A person who deliberately refuses to connect with online learning has no advantage over a person who cannot connect online to learn.M.J. Martin
With the virus raging, it has disrupted primary education for the K-12 schools. All educators have made a mad dash towards online learning. In the urban and suburban settings, these schools have many connectivity options ranging from optical fibre to DSL to cable modems. However, for rural and remote schools, the connectivity issue is a major challenge. Often, there is no connection offerings at all. Or, whatever is available offers extremely low data rates compared to what is needed for online classes. These under served and unserved markets are about to get a powerful new option when it comes to connectivity.
SpaceX’s Starlink is rising up on the horizon.
Remote learning has posed challenges to faculty, students, staff, IT, and all involved in the delivery of programming and education. At all levels of education – K to 8, 9 to 12, and post-secondary – are feeling the pain.
As classes moved online, courses are being redesigned in record time, and students found a new sense of community in digital and virtual spaces. More than just connections, an online school needs new tools and different content as well as educators trained to teach in this new paradigm. During the spring 2020, schools began work on a new hybrid education model featuring optional in-person classes with limited on-campus presence. By the fall of 2020, many course materials were made available online. So what’s next? Will this new delivery model ever end? Or, is it the next new normal?
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a complex network of Low Earth Satellites (LEO) organized into a constellation to provide continuous connectivity to people all over the globe. Once completed, many thousands of satellites will work in harmony to provide a continuous connection any place you might be from the equator to +/- 80° latitude. If you live on the North or South Poles, you will continue to be under served.
Older VSAT satellite systems used satellites that appear to be fixed in the sky and are said to be ‘geostationary’. With a broad ranging signal footprint, these GEO satellites aimed the beams at specific parts of the landmass – think of them like car headlights, so the signal rolls off at the edges and gets weaker if you are not in the focused areas. Larger antennas are needed too to capture these distant satellites – 1.2 meter to 3.8 meter in size, depending upon your location and the satellite connection. With much lower data rates costing much more compared to these new LEO satellites, the business case was hard to justify. As an example, my own personal VSAT used on my motorhome for remote connections when travelling offer the following data rates and prices (in Canadian dollars) – 1.5 Mbps downlink / 256 kbps uplink – costing about $90.00 CDN per month with $5000.00 automated antenna system. A fixed antenna system would have been lower cost but demanding rigourous alignment and pointing requirements every time I parked the motorhome.
With the advent of the Starlink solution based upon LEO satellites, it is a new form of satellite internet delivered from space. Internet is normally a terrestrial technology, but coverage is not ubiquitous as we need for educators. Quality terrestrial internet connections are only available for about 70% of Canadian schools. Now with these LEO satellite connection is a constellation – hundreds or thousands of small (300 to 800 lb.) satellites flying at 500+ km, on polar and equatorial orbits, working in harmony as one interwoven fabric of space relay connections from multiple uplink teleports provide comprehensive service everywhere we need it in Canada. Supported by sophisticated technology on the ground with antennas that operate as arrays to track many satellites at one time and integrated to a compact set-top box with a Wi-Fi hotspot built-in, these terminals can provide substantial connections to schools or students at home.
Elon Musk has created Starlink to provide quality internet connections. He is targeting 1,440 satellites by the end of 2021. Initially approved for 12,000 satellites, he is now requesting over 30,000 more LEO satellites to be placed into 72 orbital planes using three orbital shells – 340 km, 550 km, and 1,100 km. He is already redesigning his satellite constellation and is requesting to move 1,100 km down to 550 km. Currently, Starlink is placing 60 satellites into orbit per launch on SpaceX Falcon 9, but they are also targeting to use the Starship rockets with an extraordinary capacity of 400 satellites per launch. Early tests of the Starlink service is seeing 100 Mbps downlinks to schools and a ultra low 10 to 20 ms latency. Users are being told to expect 50 to 150 Mbps in the testing phase and a promise of 1 Gbps once the constellation is deployed to sufficient coverage saturation levels. With unlimited data, but limited availability, Starlink terminals are already sold in Canada with fully licenced approval by the Canadian government.
How will Starling be deployed for commercial users or is it targeted for consumers? Can we get a static IP address? Can we use SD-WAN native connections? How will VPNs run over Starlink? We are told that every connection is already fully encrypted – so are VPN tunnels and software defined routing possible – likely, yes! During the test period and until sufficient numbers of LEO satellites are deployed into orbits, users should anticipate periodic service outages. During the testing phase, the Starlink costs are running at $99.00 US per month for connection, $499.00 one-time fee for equipment. However, what will prices be once fully operational and how will Starlink support school boards with multiple locations with package deals? Only time will tell.
Amazon’s Project Kuiper solution funded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, is gong to offer a competitive service offering to Starlink. Project Kuiper is planned for 3,236 satellites on 98 orbital planes in three orbital shells at 590 km, 610 km, and 630 km. Project Kuiper will use a smaller antenna at 30 cm / 12” for its endpoints. Project Kuiper is expected to offer 400 Mbps per connection, so less then Starlink’s 1,000 Mbps promise. Project Kuiper is said to be ‘launch agnostic’ so it will not launch its LEO satellites exclusively with Amazon’s own ‘Blue Origin’ rockets. Bezos is said to have a $10 Billion (US) investment planned for Project Kuiper.
Other potential Starlink competitors include:
- OneWeb –
- Bankruptcy in March 2019, rescued in November 2020 by UK Government and Bharti
- New owners invested up to $1 Billion for restart of OneWeb
- 648 satellites, 1 shell, 18 orbital planes, 1,200 km Ø74 satellites launched to date, expects full global service in 2022
- 300+ satellites announced, applied for 1,200 satellites in late 2020
- Some in polar orbits, others in inclined orbits for global coverage
- Test satellite in orbit now, service launches in 2021
- Larger satellites, higher power, Ku-band, higher orbital shell
- proposes 4,600 satellites, at 1,400 km
- Pending and not yet confirmed to proceed
- May be commercial offering only
- Seems to be tied to 6G cellular developments for 2030 launch
Other school connectivity options beyond LEO satellites solutions include:
- Optical Fibre – fibre to the home
- DSL – Older technology, soon to be retired technology
- Cable Modem – soon to be retired, replaced with fibre to the home
- Cellular – 3G, 4G, and 5G launching (6G is under development for 2030)
- Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) – now being reinvented with 5G spectrum options yielding higher data rates and more robust connections
- VSAT Broadband Satellite – older and obsolete, too expensive, low data rate, excessive latency
- LEO – Starlink / Kuiper / Telesat / OneWeb – future satellite
- Hybrids – blend from this list – satellite to FWA relay
There have been some discussions about Starlink having some density concerns. There seems to be an issues if there are too many terminals colocated in close proximity to each other as the footprints currently are limited in capacity. Hopefully this issue, if it is in fact material to the design, will disappear as more satellites are placed into service. If it is a concern then this issue is mainly a problem for urban and suburban Canada, it should not be a concern for rural and remote communities where user will be spread out more. The next logic questions about density of terminals is can a multitude of terminals be ‘channel bonded’ to aggregate higher data rates? Let us hope the answer is yes.
Starlink is said to be geo-fencing the terminals. This may be related to the density concern? They seem to be restricting the operation of each terminal to a specific latitude and longitude and within 20 to 30 kilometres of the address registered for the service. This means you can not relocate a terminal too far away from the registered address and for users with motorhomes like me, the service may be handcuffed and not workable. For schools in rural areas, it means you cannot move one terminal from one school to another without some form of intervention to re-code its home location.
It is still early days so we do not yet know how all educational applications will operate over Starlink connections. While I see no obstructions to the successful operations, but they do need to be validated to ensure compliance. Integrating educational technologies, such as examples listed below, must be confirmed and understood for any potential limitations.
- Digital Chalkboards – Google Jamboard, various whiteboards for drawing, highlighting, calculations
- Presentation – Death by PowerPoint
- Collaboration – Google Drive, FlipGrid, etc.
- Messaging – email, chat, back channels during front channels
- Social Media – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Reddit, etc.
- Streaming – (Broadcasting) Twitch, xSplit Broadcaster, OBS, Facebook, WireCast, etc.
- Videos – Teacher delivery, student created, screen capture, editing, audio, graphics, animations,
- Forms – surveys, quizzes, tests
- Meeting Platform – Zoom, WebEx, Teams, Meet, etc.
- Classroom – course curriculum, news, lessons, assignments, chat, groupwork
What is Next?
So, what is next once we get the basic Starlink connections set into service?
- Edge Computing
- Cloud in the sky
- Artificial Intelligence for Education
- Neural Network on Starlink?
- Nomadic – any place
- Augmented Reality
- Virtual Reality
How do we do Labs Online?
How will we do labs in the virtual world when we cannot have the students in the science lab? I could argue that the industrial Digital Twin models used in factories and science could be adopted for K-12 labs. “A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical product or process, used to understand and predict the physical counterpart’s performance characteristics”.
While connectivity is the first step, it must be transparent to the educational process. Connections must be affordable. Connections must have sufficient data rate and latency to meet the educational needs. Add-on features to the network connections will bring learning to life so integration is vital. In education, content is king – always was, always will be – so the medium cannot get in the way of the messages and the experiences. Managing student attention span and engagement is paramount.
About the Author:
Michael Martin is the Vice President of Technology with Metercor Inc., a Smart Meter, IoT, and Smart City systems integrator based in Canada. He has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He was senior executive consultant for 15 years with IBM, where he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.