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How A Project To Get Humans To Mars Could Solve The Rural Internet Problem

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly 11% of U.S. households still don't have high-speed Internet access, but a new convoy of low-flying satellites could beam broadband to hard-to-reach places across the country later this year. It's a project that actually is a fundraiser for launching humans to Mars. High Plains Public Radio's David Condos reports from Great Bend, Kan.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Joey Bahr walks out to the front of his yard along a two-lane road lined with farmland.

JOEY BAHR: So in the ditch that we're standing in right now, there is a fiber optic cable that runs from here all the way probably up to Albert five miles north of here. I can't access it.

CONDOS: That cable running beneath his feet is owned by a neighboring Internet service provider and is just passing through on its way to a nearby town. So instead of tapping into the wired broadband that much of America takes for granted, Bahr, his wife Anita and their three sons connect their home to the Internet through a cell tower a few miles away. The family has to ration every minute they spend online to stay under their data cap of 15 gigabytes per month.

BAHR: It's a beautiful place. I love it. Unfortunately, we are in kind of an Internet no man's land right now.

CONDOS: But for Bahr and millions of other rural Americans, the promise of broadband might not come from below his feet but from above his head.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ten, nine, eight...

CONDOS: The richest man on the planet, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, has a plan to send humans to Mars. And almost accidentally, that plan might just open the door to getting a better YouTube feed to farms, ranches and homes across the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ignition and liftoff.

CONDOS: That's a SpaceX rocket blasting off with 60 Starlink satellites in tow. They'll orbit thousands of miles closer to the Earth than traditional satellites. That means they could bypass the crawling speeds, long lag times in spotty connections that have plagued satellite Internet users for years. SpaceX has launched about a thousand satellites so far and reaches 10,000 consumers worldwide. The company just began to offer service to its first Kansas customers earlier this month.

(APPLAUSE)

CONDOS: Musk views Starlink is a critical step toward funding his ambitions in the heavens like space tourism and colonizing the red planet. Jeff Bezos is looking to cash in, too. He hired a former SpaceX executive to lead Amazon's satellite Internet venture. But where other companies have failed, could these tech giants succeed?

DEREK SMASHEY: First of all, I wouldn't want to bet against people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos.

CONDOS: Derek Smashey is a portfolio manager with Scout Investments in Kansas City. He says satellite Internet could eventually serve 15 to 20% of the population. So Starlink's $99 monthly fees could cover the project's estimated $10 billion price tag.

SMASHEY: It looks to us like that could be a $20 billion-plus market just in the United States alone.

CONDOS: To get there, SpaceX plans to launch over 40,000 satellites, more than 10 times the number in the sky now. That worries some people who like the sky the way it is.

SAMANTHA LAWLER: The thought of having to see the stars through a grid of crawling satellites - that's pretty horrifying to me.

CONDOS: Samantha Lawler is an astronomy professor at the University of Regina in Canada. She fears that advancing our connection to the Internet could come at the expense of losing our connection to the stars.

LAWLER: This isn't like light pollution from a city, where you can go camping in the mountains and see the stars perfectly. It will be everywhere.

CONDOS: Back in Great Bend, Joey Bahr says living in a place where his sons can gaze up at the night sky was one of the reasons he and his wife moved out here. But living out here means dealing with Internet speeds that can dwindle down to about 2% of the minimum speed in the federal definition of broadband. Bahr says he recently added his name to the Starlink waiting list.

For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Great Bend, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELICATE STEVE'S "TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.