SpaceX on Monday announced the Alaskan launch of Starlink, its high-speed satellite Internet service that proponents say will bring broadband to every corner of the state.
Alaskans who signed up for the service said they are keen to try it. They expect it to offer faster and cheaper service than GCI, the state’s largest telco.
But Starlink is just one of several ongoing efforts that could transform telecoms in the state, where more than 200 villages lack city-quality internet service.
SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, builds and launches rockets that take equipment into space, including satellites for the internet. SpaceX’s Starlink uses a series of low-Earth orbit satellites to send high-speed signals to Earth. It recently received rave reviews from the Pentagon after the US military found it offered high data and connectivity rates at remote arctic bases.
North Pole resident Bert Somers said Monday he would give the service a 2 so far. In an interview, he said he was too far out of town to get wired internet from GCI.
Somers installed his newly arrived Starlink dish on his roof on Monday. He first tested it on the snowy ground in front of his house and documented it on his family’s YouTube video blog, Somers in Alaska.
Starlink internet is fast, but the signal has been disrupting every few minutes, usually for a few seconds, Somers said. He expects Starlink to improve as more satellites are deployed.
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“I think it’s promising, but I don’t know if we’re firing on all guns at this point,” he said.
Another issue is operating limits that don’t exceed 22 below zero, according to Starlink instructions, Somers said. Alaskan winter temperatures can get lower, but he could use a small heater in the future to warm the dish if needed, he said.
The default cost is $600 for 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 two cellphone providers 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,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the future, and that’s going to make the other internet companies lower their prices if that’s going to be their competition.”
Level playing field for rural Alaska
Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman for GCI, said the company believes fiber-based Internet is the best way to provide customers with the fastest speeds and near-unlimited data. The company is actively expanding fiber to more 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 most remote communities. GCI is meeting with satellite-based providers to help them provide better service in these remote locations, she said.
“We’re excited about the potential of satellites in low-Earth orbit that can help connect the most remote parts of Alaska, and we’ve been closely following how Starlink and other LEO-based providers are using this new technology,” she said in a prepared Explanation.
According to Handyside, the cost and speed of GCI Internet plans vary depending on how the Internet is provided in a location, e.g. B. by fiber optics or microwave. Rural plans range from $60 to $300.
Rural residents often complain that the costs are much higher, saying data limits can often be exceeded quickly.
John Wallace, a technology entrepreneur in Bethel, the largest community in western Alaska, said he recently received a notification from Starlink that his equipment was on its way.
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When it arrives, its internet service will be many times faster than what GCI is currently offering at Bethel for a third of the price and a lot 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 significantly, significantly reducing costs for businesses, families and local governments, they say.
Wallace said Starlink will bring capacity to the home previously only available to the school and clinic. More people will be able to engage 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 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 available in Alaska for more than a year via the London-based OneWeb satellites with Pacific Dataport in Anchorage, Shawn Williams said.
Pacific Dataport is providing this broadband Internet service to some villages, Williams said.
This includes Akiak with 500 inhabitants 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 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 glitches in the signal, but he said they are rare and will be fixed quickly. The service has improved over time, he said.
“We’re seeing more and more people repairing appliances through YouTube,” said Mike Williams. “We see economic development opportunities, like people selling furs and artworks. The kids use it for educational purposes and we have zoom capabilities. And if we have health issues, hopefully 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 services across Alaska, Shawn Williams said.
Fiber optic comes to many villages
In another effort, the federal government has given about $700 million to businesses and tribes for new Internet programs, with a focus on expanding the state’s fiber-optic skeleton backbone, officials with the Alaska Broadband Office said.
This will expand broadband to approximately 80 additional 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 gargantuan bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year.
The country’s new broadband agency created this year also plans to secure more federal funding to bring high-speed broadband to even more villages, said Thomas Lochner, the agency’s chief.
“We have a very big opportunity within the country to close the digital divide,” Lochner said. “With the transformative amounts of money the federal government is giving the state to connect all of these communities, I expect that within the next 10 years, 100% of Alaska’s communities will be connected to a robust broadband system.”
GCI is part of a $73 million partnership to deliver fiber optic 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 operational in Bethel in 2024, followed by other communities, Handyside said.
Shawn Williams said that deploying fiber in Alaska is very expensive per household, especially when compared to the new satellite-based internet.
“If we’re running fiber it’s not cheap, and if we’re running satellite broadband it’s much cheaper and much quicker to deploy, with no environmental impact studies,” he said.
The 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 it’s via OneWeb or SpaceX satellites, he said.
“It’s been wonderful to have broadband internet over the past year,” he said.
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