Elon Musk’s Starlink rolls out in the Kimberley in what could be a game-changer for remote communities

Launched in Western Australia’s Kimberley, Starlink is bringing hope to remote communities suffering from poor internet access, but an expert says access may be too expensive for some.

Elon Musk’s 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, service in WA was limited to users south of Geraldton, but some in the area used RV mode to boost their poor internet connections.

The technology could help many in the Kimberley who are struggling with banking, contacting emergency services and education due to lack of internet connectivity.

Data shows that 11 per cent of Australians are “severely excluded” from digital services because they either don’t have internet access or don’t know how to use it.

Internet fights in East Kimberley

One East Kimberley community struggling with internet access is Woorreranginy, about 60km drive from Purnululu National Park.

Purnululu School principal Libby Lee Hammond said getting online is a daily challenge, meaning teachers often can’t deliver the classes they would like.

“There are days when we don’t have internet, and because our phones are all internet-based, we don’t have phones either,” she said.

Two indigenous students stand in front of a mural.
When the internet goes down at Purnululu School, it becomes difficult for teachers to deliver classes.(Delivered: Purnululu School)

“So we are completely cut off from communication with the outside world, which makes school operations very difficult.

“There are many educational resources that are now based online, so sometimes teachers are just prevented from delivering the program they planned.”

Ms Hammond said when things got hot in Woorreranginy, many turned on their air conditioning, overloaded the community’s diesel generator and cut the internet.

Worreranginy Community Members.
Accessing the internet in Woorreranginy is a struggle for many in the remote East Kimberley community.(Delivered: Purnululu School)

“Sometimes it’s a bit scary because in fire season we can’t know if there are fires nearby,” she said.

Ms Hammond said the school would likely look into using Starlink as a way to troubleshoot internet problems and hoped it would offer more reliability.

“Cost will be a big factor for us,” she said.

“We haven’t investigated that yet, but we’ll definitely take a close look at how to get on board as soon as it becomes available.”

Step forward, but there are downsides

RMIT University researcher Daniel Featherstone said the service could be a game changer for people in remote areas of the Kimberley region, but it still had its downsides.

An indigenous man sits outside in a chair, with a laptop on his lap and a phone to his ear.
Many remote Aboriginal communities face problems with internet access.(ABC Kimberley: Emily Jane Smith)

“Starlink is fantastic in that it’s really fast compared to the services currently available, including 4G or cellular coverage and Sky Muster,” he said.

“[But] it is much more expensive. It costs about $139 per month compared to some of the Sky Muster services which are more in the $60-$80 range.”

dr Featherstone traveled to the Kimberley and other parts of Australia this year to measure digital inclusion for a project being run by RMIT and Swinburne Universities.

A man sits at a desk and points to a tablet while two Aboriginal women look on.
dr Featherstone (left) visited remote communities in the Kimberley to measure their access to digital services.(Delivered: Daniel Featherstone)

He said Starlink has attracted interest from distant health organizations and has been recommended to arts centers in central Australia.

“Those kind of community agencies or local businesses … they might see Starlink as the solution to their needs,” he said.

“I think the challenge will be how to make this affordable and usable for Aboriginal people and communities, while those agencies or companies are likely to find it affordable.”