SpaceX on Monday announced the launch of Starlink in Alaska, its high-speed satellite Internet service that supporters say will beam broadband to every corner of the state.
Alaskans who have signed up for the service said they like to try it. They expect it to provide faster, 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 deliver gear into space, including the Internet satellites. SpaceX’s Starlink uses a series of low-Earth orbiting satellites to send fast signals to Earth. It recently received glowing reviews from the Pentagon after the US military found it provides high data and connectivity rates at remote Arctic bases.
North Pole resident Bert Somers said on Monday that he would give the service a B so far. In an interview, he said he is too far out of town to get wired 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 about it on his family’s YouTube video blog, “Somers in Alaska.”
The 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 at this point,” he said.
Another concern is operational limits that are no more than 22 below zero, according to the Starlink instructions, Somers said. Winter temperatures in Alaska can get lower than that, but he may use a small heater in the future to heat the dish as needed, he said.
The cost is a standard $600 for the gear. 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 two cellphone 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 this will be the future, and this will make the other Internet companies to lower their prices if this will be their competition.”
A level playing field for rural Alaska
Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman for GCI, said the company believes fiber-based Internet is the best way to deliver the fastest speeds and nearly unlimited data to customers. The company is actively expanding fiber to additional rural communities, she said.
The company has also built a microwave network that provides internet across much of rural Alaska.
Handyside said GCI also recognizes that fiber-based Internet is not feasible for many of Alaska’s most remote communities. GCI is meeting with satellite-based providers to help it provide better service in those remote locations, she said.
“We are excited about the potential of low-earth satellites to connect the most remote parts of Alaska and we have been watching 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 at a location, such as through fiber or microwave. Rural plans range between $60 and $300.
Residents of rural areas often complain that the costs are much higher because they say that data limits can often be exceeded quickly.
John Wallace, a technology contractor in Bethel, the largest community in western Alaska, said he recently received a notification from Starlink that his gear is on its way.
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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 much more data, he said.
Wallace and others say Starlink will greatly expand opportunities in rural Alaska, where many communities still sometimes struggle with slow dial-up speeds. Affordability and internet capacity will improve substantially, greatly reducing costs for businesses, families and local governments, they say.
Wallace said Starlink will bring capacity to the home that only the school and clinic previously enjoyed. More people can participate in e-commerce, remote work, online learning and many other fields.
“There are very few things that we get in rural Alaska that allow us to be on the same plane as everybody else, and this is one of those things,” Wallace said.
Starlink not the first in Alaska
Another low-earth satellite Internet service has been in place in Alaska for more than a year, via London-based OneWeb satellites, said Shawn Williams, with Pacific Dataport in Anchorage.
Pacific Dataport provides that broadband Internet service to some villages, Williams said.
That includes Akiak, population 500, in the Bethel region.
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 no relation 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 that there are still glitches with the signal, but he said that they are rare and will be addressed soon. The service has improved over time, he said.
“We’re seeing more people fixing home appliances through YouTube,” Mike Williams said. “We see opportunities for economic development, like people selling furs and artwork. The kids use it for education, and we have Zoom capabilities. And hopefully if we have some health issues, we can get that information online about something something happens to our health.
Early next year, Pacific Dataport also plans to launch its own high-tech satellite, the Aurora 4A, to provide satellite services over Alaska, Shawn Williams said.
Fiber comes to many villages
In other efforts, the federal government has awarded about $700 million to companies and tribes for new Internet programs, with a focus on expanding the skeletal fiber-optic backbone in the state, according to officials with the Alaska Broadband Office.
That will expand broadband to about 80 more Alaska communities in the coming 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 by Congress last year.
The state’s broadband office, newly created 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 transformational amounts of funding that the federal government is bringing to the state to connect all of these communities, I predict that within the next 10 years, 100% of Alaska communities will be connected to a robust broadband system.”
GCI is part of a partnership that has been awarded $73 million 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 the projects receiving federal funding.
It should be in service 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 run fiber optic, it’s not cheap, and if we do satellite broadband, it’s much more cost-effective and the 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, said Mike Williams of Akiak. That means satellite-based broadband is the best option for many villages right now, whether it’s through OneWeb or SpaceX satellites, he said.
“It’s been wonderful to have broadband internet over the past year,” he said.
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