Pilot project uses Elon Musk's Starlink satellites to provide connectivity to regional farms
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SpaceX's constellation of satellites with an aim to provide internet to all corners of the Earth is causing some excitement in regional Australia.
The satellite internet service from Elon Musk's company is still being developed, but its infrastructure is already arriving on some regional farms.
Australian telecommunications carrier Connected Farms will pilot using Starlink's mobile backhaul service to provide connectivity fence to fence on farms for technologies including robotics, ag tech, mobile phones, and home offices.
"I think we're the first ones that are using it for an agricultural application," Connected Farms chief executive Tom Andrews said.
Mr Andrews said there was "no comparison" in the latency and speed improvements they were expecting.
"At the moment, the sort of NBN-type services … you're looking at 25 to 30 megabits per second (Mbps) download, maybe up to 5 Mbps upload, " he said.
"[Now] we're looking at 250 down and 120 up in terms of speed.
"The latency is typically 700 to 900 milliseconds and we're reducing that to between 20 to 50 milliseconds. It's quite game changing."
Mr Andrews said many farms were in areas where there were no cost-effective traditional backhaul solutions to support mobile connectivity, and existing providers often only provided to the homestead and not across the farm.
"This pilot with Starlink means that Connected Farms is able to offer affordable mobile coverage to farmers in regional Australia," he said.
The low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology could also be transformative more broadly for people in regional and remote Australia and be a real competitor alongside NBN Co.
"I think it's an excellent idea to start looking at these new developments in telecommunications that are promising to really start providing first-class internet access, data communications to remote communities, to farms, outlying stations and things like that," telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said.
"It is a new technology, it is significantly better than the current services provided by the telcos and NBN Co etc."
Starlink promises to give people living in the bush internet that's just as fast as in the city, but it's yet to prove itself.
The reason why can be explained by the closer proximity of the satellites to Earth and that there are thousands more of them.
NBN Co's geostationary Sky Muster satellites are more than 30,000 kilometres above Earth's surface whereas LEO satellites, used by Starlink, are only about 550km up.
"I'm always careful that the industry quite often over-promises and under-delivers … particularly for people out in the west," Mr Budde said.
"But having said that, it really looks very, very interesting. It looks like one of the only solutions for these farms and remote communities to get a quality service.
"Up until now, it's too expensive to bring fibre to all of these communities and the fixed wireless networks are just not delivering this service."
In north-west Queensland, Wi-Sky managing director Will Harrington is waiting on more evidence before making up his mind about Starlink's capacity to improve connectivity in the bush.
Mr Harrington became a broadband provider in 2016 when existing satellite technology could not provide adequate internet on his parents' property.
"I think it's a really exciting development. In my mind, they need to prove that their solution works and it can handle the environment out here," he said.
Connected Farms was also interested to see if the equipment could withstand Australia's climate.
"All these manufacturers say that it's ruggedised, but we say wait till it gets to Australia and we'll tell you if it's really ruggedised, because the weather can be a bit harsh for some of these things," Mr Andrews said.
If all checks out, Mr Harrington said Wi-Sky would consider using LEO technology as a backup.
"It's another tool we can use," he said.
"For most people, the only service that they do have access to is the Sky Muster satellite.
"So having a second option is always a good thing.
"We are living in remote isolated areas, we can't afford to lose our communication, so you have to have a backup."
Mr Harrington said he had seen firsthand how reliable internet transformed regional areas.
"With the internet not being a limiting factor, what does that let you do?" he said.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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