Starlink begins providing high-speed satellite internet in Alaska

SpaceX on Monday 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 are eager to try it out. They expect it to provide faster and cheaper service than GCI, the largest state-owned 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 send 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 revealed it offers high data and connectivity rates at 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 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, chronicling it on his family’s YouTube video blog, Some in Alaska.

Starlink Internet is fast, but the signal dropped 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 cylinders at this point,” he said.

Another concern is operational limits that don’t exceed 22 below zero, according to Starlink guidelines, Somers said. Winter temperatures in Alaska can be colder than that, but he could use a small heater in the future to warm the dish if needed, he said.

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Costs are $600 standard for the device. It’s $110 a month, cheaper than broadband in the city, Somers said. Once the signal is good enough, he can save money by ditching one of the two cell phone 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 very excited about it,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the future, and it’s going to make other Internet companies consider lowering their prices if that’s 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 deliver the fastest speeds and nearly unlimited data to customers. The company is actively extending 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 GCI also recognizes that fiber-based Internet is not feasible for many of Alaska’s more remote communities. GCI is meeting with satellite-based providers to help it provide better service in those remote locations, she said.

“We’re excited about the potential of low-earth orbit satellites to help connect the most remote parts of Alaska, and we’ve been watching closely as Starlink and other LEO-based providers deploy this new technology,” said she in a prepared statement.

Handyside said the cost and speed of GCI Internet plans vary, depending on how the Internet is delivered in a location, such as fiber or microwave. Rural plans range between $60 and $300.

Rural residents often complain that costs go much higher because they say data caps can often be exceeded quickly.

John Wallace, a technology contractor in Bethel, the largest community in Western Alaska, said he recently received a notice from Starlink saying his equipment is on the way.

[Earlier coverage: Alaska ramps up effort to land billions in federal funding to close digital divide]

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When it arrives, its Internet service will be several times faster than what GCI currently offers 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 struggle with sometimes slow phone speeds. Internet affordability and capacity will improve significantly, significantly lowering costs for businesses, households and local governments, they say.

Wallace said Starlink will bring capacity to the home that only schools and clinics previously enjoyed. More people will be able to engage in e-commerce, remote work, online learning and many other areas.

“There are very few things we get in rural Alaska that allow us to stay on the same plane as everybody 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 deployed 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 several villages, Williams said.

This includes Akiak, 500 inhabitants, in the Bethel region.

This internet has given Akiak families a faster and 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 rural households for $75 a month, he said.

Mike Williams said there are still glitches with the signal, but he said they are rare and quickly addressed. The service has improved over time, he said.

“We’re seeing more people fixing home appliances through YouTube,” said Mike Williams. “We’re seeing economic development opportunities, like people selling furs and artwork. Kids are using it for education and we have Zoom capability. And hopefully when we have some health issues, we can get that information online about what’s going on with our health.”

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Early next year, Pacific Dataport also plans to launch its high-tech satellite, the Aurora 4A, to provide satellite service throughout 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 state’s skeletal fiber-optic backbone, according to officials with the Alaska Broadband Office.

This will expand broadband to approximately 80 more Alaskan communities in the coming years. Communities are now considered underserved or underserved because they lack high-speed Internet.

Most of the federal money comes from the giant bipartisan infrastructure act passed last year by Congress.

The state 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’s director.

“We have a very strong opportunity within the state to close the digital divide,” Lochner said. “With the transformative amounts of funding the federal government is bringing to the state to connect all these communities, within the next 10 years, I predict that 100% of Alaska’s communities will be connected to a robust broadband system.”

GCI is part of a partnership awarded $73 million to deliver fiber 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 at Bethel in 2024, followed by other communities, Handyside said.

Shawn Williams said fiber in Alaska is too expensive to roll out on a per-household basis, especially compared to new satellite-based internet.

“When we use fiber, it’s not cheap, and when we do satellite broadband, it’s much more effective and the deployment is also much faster, without environmental impact studies,” he said.

Fiber-based service won’t reach new villages for several years or more, said Mike Williams of Akiak. That means satellite-based broadband is the best option for many villages right now, either through OneWeb or SpaceX satellites, he said.

“It’s been great to have broadband for the past year,” he said.

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