WARRENTON — Warren County is set to become the third county in North Carolina to join the Satellite Internet Pilot Program, which is designed to improve internet access for students participating in remote learning.

The program is being spearheaded by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, which is now working with the N.C. Department of Information Technology Broadband Infrastructure Office to help advance education in the state forward through their Starlink internet service.

“We had been talking to SpaceX for some time about doing a project, and they created this pilot program where they go around the country and work with different school districts to test their technology,” BIO director Jeff Sural said. “The service isn’t completely ready for commercialization, as they don’t have enough satellites in space yet, but as part of the beta testing, they wanted to roll out something for students.”

The NCDIT BIO initially did not have the money to pay for the Satellite Internet Pilot Program until the CARES Act was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020 to provide emergency assistance for families and businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through some of the funding from the CARES Act, the NCDIT BIO took the lead alongside the Friday Institute at NC State University to pay for the pilots. Sural said that total expenses on the program have come out to approximately $264,000 so far, but the estimate does not include additional donations from private organizations.

Sural added that SpaceX wanted to test Starlink in different geographical locations around North Carolina and asked the NCDIT BIO to look for school districts that they believed would be ideal test subjects on the efficiency of the service.

Hyde County Schools approached the NCDIT BIO and Friday Institute to express their interest in Starlink because they wanted to test the service on Ocracoke Island, while Swain County Schools was also selected due to impediments to connectivity such as the mountainous terrain and dense foliage.

With school districts on the opposite ends of the state selected, the NCDIT BIO and Friday Institute began looking for one in the Piedmont region that would be interested in testing out Starlink. They ended up coming to an agreement with Warren County Schools to have its students and teachers test out the service.

“The Warren County Economic Development Commission was very interested in this type of initiative and we had talked with them about doing different types of projects there,” Sural said. “The [Satellite Internet Pilot Program] came up during a conversation and they said they wanted to do it. We got hooked up with the school district and the rest is history.”

With SpaceX preferring to test Starlink in rural communities, Sural said that the Warren, Hyde and Swain school districts easily fit the criteria that SpaceX requested due to their history with internet issues, which Sural believes can no longer be a long-term issue with many students relying on technology for education now.

“The pandemic has really made people focus on finding solutions that work,” Sural said. “Although the technology isn’t ready for primetime, we want to see if we can make this work for some kids who are struggling with connectivity at home.”

A key component toward ensuring that Starlink accomplishes its mission of providing high-speed internet to rural communities involves the use of Low Earth Orbit satellite technology that will work in conjunction with transceivers on the ground.

After Warren County signs their agreement with the Friday Institute, they will purchase the equipment from SpaceX that will go to homes selected by Warren County Schools. The equipment includes a satellite dish that will sit on a tripod, a router and a cord that connects the two.

Sural is optimistic that Starlink will become the solution to internet issues that rural communities have dealt with for years, but he is currently focused on making sure that Warren, Swain and Hyde County have everything they need to properly implement the program going forward.

“This is a 12-month pilot,” Sural said. “We will fund the equipment and 12 months of service, which is about $99 a month. After that, the school district and families will have to decide whether they want to continue the service and how to pay for it. We will look at opportunities since some additional federal and state funding may be available to see if we can extend the program for those families.”

Even though Starlink is still in its infancy, Sural is encouraged by what the service can provide and is looking forward to conducting further evaluations as Starlink is rolled out.