"Starlink technology is not just about quality of life, it's about saving them," he said, adding that with all the internet freedom, "maybe the next Elon Musk comes from Pinkangikum!"
Starlink is helping more remote communities to get online
After seeing the effect Starlink has had on Pikangikum, FSET isn't stopping there. "We're talking to [SpaceX] about doing this for other indigenous communities in north-western Ontario, Southern Manitoba," said Brown.
In some cases, FSET is introducing SpaceX to rural communities who want to set up Starlink for themselves, and then stepping aside.
Musk's space company offers Starlink public beta in northern US and Canada. The billionaire said in November the service could reach Florida by January, Europe by February, and India by the middle of next year.
"I fought for Pikangikum but its the SpaceX Starlink technology, it's the people at SpaceX, for putting these satellites up above that allows this to be possible," said Brown.
"There was some blood, sweat and beers over this project, and a little bit of tears too," he laughed. "I hope I get to have a drink with [SpaceX] one day and raise a glass."
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