When the call connects and I ask Angel Chavarin if I’m speaking to AWN-hell or AIN-gel, there’s a familiar pause. I can hear the faint echo of my own words finally reach the cellphone’s speaker on the other end of the line a few seconds later, and then a voice responds:
“Yep, it sure is. AIN-gel works. No one around here calls me AWN-hell except my dad.”
It’s a delay I recognize from using satellite phone connections while on assignment on the Alaskan tundra and other remote areas. The signal carrying my words must travel over 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) to a satellite in geostationary orbit and then another 22,000 miles back to Earth to reach the person on the other end of the call.
But Chavarin isn’t speaking to me from a satellite phone in the Alaskan wilderness or any other end of the Earth. The 40-year-old is on a regular cellphone in the tiny Oregon community of McKenzie Bridge, about 50 miles east of Eugene, where he helps run the general store, writes fantasy novels and, until recently, looked after his father, who is at extremely high risk from COVID-19.
“It’s pretty rural. There’s not a whole lot out here,” he says. “There’s little communities about every 10 miles or so, but about half of those have been destroyed.”
That destruction was wrought by the Holiday Farm wildfire, which tore through the region in September. One person died as the fire torched over 170,000 acres and a few small towns, as well as a lot of fiber-optic and copper lines that kept communities in the area online and in touch.
So now Chavarin’s cellphone might as well be a satellite phone. It’s connected to a temporary, mobile cell tower that certainly sounds as though it’s routing our conversation through geostationary orbit.
Such temporary infrastructure is his sole point of internet access, where the latency — those delays in the conversation — is also obvious. That made it hard for his father, who has a compromised immune system and has had pneumonia multiple times, to continue to work from home.
“Most everyone here was working from home anyway, and now they can’t do that.”
While 2020 has lumbered on in an epic conflagration of storms, fires, a global pandemic, recession and civil unrest, SpaceX has been scrambling to improve life a bit by creating a new kind of satellite service it calls Starlink. It’s technology that could be just the thing for folks like Chavarin and his dad.
It’s already been put to use by emergency responders helping with the rebuilding effort in the wildfire-torched town of Malden, in adjacent Washington state…Read more>>