If a UFO pops up soon in the cattle fields surrounding Robertsdale, it’s actually likely to be one of the first signs of an ambitious, $10 billion scheme to beam the internet around the world with a network of 42,000 small, low-orbit satellites.
Project Starlink, an enterprise of SpaceX, deployed the first batch of 60 of these satellites in May and another 60 in June, and they are expected to eventually communicate with a worldwide network of ground stations like the one in Robertsdale, one of the first of a global network expected to total 1 million.
“It looks like a UFO on a stick,” is how SpaceX founder Elon Musk described the bulbous little antenna, less than two yards in diameter, that comprises a ground station.
Robertsdale, in south Baldwin County, is one of six locations recently approved by the FCC for a test of the Starlink ground network.
SpaceX has applied to the FCC for approval to deploy up to one million ground stations. But to speed FCC approval for a first test batch, the company emphasized the role Starlink can play in delivering broadband to underserved rural populations.
All of the communities chosen for the first six ground stations well fit the rural delivery narrative.
Besides Robertsdale, they are: Hitterdal, Minnesota; Tionesta, California; Baxley, Georgia; Butte, Montana, and Colburn, Idaho.
Hitterdal is an unincorporated community of 211 in northern Minnesota near Fargo and next door to the Goose Prairie State Wildlife Management Area.
Tionesta is an unincorporated community of 978 in a remote area of northern California near Lava Beds National Monument, a desert wilderness with volcanic crevices, caves and ancient rock drawings.
Baxley, population 4,694, is just north of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where the newspaper cartoon Pogo was set with a cast of oddball backwoods characters.
Colburn is an unincorporated community of 300 in northern Idaho, on the edge of the Kaniksu National Forest, near the Canadian border.
Butte, Montana, population 35,000, is home to a gargantuan hole in the ground left by the world’s largest open pit copper mine, the Berkley Pit, whose lagoon of polluted drainage is called the Lake of Death.
Robertsdale, Alabama, population 5,276, is easily the most livable of the six. It’s near the booming coastal cities of Fairhope and Daphne, though not so booming itself. It’s surrounded by cattle farms, the big local events are the cowboy rodeos at the Robertsdale Fairgrounds, and it’s the birthplace of Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook.
Humble as this placement of the first six of SpaceX ground stations seems, it’s not early in the company’s Starlink timeline. SpaceX says it plans to deploy 1,584 of its 570-pound satellites to reach near-global service by late 2021 or 2022.