SpaceX on Monday announced Alaska’s launch of Starlink, its high-speed satellite Internet service that proponents say will deliver broadband to every corner of the state.
Alaskans who signed up for the service said they were eager to try it out. They expect it to provide faster and cheaper service than GCI, the state’s largest telecommunications company.
But Starlink is just one of several ongoing efforts that could transform telecommunications in the state, where more than 200 villages lack city-quality Internet service.
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-orbiting satellites to send fast signals to earth. Recently received rave reviews from the Pentagon after the US military discovered it provides high data and connectivity speeds to remote Arctic bases.
North Pole resident Bert Somers said Monday he would so far give the service a B. In an interview, he said it’s too far from the city to get cable internet from GCI.
On Monday, Somers installed his newly arrived Starlink dish on the roof. He tested it for the first time on the snowy ground outside his home, telling it in his family’s Video blogs on YouTube“Somer in Alaska”.
Starlink Internet is fast but the signal cuts out every few minutes, usually for several seconds, Somers said. He expects Starlink to improve as more satellites are deployed.
“I think it’s promising, but I don’t know if we’re firing on all cylinders at this point,” he said.
Another concern is operational limits not exceeding 22 below zero, per Starlink instructions, Somers said. Winter temperatures in Alaska may be lower, but in the future he could use a small heater to warm up the pot if needed, he said.
Costs are a standard $600 for equipment. It costs $110 a month, less than broadband in the city, Somers said. Once 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 many other options here, so I’m pretty excited,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the future, and that’s going to make other internet companies consider lowering their prices if that’s going to be their competition.”
A level playing field for rural Alaska
GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside said the company believes fiber-based internet is the best way to provide customers with faster speeds and nearly unlimited data. The company is actively rolling out fiber to other rural communities, she said.
The company also built a microwave network that supplies the Internet across much of rural Alaska.
Handyside said GCI also recognizes that fiber-based internet is not feasible for many of Alaska’s more remote communities. GCI is meeting with satellite providers to help it provide better service in those remote locations, she said.
“We are excited about the potential of low-Earth orbit satellites to help connect the remotest parts of Alaska and have been monitoring closely as Starlink and other LEO-based providers roll out this new technology,” it said in a prepared statement.
Handyside said the cost and speed of GCI Internet plans vary depending on how the Internet is provided in a location, such as via fiber or microwave. Rural plans range from $60 to $300.
Rural residents often complain that costs are much higher because they say data caps can often be quickly exceeded.
John Wallace, a technology contractor in Bethel, the largest community in western Alaska, said he recently received a notification from Starlink that his equipment is on its way.
When it arrives, its Internet service will be several times faster than what GCI currently provides in Bethel, for a third of the price and far more data, he said.
Wallace and others say Starlink will greatly expand opportunities in rural Alaska, where many communities still struggle with slow speed dial-up access at times. Internet accessibility and capacity will improve substantially, dramatically reducing costs for businesses, households and local governments, they say.
Wallace said Starlink will bring capabilities to the home that only the school and clinic previously enjoyed. More people will be able to engage in e-commerce, remote work, online learning and many other fields.
“There are very few things we get in rural Alaska that allow us to be on an equal footing with everyone else, and this is one of those things,” Wallace said.
Starlink is not the first in Alaska
Another low-orbit satellite Internet service has been active in Alaska for more than a year, through London-based OneWeb satellites, Shawn Williams said, with Pacific Dataport in Anchorage.
Pacific Dataport provides that broadband Internet service to some villages, Williams said.
This includes Akiak, population 500, in the Bethel region.
The Internet has given Akiak families a fast and affordable broadband option in the village, allowing many to get broadband at home, said Mike Williams, Akiak tribal chairman and no relation to Shawn Williams. He also chairs the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium, which sells the OneWeb signal to many village families for $75 a month, he said.
Mike Williams said there are still problems with the signal, but he said they are rare and are fixed quickly. The service has improved over time, he said.
“We’re seeing more people fixing appliances via YouTube,” said Mike Williams. “We are seeing opportunities for economic development, like people selling furs and artwork. Kids use it for education and we have Zoom capabilities. And hopefully when we have some health issues, we can get this information online about what’s going on with our health.”
Early next year, Pacific Dataport also plans to launch its own high-tech satellite, Aurora 4A, to provide satellite services throughout Alaska, Shawn Williams said.
Fiber that arrives in many villages
In other efforts, the federal government has awarded about $700 million to corporations and tribes for new Internet programs, aimed at expanding the skeletal fiber-optic backbone in the state, according to Alaska Broadband Office officials.
This will expand broadband to approximately 80 other Alaskan communities over the next few years. Communities are now considered underserved or underserved because they lack high-speed Internet.
Much of the federal money comes from the giant bipartisan infrastructure act past last year by Congress.
The state’s newly created Broadband Office also plans to secure more federal funding to bring high-speed broadband to even more villages this year, said Thomas Lochner, director of the office.
“We have a very strong opportunity within the state to bridge the digital divide,” Lochner said. “With the transformative amounts of funding the federal government is bringing to the state to connect all of these communities, within the next 10 years, I predict that 100 percent of Alaska’s communities will be connected with a robust broadband system.”
GCI is part of a partnership that was awarded $73 million to deliver fiber cable to Bethel and several other villages, reaching more than 10,000 people in Southwest Alaska. It is just one of the projects receiving federal funding.
He is expected to be serving Bethel in 2024, followed by other communities, Handyside said.
Shawn Williams said fiber in Alaska is very expensive to provide per household, especially compared to newer satellite Internet.
“When we use fiber, it’s not cheap, and when we use satellite broadband, it’s much cheaper and also the deployment is much faster, without environmental impact studies,” he said.
The fiber-based service won’t reach new villages for another few years or more, Akiak’s Mike Williams said. That means satellite broadband is the best option for many villages right now, whether through OneWeb or SpaceX satellites, he said.
“It’s been wonderful to have broadband internet over the past year,” she said.
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