SpaceX last week announced the launch of Starlink in Alaska, its high-speed satellite internet service that advocates say will beam broadband to every corner of the state.
Alaskans who have signed up for the service said they’re eager 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 satellites for internet. SpaceX’s Starlink uses a series of low-Earth-orbiting satellites to send speedy signals to earth. It recently received glowing reviews from the Pentagon after the U.S. military found it provides high data and connectivity rates at remote Arctic bases.
North Pole resident Bert Somers said Monday that he’d give the service a B so far. In an interview, he said he’s too far outside of town to get wire-delivered 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, chronicling it on his family’s YouTube video blog, “Somers in Alaska.”
The Starlink internet is fast but the signal glitched every few minutes, usually for several seconds, Somers said. He expects Starlink to improve as more satellites are deployed.
“I’m thinking it shows promise, but I don’t know if we’re firing on all cylinders at this point,” he said.
Another concern are operational limits that don’t exceed 22 below zero, according to the Starlink instructions, Somers said. Winter temperatures in Alaska can get lower than that, but he might use a small heater in the future to warm the dish if needed, he said.
The costs are a standard $600 for the gear. It’s $110 monthly, cheaper than broadband in town, Somers said. Once the signal is good enough, he can save money by dropping one of two cellphone providers that 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 consider lowering their prices if this will be their competition.”
A level playing field for rural Alaska
Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman with GCI, said the company believes fiber-based internet is the best way to deliver the fastest speeds and almost unlimited data to customers. The company is actively extending fiber to additional rural communities, she said.
The company also has built a microwave network that delivers internet across 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 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 most remote parts of Alaska and we’ve been tracking 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 in a location, such as by fiber or microwave. Rural plans range between $60 and $300.
Rural residents often complain that the costs go much higher because they say data limits can often be quickly exceeded.
John Wallace, a technology contractor in Bethel, the largest community in Western Alaska, said he recently got a notification from Starlink saying his gear is on its way.
When it arrives, his 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 vastly expand opportunities in rural Alaska, where many communities still struggle with slow dial-up speed at times. Affordability and internet capacity will improve substantially, sharply lowering 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 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 stand 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-orbiting satellite internet service has been in place in Alaska for more than a year, through 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 monthly, he said.
Mike Williams said there are still glitches with the signal, but he said they are rare and are addressed quickly. The service has improved over time, he said.
“We’re seeing more people fixing household appliances through YouTube,” Mike Williams said. “We’re seeing economic development opportunities, like people selling furs and artwork. 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 on 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 coming 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 extend 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 is coming from the giant bipartisan infrastructure act passed last year by Congress.
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 the transformational amounts of funding the federal government is bringing to the state to connect all of these communities, within the next 10 years, I predict 100% of Alaska communities will be connected with a robust broadband system.”
GCI is part of a partnership that’s been 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 in Bethel in 2024, followed by other communities, Handyside said.
Shawn Williams said fiber in Alaska is very expensive to deliver on a per-household basis, especially compared to the new satellite-based internet.
“When we run fiber, it’s not cheap, and when we do satellite broadband, it’s a lot more cost effective and deployment is a lot quicker too, without environmental impact studies,” he said.
The fiber-based service won’t be reaching new villages for another few years or more, Mike Williams of Akiak said. That means satellite-based broadband is the best option for many villages at the moment, whether it’s through OneWeb or SpaceX satellites, he said.
“It has been wonderful to have broadband internet for the past year,” he said.