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 have signed up for the service said they are eager to try it out. They hope it will 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 towns 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 satellites in low Earth orbit to send fast signals to Earth. It recently received rave reviews from the Pentagon after the US military discovered that it provides high data rates and connectivity to remote Arctic bases.
North Pole resident Bert Somers said Monday he would give the service a B so far. In an interview, he said that he is too far from the city to get cable 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 house, posting it on his family’s YouTube video blog, “Somers in Alaska.”
Starlink’s Internet is fast, but the signal drops every few minutes, usually for several seconds, Somers said. He expects Starlink to improve as more satellites are deployed.
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“I’m thinking it’s promising, but I don’t know if we’re firing on all cylinders right now,” he said.
Another concern is operating limits that do not exceed 22 below zero, per Starlink’s instructions, Somers said. Winter temperatures in Alaska can be lower than that, but he could use a small heater in the future to heat the dish if needed, he said.
Costs are a standard $600 for the kit. It’s $110 a month, cheaper than broadband in the city, Somers said. Once the signal is good enough, he can save money by leaving 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 very excited,” he said. “I think this will be the future, and this will make other internet companies consider lowering their prices if this is going to 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 bring the fastest speeds and nearly unlimited data to customers. The company is actively extending the fiber to other rural communities, she said.
The company has also built a microwave network that provides Internet to much of rural Alaska.
Handyside said that 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 better serve those remote locations, he said.
“We are excited about the potential for Low Earth Orbit satellites to help connect the most remote parts of Alaska and have been closely monitoring how Starlink and other LEO-based providers implement this new technology,” he said in a prepared statement. .
Handyside said the cost and speed of GCI’s Internet plans vary, depending on how Internet is delivered to a location, such as fiber or microwave. Rural plans range from $60 to $300.
Rural residents often complain that the 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 saying his equipment is on the way.
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When it arrives, its Internet service will be several times faster than what GCI currently provides at 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 struggle with slow dial-up speeds at times. Internet affordability and capacity will improve substantially, drastically reducing costs for businesses, families and local governments, they say.
Wallace said Starlink will bring capacity to the home previously enjoyed only by the school and clinic. More people will be able to 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 level as everyone else, and this is one of those things,” Wallace said.
Starlink is not the first in Alaska
Another low-Earth orbit 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.
That includes Akiak, population 500, in the Bethel region.
That internet has given Akiak families a faster, cheaper broadband option in town, 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 OneWeb’s signal to many households in the village for $75 a month, he said.
Mike Williams said there are still signal glitches, but said they are rare and are fixed quickly. The service has improved over time, he said.
“We’re seeing more people fixing appliances on YouTube,” said Mike Williams. “We are seeing economic development opportunities, like people selling furs and art. The kids are using it for education and we have Zoom capabilities. And hopefully, when we have some 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, Aurora 4A, to provide satellite service in Alaska, Shawn Williams said.
Fiber reaching many towns
In other efforts, the federal government has awarded about $700 million to businesses and tribes for new Internet programs, with a focus on expanding the skeletal fiber-optic backbone in the state, according to officials with the Office of Broadband. from Alaska.
That will extend broadband to about 80 more Alaskan communities in the coming years. Communities are now considered underserved or underserved because they lack high-speed internet.
Much of the federal money comes from the gigantic 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 more towns, said Thomas Lochner, the office’s director.
“We have a great opportunity within the state to close the digital divide,” Lochner said. “With the transformative amounts of funding the federal government is providing the state to connect all of these communities, within the next 10 years, I predict that 100% of Alaskan 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’s just one of the projects receiving federal funding.
It should be in service at Bethel in 2024, followed by other communities, Handyside said.
Shawn Williams said that fiber in Alaska is very expensive to deliver per household, especially compared to the new satellite internet.
“When we use fiber, it’s not cheap, and when we use satellite broadband, it’s much more cost-effective and deployment is also much faster, without environmental impact studies,” he said.
Fiber-based service won’t reach new villages for a few years or more, said Akiak’s Mike Williams. 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 for the last year,” he said.
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