SpaceX internet partnership to extend to more counties after Wise Co. Schools families see success

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WISE COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – A constellation of satellites in space is helping several families have reliable internet access for the first time in Wise County.

News Channel 11 first reported in December 2020 that the Elon Musk-founded company SpaceX had partnered with Wise County leaders. Launching Starlink satellites for the county made internet connectivity possible in areas where it was previously unreliable, expensive, or unavailable.

In wake of the success Wise County families have seen with Starlink, officials plan to bring the space-based broadband to school children in other counties as well.

Starlink devices given to families

Southwest Virginia leaders, including U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, gathered Thursday for a presentation on how the project has helped Wise County Public Schools students.

“I recognize that this is a great technology that can bring broadband into areas that are underserved or unserved,” Griffith said.

Scott Kiser, director of technology for Wise County Public Schools, said previously 25 to 30 percent of students did not have internet access at home. Around 40 percent of students didn’t have adequate service for virtual learning.

“Broadband infrastructure takes time and money. And we didn’t have the time. We had students already sitting at home in a pandemic being forced to learn virtually, and not getting the experience that their peers who were connected were getting,” said Kiser.

The school system and Wise County Board of Supervisors partnered with SpaceX to bring free Starlink internet to 45 households in February. Two parents spoke at Thursday’s presentation and said their internet service is now reliable for the first time.

One father said he no longer has to take his son to a library parking lot on the weekends just to get homework assignments done.

“It’s 2021, I think broadband internet is a necessity, similar to water and electricity,” he said.

Wise Co. Public Schools leaders and parents give a presentation on Starlink internet

The Appalachian Council for Innovation is eager to bring the Starlink project to its next phase. Members are working to raise money through public-private partnerships to fund more space-based broadband for Southwest Virginia students.

Satellites are being launched over the course of the summer to serve around 500 school children in Dickenson, Russell, Lee, and Buchanan counties, as well as expand Wise County’s service, according to Appalachian Council for Innovation President Donald Purdie.

An illustration of how the Starlink system works

Purdie said school districts have already provided them with the information for families needing the service. He said Starlink engineers are currently working on programming the satellites for these areas.

“As we march forward, and more constellations go up, more and more people will be served. And we’re hoping the end goal is to achieve at least 3,000 students served by this time next year. And we feel like we’re on track to do that,” said Purdie.

State Sen. Todd Pillion (R-Abingdon) sent the following statement Thursday on the expansion of the SpaceX project in Southwest Virginia:

“The budget that we passed and sent to the governor’s desk includes significant investments in broadband, including targeted funding to expand an innovative pilot project in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. This project, funded with $500,000 in the state budget, supports the expansion of high-speed satellite-based broadband within the LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau Planning Districts for educational and telemedicine purposes. 

Last year Wise County and Starlink, a SpaceX satellite-based internet system, formed a partnership to expand internet service to students lacking access. Wise County is the first school division in Virginia—and one of the first in the nation—to connect students to the internet via space. This partnership served as the basis for securing state dollars to expand the project.”

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