Starlink has rolled out in Western Australia’s Kimberley, giving hope to remote communities suffering from poor internet access, but an expert says access may be too expensive for some.
- Starlink has been made available in north-west WA. Some had already been using the roaming RV feature with limited success
- Purnululu School hopes to use Starlink to improve the ability of teachers to deliver planned lessons using the internet
- One of the key challenges is making the service affordable for people in remote communities
The Elon Musk-owned internet service uses a constellation of thousands of low-orbit satellites to connect people in remote areas around the world.
Last Monday Space X, which operates Starlink, added the Kimberley and other parts of northern Australia to its main coverage map, months earlier than expected.
Previously in WA, the service was restricted to users south of Geraldton, but some in the region were using its RV mode to bolster their poor internet connections.
The technology could help many in the Kimberley who struggle with banking, contacting emergency services and education due to a lack of internet connectivity.
It comes as data shows 11 per cent of Australians are “highly excluded” from digital services by either not having internet access or not knowing how to use it.
Internet struggles in East Kimberley
One East Kimberley community that struggles with internet access is Woorreranginy, about a 60km drive from Purnululu National Park.
Purnululu School principal Libby Lee Hammond said it was a daily challenge to get online, meaning teachers often could not deliver the lessons they would like to.
“There are days when we have no internet and because our phones are all internet-based, we have no phones either,” she said.
“So we’re completely cut off from being able to communicate with the outside world, which makes running a school very difficult.
“There’s a lot of education resources that are based online now, so it just prevents teachers from sometimes being able to deliver the program that they’ve planned.”
Ms Hammond said when it got hot at Woorreranginy, many turned their air conditioning on, overloading the community’s diesel generator and cutting off the internet.
“It’s a bit scary sometimes, because in the fire season we have no way of knowing if there are fires around,” she said.
Ms Hammond said the school would likely look into using Starlink as a way of fixing internet issues and hoped it would provide more reliability.
“Cost is going to be a big factor for us,” she said.
“We haven’t investigated that yet, but once it is available, we will definitely be looking closely at how we can get on board.”
Step forward, but drawbacks exist
RMIT University researcher Daniel Featherstone said the service could be a game-changer for people in remote areas of the Kimberley, but it still had its drawbacks.
“Starlink is fantastic in that it’s really fast compared with the services that are available now including 4G, or mobile coverage and Sky Muster,” he said.
“[But] it’s much more expensive. It costs about $139 per month, compared with some of the Sky Muster services, which are more in the $60 to $80 range.”
Dr Featherstone travelled to the Kimberley and other parts of Australia this year measuring digital inclusion for a project run by RMIT and Swinburne universities.
He said Starlink had piqued the interest of remote health organisations and had been recommended to art centres in central Australia.
“Those sort of community agencies or local businesses … they may well see Starlink as the solution to their needs,” he said.
“I think the challenge will be how this becomes affordable and usable for Aboriginal people and communities, whereas those agencies or businesses will probably find it affordable.”