Starlink begins providing high-speed satellite Internet in Alaska


SpaceX on Monday announced The launch of Starlink in Alaska will bring broadband to every corner of the state, according to proponents of its high-speed satellite Internet service.

Alaskans who signed up said they were 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 a state where more than 200 villages lack city-quality internet service.

SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, develops and launches rockets that deliver equipment into space, including satellites for the Internet. SpaceX’s Starlink uses a series of low-orbit satellites to send high-speed signals to Earth. The U.S. military recently received glowing reviews from the Pentagon after it discovered it was providing high data and communication speeds at remote Arctic bases.

North Pole resident Bert Somers said Monday he would give the service a B so far. In the interview, he said he was too far out of town to get wireline internet from GCI.

On Monday, Somers installed his newly arrived Starlink dish on his roof. He first tested it in the snow outside his home, which he recorded on his family’s YouTube video blog, “Some in Alaska.”

Somers says Starlink internet is fast, but the signal drops out every few minutes, usually for a few seconds. He expects Starlink to improve as more satellites are deployed.

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“I think it’s promising, but I don’t know that we’re firing on all cylinders at this point,” he said.

Another concern is zero-to-22 transaction limits, according to Starlink guidelines, Somers said. Winter temperatures in Alaska can drop below that, but if needed, he said he could use a small heater to heat food in the future.

Costs are a standard $600 for the gear. That’s $110 a month, cheaper than broadband in the city, Somers said. Once the signal was good enough, he and his wife, Jessica, said they could save money by ditching one of the two cell phone providers they use for slow home Internet.

“We don’t have a lot of other options here, so I’m really excited,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the future, and it’s going to make other Internet companies think about lowering their prices if they’re going to have competition.”

A level playing field for rural Alaska

GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside 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, he said.

The company has also built a microwave network that provides internet in most rural Alaska.

Handyside said GCI also recognizes that fiber-based internet is not available to many of Alaska’s most remote communities. GCI is meeting with satellite-based providers to help provide better service in these remote locations, he said.

“We are excited about the potential of low-earth orbit satellites to help connect the most remote parts of Alaska, and we are watching closely as Starlink and other LEO-based providers deploy this new technology,” he said.

Handyside said the price and speed of GCI internet plans vary depending on how the internet is delivered in a location, such as fiber or microwave. Village plans range from $60 to $300.

Villagers often complain about higher costs because data limits are often exceeded.

John Wallace, a tech contractor in Bethel, western Alaska’s largest community, said he recently received a notice from Starlink saying his equipment was 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, at a third of the price and more.

Wallace and others say Starlink will greatly expand access in rural Alaska, where many communities still struggle with sometimes slow dial-up speeds. Accessibility and internet capacity will improve significantly, dramatically reducing costs for businesses, families and local governments, they say.

Wallace said Starlink will bring home facilities previously only available to the school and clinic. More people will be able to engage in e-commerce, remote working, online learning and many other areas.

“We get very few things in rural Alaska that allow us to stand on the same plane as everybody else, and this is one of them,” Wallace said.

Starlink is not the first in Alaska

Shawn Williams of Pacific Dataport in Anchorage said there is another low-orbit satellite internet service in Alaska via OneWeb satellites based in London.

Pacific Dataport provides broadband Internet service to some villages, Williams said.

This includes 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 and allowed many to get broadband at home, said Mike Williams, president of the Akiak tribe and no relation to Shawn Williams. He also chairs the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium, which sells OneWeb signal to many rural households for $75 a month.

Mike Williams said there were still some signal glitches, but he said they were rare and resolved quickly. According to him, the service has improved over time.

“We’re seeing more people repairing appliances through YouTube,” said Mike Williams. “We see opportunities for economic development, like people selling furs and artwork. Kids use it for education and we have Zoom capabilities. And I hope that when we have some health problems, we can get information online about what’s going on with our health.

Shawn Williams plans to launch his high-tech satellite, Aurora 4A, to provide satellite service across Alaska at Pacific Dataport early next year.

Fiber is coming to many villages

In other efforts, the federal government has awarded about $700 million to companies and tribes for new Internet applications, with a focus on expanding the state’s skeletal fiber-optic backbone, according to officials with the Alaska Broadband Office.

It will expand broadband to 80 more Alaska 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 a massive bipartisan infrastructure act passed by Congress last year.

The state’s newly created broadband office this year also plans to secure more federal funding to bring high-speed broadband to more villages, said office director Thomas Lochner.

“We have a very strong opportunity to address the digital divide across the state,” Lochner said. “With the transformative funding the federal government is bringing to the state to connect all 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 bring fiber cable to Bethel and several other villages in southwest Alaska, serving more than 10,000 people. This is just one of the projects receiving federal funding.

Handyside said he should serve in Bethel in 2024 and then in other communities.

Shawn Williams said it’s too expensive to get fiber to every home in Alaska, especially compared to the new satellite-based internet.

“When we run fiber, it’s not cheap, and when we do satellite broadband, it’s much more cost-effective and much faster to deploy without environmental impact studies,” he said.

Akiak’s Mike Williams said fiber-based service won’t reach new villages for several years or more. This means that satellite-based broadband is currently the best option for many villages, whether via OneWeb or SpaceX satellites.

“Having broadband over the last year has been great,” he said.

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