Telecom companies target rural Alaska for faster internet

OneWeb’s ground station in Talkeetna, Alaska — a park of satellite dishes that will transmit data from the satellites to local networks.

Many rural communities in Alaska are underserved when it comes to access to broadband internet, an issue that has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic when people have had to work and study from home. 

The City of Port Lions on Kodiak Island is one such community. While the city government, the school and the village buildings have the internet, service for residents is costly, sparse or nonexistent. 

“Right now, any connection to any satellite pretty far south in Alaska, you play a game of cat and mouse finding signal,” said Dorinda Kewan, the mayor of Port Lions. “The signal strength can be weak.”

While areas of Port Lions do have internet connections, the slow speed has made it difficult or impossible to conduct business or hold meetings over online conferencing tools such as Zoom.   

“We rarely have enough broadband or speed to use Zoom. It’s a hit-and-miss if we can do Zoom,” Kewan said. “We spent a great deal of money on the ability to teleconference to conduct business.” 

The village of Old Harbor has similar problems. Melissa Berns, the vice chairperson of the Old Harbor Native Corporation, said that as more people worked and studied from home, their village's Alaska Communications network was often “bogged down.”

She said that when students were studying at home at the height of the pandemic, they would have to call in to the school instead of using the internet to connect.

Other communities across Alaska experience similar issues. To fill in this service gap, various companies have started launching satellites that aim to better serve remote regions.

Starlink, a subsidiary of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and OneWeb are two such companies. 

OneWeb is focused on bringing broadband internet to hard-to-reach-places in Alaska and the Arctic first, before expanding globally. 

The company went bankrupt in March 2020 when the pandemic hit, but was purchased by the United Kingdom government and Bharti Global, a multinational company based in India, for $1 billion. They also raised $400 million from Softbank Group Corp. and Hughes Network Systems LLC. 

Lesil McGuire, a former Alaskan senator and a consultant for OneWeb, said the company’s first focus is Alaska. 

“Our system is about connecting hard-to-reach places,” McGuire said, adding that with its difficult terrain and spread-out population, Alaska is a good candidate for a network like OneWeb.

The company has already launched 110 satellites and plans to launch 650 more to be able to first service Alaska and the Arctic region, and later expand to the rest of the world. 

“The more satellites you add, the more time you get in a day,” said Katie Dowd, the company’s communications director. “By late spring over summer, we will have had the launches we need to ensure 24/7 coverage.”

McGuire said that while Ålaskans may be familiar with geostationary satellites like HughesNet or Dish Network, OneWeb's satellites are different. 

The company re-engineered their satellites, reducing them from the size of a school bus down to the size of a washing machine. 

They also launch their satellites into lower-Earth orbit about 745 miles from the planet’s surface, compared to typical geostationary satellites that orbit at 22,000 miles above Earth. 

Satellites in lower-Earth orbit are able to move faster, completing an orbit every 100 minutes. This decreases the likelihood of latency issues that cause dropped calls and interrupted internet connections. 

“Geostationary satellites are so far (away), the speed they are capable of delivering is not very fast and latency is very high,” Dowd said, adding that such issues make activities like telehealth and gaming impossible. 

OneWeb has established a ground station in Talkeetna — a park of satellite dishes that transmit data from the satellites to the local networks. Company representatives said this allows better coverage in Alaska. 

Dowd said the company hopes to be ready to launch its services in Alaska by the end of the year. But OneWeb will not sell directly to customers. As a wholesale company, OneWeb will sell its service to telecommunication companies that know where the gaps in service are in their respective areas of coverage. 

While OneWeb representatives could not give a specific price point for the service, they said they will work with their community partners on pricing. 

“It is a partnership with the provider to say what's the price line that's going to work for this community and be possible,” Dowd said. 

The mayor of Port Lions said she was unfamiliar with OneWeb’s services, but noted that SpaceX subsidiary Starlink promises to offer customers service in the Northern Hemisphere with an internet package priced at around $100. 

Similar to OneWeb, Starlink’s website promises to deliver low-latency, reliable internet in low-Earth orbit. It advertises speeds from 50-150Mbps for its beta version, compared to OneWeb’s 400Mbps or faster 

However, according to the Starlink beta webpage, as the company launches more satellites into space and builds more ground stations, the speed should increase. 

Port Lions Mayor Kewan said that telecommunications company TelAlaska has also applied for a grant to provide faster internet to her town. 

According to the company’s website, TelAlaska is applying for a Community Connect grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. Funding through the grant program would assist the company to bring fiber-optic cable to Port Lions, which would allow for internet speeds of up to 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload.

GCI received a similar grant of $25 million in federal funding to deploy fiber-optic cable to Aleutian communities. 

The project would run subsea fiber-optic cable from Kodiak Island along the south side of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians to Unalaska. 

Larsen Bay on Kodiak Island is among the six communities that will benefit from the service, according to a GCI press release. Kewan said Port Lions was excluded from the project, despite being near where the cable will be installed. 

GCI did not respond to requests for comment as to why Port Lions was not included in the project. 

 Although it remains to be seen which companies will best serve Alaska, residents in rural areas of Kodiak have reason to be optimistic about receiving better internet service. 

“We are hopeful for the first time in a long time to get some real service here in the next two to three years,” Kewan said. 

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