WEDC is assisting Eau Claire County in launching a pilot program to test SpaceX’s Starlink, a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites that can provide high-speed internet in rural areas where broadband is limited or not available.

The pilot project, which provides high-speed internet to 50 rural homes and businesses, is being supported by a $27,500 Capacity Building Grant from WEDC, as well as funding from a group of health care providers including Marshfield Clinic, Mayo Clinic and Hospital Sisters Health System. Chippewa Valley Technical College and PESI Online Learning also contributed and are partners on the pilot project.

“The pandemic has demonstrated that reliable, high-speed internet access is essential today for work, for school and to access health care,” said Missy Hughes, WEDC secretary and CEO. “Getting broadband out to everyone in this state isn’t a moon shot, but it will require a variety of creative, innovative approaches because there’s no one one-size-fits-all solution.”

Broadband expansion has been identified as a top economic development priority in WEDC’s Wisconsin Tomorrow report and the report of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity.

During the one-year pilot program, Eau Claire County residents will test how well the service performs for work, for accessing health care and for attending online classes.

What makes the Starlink system different than traditional satellite internet is that it uses satellites in a low orbit. This can reduce the service’s latency—the delay between sending and receiving data, or the lag between talking and hearing someone respond.

By partnering with schools and health care systems, the county will be able to get a good idea of how the service works for different uses, says Dave Hayden, information systems director for Eau Claire County.

“We’re testing this technology in an area that’s unserved and underserved and testing this in a way that it gives all of these entities information on how it works for their applications,” says Hayden. “The real goal of this is to prove the technology.”

That’s the hope of area health care providers who see access to broadband service as key to offering better access.

“Telehealth has the potential to remove some of the barriers and disparities of health care by eliminating the barrier of travel,” said Chris Meyer, Marshfield Clinic Health System’s director of virtual care and telehealth. Meyer also sits on Governor Tony Evers’ Task Force on Broadband Access.

Luke Annandale is hoping that taking part in the Starlink pilot project will allow him to study nursing at Chippewa Valley Technical College this fall. Annandale, who lives between Augusta and Fairchild, works nights at a building materials supplier. It would be exhausting to drive nearly an hour into Eau Claire to attend classes in person after working all night, he said.

That’s why he wants to start his schooling online. He and his partner currently have a traditional satellite internet provider, but there is one problem.

“There is a time period of the day where it just cuts out,” says Annandale, mentioning how terrifying that would be on a timed exam. “It’s always when I need it to work.”

For this pilot, the county (with assistance from WEDC and others) is paying the $499 equipment fee and $99 monthly service fee for each participating household for one year.

The Starlink initiative is the most recent pilot program supported by WEDC to help expand broadband service throughout the state. Earlier this year, Governor Evers, WEDC and the Public Service Commission announced a $100,000 pilot program with the Northland Pines School District to test the use of tethered drones to deliver Wi-Fi service for students.