SpaceX on Monday announced The launch of Starlink in Alaska, its high-speed satellite Internet service that advocates say will bring broadband to every corner of the state.
Alaskans who have signed up for the service said they want to try it. They expect it to provide faster and cheaper service than GCI, the country’s largest telecommunications company.
But Starlink is just one of several ongoing efforts that could transform telecommunications in a state where more than 200 villages lack city-quality Internet services.
SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, builds and launches rockets that carry equipment into space, including internet satellites. SpaceX’s Starlink uses a series of low-Earth orbit satellites to send fast signals to Earth. It recently received rave reviews from the Pentagon after the US military found it to provide high levels of data and connectivity at remote Arctic bases.
North Pole resident Bert Somers said Monday that he would give the service a B so far. He said in an interview that he is too far outside the city to get wired Internet from GCI.
On Monday, Somers installed the newly arrived Starlink dish on his roof. He first tried it on the snowy ground outside his home, recording it on his family’s YouTube vlog, “Somers in Alaska.”
Starlink Internet is fast, but the signal dropped out every few minutes, usually for several seconds, Somers said. He expects Starlink to improve as more satellites are deployed.
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“I think it shows promise, but I don’t know if we’re firing on all cylinders right now,” he said.
Another issue is operating limits, which do not exceed 22 below zero according to Starlink guidelines, Somers said. Winter temperatures in Alaska can get colder, he said, but in the future he might use a small heater to warm up the dish if needed.
Cost is a standard $600 per tool. That’s $110 a month, cheaper than broadband in the city, Somers said. When the signal is good enough, he can save money by ditching one of the two cell phone providers he and his wife, Jessica, use for slow home Internet, he said.
“We don’t have a lot of other options here, so I’m pretty excited about it,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the future, and it’s going to make other Internet companies consider lowering their prices if that’s their competition.”
A level playing field for rural Alaska
Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman for GCI, said the company believes fiber Internet is the best way to provide customers with the fastest speeds and nearly unlimited data. She said the company is actively expanding fiber to additional rural communities.
The company has also built a microwave network that provides Internet access to much of rural Alaska.
Handyside said GCI also recognizes that fiber Internet is not feasible for many of Alaska’s most remote communities. She said GCI is meeting with satellite service providers to help provide better service to these remote locations.
“We are excited about the potential of low-orbit satellites to help connect the most remote parts of Alaska, and we have been closely following Starlink and other LEO providers as they implement this new technology,” she said in a prepared statement.
Handyside said the cost and speed of GCI’s internet plans vary depending on how the internet is delivered to a particular location, such as via fiber or microwave. Country plans range from $60 to $300.
Rural residents often complain that the costs are much higher, as they say data limits can often be exceeded quickly.
John Wallace, a technology contractor in Bethel, Western Alaska’s largest community, said he recently received word from Starlink that his equipment was on its way.
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When it arrives, his Internet service will be several times faster than what GCI currently provides in Bethel, at a third of the price and with much more data, he said.
Wallace and others say Starlink will greatly expand opportunities in rural Alaska, where many communities still struggle with slow dial-up speeds. Accessibility and Internet capacity will improve significantly, drastically reducing costs for companies, families and municipalities, they say.
Wallace said Starlink will bring capacity previously enjoyed only by the school and clinic. More people will be able to engage in e-commerce, remote work, online learning and many other areas.
“There are very few things that we get in rural Alaska that put us on par with everybody else, and this is one of those things,” Wallace said.
Starlink is not the first in Alaska
Another low-orbit satellite Internet service in Alaska has been operating for more than a year using London-based OneWeb satellites, said Sean Williams of Pacific Dataport in Anchorage.
Pacific Dataport provides broadband Internet service to some villages, Williams said.
This includes Akiak, population 500, in the Bethel region.
The Internet has given families in Akiak a fast and less expensive broadband option in the village, allowing many to get broadband at home, said Mike Williams, president of the Akiak tribe and no relation to Shawn Williams. He also heads the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium, which sells a OneWeb signal to many village households for $75 a month, he said.
Mike Williams said there are still signal failures, but he said they are rare and are quickly fixed. The service has improved over time, he said.
“We’re seeing more and more people using YouTube to fix home appliances,” said Mike Williams. “We see opportunities for economic development, such as people selling furs and artwork. Kids use it for education and we have zoom capabilities. And hopefully when we have health issues, we can get that information online about what’s going on with our health.
Early next year, Pacific Dataport also plans to launch its high-tech Aurora 4A satellite to provide satellite service throughout Alaska, Sean Williams said.
The fiber reaches many villages
In other efforts, the federal government has awarded about $700 million to companies and tribes for new Internet programs focused on expanding the state’s fiber optic backbone, according to Alaska Broadband Office officials.
It will expand broadband service to approximately 80 more Alaskan communities in the coming years. Communities are now considered underserved or unserved because they lack high-speed Internet.
Much of the federal money comes from the massive bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year.
The state broadband office, newly created this year, also plans to secure more federal funding to bring high-speed broadband to even more villages, said office director Thomas Lochner.
“We have a very strong opportunity in the country to close the digital divide,” Lochner said. “Given the transformative amounts of funding that the federal government is giving the state to connect all of these communities, I predict that within the next 10 years, 100 percent of Alaska’s communities will be connected to a robust broadband system.”
GCI is part of a $73 million partnership to bring fiber optic cables to Bethel and several other villages, reaching more than 10,000 people in Southwest Alaska. This is just one of the projects receiving federal funding.
It should be up and running in Bethel in 2024, with other communities to follow, Handyside said.
Shawn Williams said that bringing fiber to every household in Alaska is very expensive, especially compared to the new satellite Internet.
“When we use fiber optic, it’s not cheap, and when we use satellite broadband, it’s much more cost-effective and deployment is also much faster, with no environmental impact studies,” he said.
Fiber-based service won’t reach new villages for another few years or more, said Mike Williams of Akiak. That means satellite-based broadband is now the best choice for many villages, whether it’s powered by OneWeb or SpaceX satellites, he said.
“Broadband has been amazing for the last year,” he said.
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