SpaceX on Monday announced the launch of Starlink in Alaska, the high-speed satellite Internet service that proponents say will broadcast broadband to every corner of the state.
Alaskans who signed up for the service said they’d like to try it. They expect it to provide a faster and cheaper service than GCI, the state’s largest telecommunications company.
But Starlink is just one of many 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 the satellites for the Internet. SpaceX’s Starlink uses a series of low-Earth orbit satellites to send high-speed signals to Earth. It was recently received rave reviews from the Pentagon after the US military discovered it provides high data and connectivity speeds at remote Arctic bases.
Arctic resident Bert Somers said Monday he would give the service a B so far. In an interview, he said he is too far out of town to get wireless internet from GCI.
On Monday, Somers installed his newly arrived Starlink dish on his roof. He first tested it on the snowy ground outside his home and wrote it down on his family’s YouTube video blog“Somers in Alaska.”
The Starlink Internet is fast, but the signal faltered every few minutes, usually a few 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 the moment,” he said.
Another concern is operational limits that don’t exceed 22 below zero, according to Starlink instructions, Somers said. Winter temperatures in Alaska may drop, but he could use a small stove in the future to warm up the dish if needed, he said.
The cost is a standard $600 for the equipment. It’s $110 a month, cheaper than broadband in the city, Somers said. Once the signal is good enough, he can save money by dropping one of the two cell phone carriers he and his wife, Jessica, use for slow internet at home, he said.
“We don’t have a lot of other options here, so I’m pretty excited about it,” he said. “I think this will be the future, and this will push the other internet companies to lower their prices if this becomes their competition.”
A level playing field for rural Alaska
Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman for GCI, said the company believes that fiber optic internet is the best way to deliver the fastest speeds and near-unlimited data to customers. The company is actively expanding fiber to other rural communities, she said.
The company has also built a microwave network that provides Internet throughout much of rural Alaska.
Handyside said GCI also recognizes that fiber optic internet is not viable for many of Alaska’s most remote communities. GCI is meeting with satellite providers to provide better service in those remote locations, she said.
“We are excited about the potential of low-Earth orbit satellites to help connect the most remote parts of Alaska and we are following closely as Starlink and other LEO-based providers deploy this new technology,” she said in a prepared statement. .
Handyside said the cost and speed of GCI internet plans vary depending on how internet is delivered to a location, such as fiber or microwave. Rural plans range between $60 and $300.
Rural residents often complain that the costs are much higher because they say that data limits are often quickly exceeded.
John Wallace, a technology contractor in Bethel, the largest community in western Alaska, said he recently got 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 offers at Bethel, for a third of the price and much more data, he said.
Wallace and others say Starlink will vastly expand opportunities in rural Alaska, where many communities still sometimes struggle with slow dial-up speeds. Affordability and internet capacity will improve significantly, greatly reducing costs for businesses, households and local governments, they say.
Wallace said Starlink will bring home 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 allow us to be on the same level as everyone else, and this is one of those things,” Wallace said.
Starlink not the first in Alaska
Another low-Earth satellite Internet service has been up and running in Alaska for more than a year, via London-based OneWeb satellites, said Shawn Williams of Pacific Dataport in Anchorage.
Pacific Dataport provides that broadband Internet service to some villages, Williams said.
So is Akiak, with a population of 500, in the Bethel area.
That internet has given families in Akiak a fast, cheaper broadband option in the village, allowing many to get broadband at home, said Mike Williams, Akiak tribal president and unrelated to Shawn Williams. He also chairs the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium, which sells the OneWeb signal to many village households for $75 a month, he said.
Mike Williams said there are still problems with the signal, but he said they are rare and will be fixed quickly. Service has improved over time, he said.
“We are seeing more and more people repairing home appliances through YouTube,” says Mike Williams. “We see opportunities for economic development, such as people selling furs and art. The kids use it for education and we have zoom capabilities. And hopefully, if 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 own high-tech satellite, the Aurora 4A, to provide satellite service across Alaska, Shawn Williams said.
Fiber optic is coming to many villages
In other efforts, the federal government has awarded about $700 million to companies and tribes for new Internet programs, focusing on expanding the skeletal fiber backbone in the state, according to Alaska Broadband Office officials.
That will expand broadband to about 80 other Alaskan communities in the next few years. The communities are now considered underserved or unserved because they lack high-speed internet.
Much of the federal money comes from the giant bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year by Congress.
The state’s broadband agency, newly established this year, also plans to secure more federal funding to bring high-speed broadband to even more villages, said Thomas Lochner, the office director.
“We have a very strong opportunity within the state to close the digital divide,” Lochner said. “With the transformative amounts of money the federal government is bringing to the state to connect all of these communities, I predict that within the next 10 years, 100% of Alaskan communities will be connected to a robust broadband system.”
GCI is part of a $73 million partnership to provide fiber optic cable to Bethel and several other villages, reaching more than 10,000 people in southwest Alaska. It is just one of several projects receiving federal funding.
It should be up and running in Bethel by 2024, followed by other communities, Handyside said.
Shawn Williams said fiber in Alaska is very expensive to provide per household, especially compared to the new satellite-based Internet.
“If we use fibre, it’s not cheap, and if we use satellite broadband, it’s much more cost-effective and deployment is also much faster, without environmental impact studies,” he said.
The fiber-based service won’t reach new villages for a few years or more, Akiak’s Mike Williams said. That means satellite-based broadband is the best option for many villages right now, whether through OneWeb or SpaceX satellites, he said.
“Having broadband internet for the past year has been great,” he said.
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