Friends of Buford Park Staff Now Using Super High-Speed Internet Thanks to SpaceX Starlink

 The Friends of Buford Park & Mt. Pisgah (the Friends) is among the first organizations in the Eugene area to sign on to the global Starlink project.  SpaceX company just launched its fifth Starlink mission of 2021, sending dozens more broadband satellites into low earth orbits. Starlink's service is only available in select regions at this point, but the service now boasts more than 10,000 customers, and the coverage map will continue to grow as more satellites make their way into the constellation. Eventually, Starlink hopes to blanket the entire planet in a usable high-speed Wi-Fi signal which will substantially upgrade the capabilities of emergency responders around the world.

“Our goal as an organization was to begin moving away from relying on server-side technology on location and transition into cloud computing,” Executive Director Janelle McCoy explained. ”Having access to Starlink is helping us grow with a solid foundation as we move more operations online. This will include everything from project management, social media, and accounting to time tracking, inventory management and nursery sales. Cloud computing and online operations also enables us to provide better reporting for our funders and our board and provide better service to our members.”

McCoy and Friends Board Chair Kevin Shanley have both been frustrated that FBP staff working in the park have had to deal with poor internet access. “This has been a problem for our staff for years,” McCoy explained. “Even when we had two offices, one in downtown Eugene and one inside the Park, it was difficult for our field and nursery staff to connect to our server in our administrative office.”

The problem is that Buford Park is located just outside of the range of the fiber optic cables that serve the Eugene area. “We researched commercial solutions to our internet issues,” McCoy said, “but with the Park being located ‘at the end of the line,’ there was no way for traditional providers to subsidize the costs of trenching thousands more feet to lay cable to reach the Field Office and the Nursery. Paying to have this done would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars.”

And of course, the pandemic had made things even more frustrating. FBP staff who need to work from home also have children who involved with distance learning programs. “For many of them,” McCoy says, “reliable internet access has been a real challenge over the past year. And since our admin staff is working remotely and it’s hard for us to have indoor meetings due to social distancing guidelines.” McCoy added, “The situation continued to highlight the divide between our urban and rural areas that much of our community is feeling as well.”

In 2020, McCoy heard about Starlink. SpaceX launched Starlink in 2018 to beam high-speed internet service around the Earth from a network of satellites. Technically a division within SpaceX, Starlink is also the name of the spaceflight company's growing network -- or "constellation" -- of orbital satellites. The development of that network began in 2015, with the first prototype satellites launched into orbit in 2018. In the years since, SpaceX has deployed over 1,300 Starlink satellites into orbit across more than 20 successful launches. Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink is ideal for locations like Buford Park & Mt. Pisgah where faster internet connections have traditionally been too expensive, unreliable, or entirely unavailable. 

”I have always followed emerging technical interests due to my early career with dotcoms,” Janelle said, “so when I heard about the Starlink beta program, I looked into it right away. The beta program would only be available to southern Canada and extreme northern U.S. Lucky for us, Buford Park is located just barely north of the parallel required to be able to participate!” Kevin Shanley loved the idea, so McCoy signed FBP up for the monthly $99 subscription as soon as Starlink’s beta portal opened and the organization’s application was approved. “In January, our Starlink kit arrived with everything we’d needed to get online.”

For a one-time equipment fee, the Friends received the Starlink phased-array user terminal, which is more advanced than what's found in fighter jets, plus a mounting tripod and a Wi-Fi router. Internet speeds are now 10x faster for FBP staff with barely any latency. “Latency” is the time it takes to send data from one point to the next. When satellites are far from Earth, latency is high, resulting in poor performance for activities like video calls. Starlink satellites are over 60 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites, resulting in lower latency. This gives them the ability to support services typically not possible with traditional satellite internet. 

Anyone with access to the service can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s (megabytes per second) and latency from 20ms to 40ms (milliseconds). Some beta users have already reported blistering download speeds of more than 160 Mbps, including in rural Montana. As Starlink launches more satellites, installs more ground stations, and improves its networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically.  

“On a personal note,” McCoy added, “I believe in the importance of preserving a natural night sky for all of us to enjoy. That’s why I was very glad to learn that the Starlink teams worked closely with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the specifics of their observations. The company even made specific engineering changes to reduce any light reflected off their satellites.”

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