Wireless subscribers in rural areas know just how difficult it can be to get service. As with wired internet, it is difficult for telecom companies to justify the expense of installing infrastructure to support a customer base that could never pay off the cost. However, companies have continued to look for solutions to the problem, enabling users to have a better wireless experience. This week, two of those companies have teamed up in order to use the power of rural internet to power rural wireless service: SpaceX and T-Mobile.
Why is rural access so difficult?
The real issue comes about from costs. It is incredibly expensive to install infrastructure, no matter what that infrastructure is. Bringing new roads into an area is expensive. Bringing power into a new area is difficult and expensive. But, bringing in internet and cellular infrastructure is especially expensive because of changing regulations, land usage, and more.
Because of these extensive costs, it makes it very difficult to ever make that money back. If a company must pay $500k in order to run the lines for a small rural area, there is almost no way they can ever make that money back. Assume that the lines will be usable for 2 decades - 20 years. That works out to 240 months. Just to break even on the installation of the lines, not the cost of operating the service, it would require over $2000 per month in revenue. But, what if there are only 4 homes in the area? It would make no sense to install those lines because no one is going to be willing or even able to pay $500 per month for internet access.
The same problem comes about with cellular coverage. In addition to the installation of nearly the same infrastructure as the internet, it also requires the installation of infrastructure for power. Plus, land has to be leased on which to install a tower. Then, the tower must be constructed on the land that is being leased. The cost of installing a tower under normal circumstances can be over $1 million. Doing it in a rural area is far more expensive.
Creating unique solutions
One of the go-to services for extremely rural areas has been satellite. However, services like HughesNet have still been irrationally expensive. Oh, and unacceptably slow. Sure, they were once popular with gas stations, but they never really grew past that niche market. Elon Musk changed that with the introduction of Starlink, a satellite-powered internet service brought about by SpaceX. Starlink has made it possible to get fast internet access in rural areas without having a bill that makes it unattainable.
This week, SpaceX and Starlink announced that they are working with T-Mobile to bring wireless service to rural areas via satellite. Satellite phones are not a new concept. In fact, they were a core part of the 2001 film Jurassic Park III. This, however, is not going to be anything like those old satellite-centric phones. This plan is going to use Starlink's second-generation satellites to send signals directly to your existing phone without any special equipment. The service will use part of T-Mobile's PCS bandwidth, much of which it acquired with Sprint.
The service isn't going to be designed to be a direct replacement for existing cellular coverage. Speeds are expected to be in the 2 to 4 Mbps range, and will likely not even support video. However, it will allow T-Mobile to bring service of any type to some areas that they never would have been able to serve without the help of Starlink.
Some messaging services, such as Apple's iMessage or Meta's WhatsApp, might have to do some work on their software to recognize the satellite connection as a cellular connection, but overall, it should be an easy and natural transition for everyone.