SpaceX announced plans to build Starlink, their globe-spanning constellation of tiny internet-providing satellites, in 2015. Although just 700 of the planned 40,000 are in orbit, they are playing a critical role in a small Washington town ravaged by wildfire.
A fast-moving wildfire destroyed 80 percent of Malden, Washington in early September, including the firehouse and internet infrastructure. Without the internet, residents could not file insurance claims or attend an online school, and relief efforts were hindered. Fortunately, Starlink was able to step in and is now providing wireless high-speed internet for the entire town.
It takes only 5 to 10 minutes to set up a hotspot and Starlink has dispersed them all around fire-affected areas of Washington. The technology also requires minimal equipment and is easily transportable.
According to Richard Hall, the telecommunications leader for Washington’s Emergency Management Division, Starlink was already looking into providing improved internet to rural Washington when the fires started. The state of emergency just expedited the process. With the help of Starlink, first responders are able to communicate with firefighters in nearby regions and residents have a line of contact with the outside world.
“I have never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable,” said Hall. This is Starlink’s first public usage of the network, but SpaceX is continuing to expand the network. Starlink hopes to be one of the companies chosen by the FCC auction this month to receive some of the $16 billion in government subsidies to companies to provide fast broadband internet to more than six million rural homes and businesses that currently lack it.