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'We've got a winner here': Starlink program helping rural Manitobans with bad internet

St. Laurent Reeve Cheryl Smith says the Starlink reimbursement program is working. St. Laurent Reeve Cheryl Smith says the Starlink reimbursement program is working.
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Many rural Manitobans still struggle with poor internet service, something advocates say the government should be doing more about. But one Manitoba Reeve says she's found a solution for her constituents that may work for others.

The divide between urban and rural internet service has been growing for years now, but recent events such as the Rogers outage have brought the issue back into the forefront.

"The two things, between our COVID experience and the Rogers outage, is really showing that the nature of the internet and how it is involved in our daily lives has fundamentally changed," said Joel Templeman, Executive Director of the Internet Society, Manitoba chapter. "It really grew up as an entertainment, as an additional thing to supplement our lives, and now it's really intertwined in everything that we do, and everywhere that we go."

Templeman says internet coverage and connection speeds in rural Manitoba are not even close to those in cities like Winnipeg. "The statistics simply show that they are significantly lower, and that's not changing," he said.

Connectivity is so bad in the R.M. of St. Laurent that Reeve Cheryl Smith took notice when the federal government offered up money last spring to help with the problem. "When this universal broadband fund came into being, we thought let's try and do something very creative and unique where people are going to get state of the art internet service," said Smith.

She applied for, and received more than a million dollars in funding from the federal government to pay for Starlink, a U.S. - based internet provider owned by Elon Musk.

Smith says she made the decision after several home-based businesses in the area tried out the service. "They were just telling us, this is the best thing ever, we're really, really happy with it," she said.

Starlink offers a high-speed internet signal beamed to your home via low earth orbit satellites. Smith says the service is excellent.

"You can't compare it to anything else out there, it is unbelievably dependable, it's quick, it's fast," she said, noting that her internet connection from Starlink is often better that those of people in the city during Zoom meetings. "It's never a problem anymore, which is fantastic."

To participate in the reimbursement program, residents in the R.M. must order the Starlink equipment themselves from the company website. They can then apply for reimbursement for the equipment only – up to $900 for a satellite dish and receiver box.

Smith says uptake on the program has been very good, with more than 100 people applying for reimbursement so far. She notes there is a $100 application fee, and that residents must pay the monthly Starlink bill themselves, which is more expensive than other services. But, the program is working.

"I think we got a winner here, and I hope that we can reimburse more people," said Smith.

Templeman agrees the Starlink technology is impressive, but says that a commercial enterprise is not going to offer a permanent solution to this problem.

"The technology itself is better, but what it says is that we have neglected to do all of the other investments in fibre optics and other terrestrial solutions over the long term," said Templeman.

He also says it's not good for economic development.

"The money people are paying in these rural locations is not only leaving the community, but the country right? This is a U.S. company, and there are other ones … there's no local support for these things."

Templeman says it's the government's responsibility to build the infrastructure necessary to offer all Manitobans good internet service and that the Internet Society is fighting for those changes.

In the meantime, residents in the R.M. of St. Laurent can still apply for the program until November 11, 2022. Smith says shipping can take some time, so anyone interested should order as soon as they can.

"If they are serious about getting Starlink, they better be ordering it right now!"

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