ALASKA NATIVE SPECIAL SECTION
Satellites Beyond the Northern Lights
Enhancing connectivity and quality of life in rural Alaska
By Tracy Barbour
I

nternet access in rural Alaska can be notoriously expensive, slow, and sometimes unreliable, making the prospect of low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite from OneWeb Technology, SpaceX’s Starlink, and Amazon’s Kuiper all the more intriguing for people living in remote villages and cities.

These impending services, along with next-generation geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) satellites, promise to dramatically improve internet connectivity and costs—as well as the quality of life for rural Alaskans.

But all of this remains to be seen as Alaska’s telecommunications companies and other stakeholders entertain the potential impact that LEO satellite service can have on rural connectivity. Regardless of the implications, industry experts maintain that the state needs LEO/GEO satellite-enabled broadband, combined with other technologies, to best meet the internet demands of all Alaskans. Some Alaska telecoms are collaborating to support these efforts; others are waiting and watching with guarded optimism.

OneWeb Technology
LEO satellites represent a promising technological solution for broadband internet, which is by FCC standards at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for download and 3 Mbps for upload speeds. LEO satellites generally orbit less than 1,400 kilometers above the earth—much closer than GEO satellites, which typically operate at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers.

Because LEOs circle the earth at lower altitudes, they can integrate with on-ground data networks to deliver internet service with less latency than their GEO counterparts. However, latency—the time it takes data to travel from the consumer to an internet exchange and back to the consumer—can be impeded by trees, poles, chimneys, and other objects.

Like GEOs, LEO technology is especially applicable for remote areas lacking access to the speed or capacity from terrestrial systems like fiber and microwave. In the future, LEOs and a new generation of GEO satellite providers aspire to deliver fast, reliable, low-latency, and more affordable internet that is comparable to the broadband service delivered over fiber.

OneWeb Satellite Constellation Progresses
While SpaceX, mostly owned by Elon Musk, and Amazon continue developing their plans to bring LEO satellite broadband to Alaska, London-based OneWeb recently fulfilled its capacity to deliver LEO satellite internet to the state. On July 1, OneWeb launched 36 additional satellites, bringing the constellation total to 254 in polar orbit for full coverage of Alaska. This will allow high-speed connectivity to be available from the North Pole to the 50th parallel, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic Region.

OneWeb is on track for full global coverage by June 2022 with a LEO constellation of 648 satellites, according to Lesil McGuire, a OneWeb advisor and former Alaska state senator. This latest development is momentous for Alaska and OneWeb, which was the first licensed LEO satellite constellation back in September 2017. “It’s exciting to be part of something that puts Alaska first,” McGuire says.

The prioritization of Alaska makes practical sense given that its 733,000 residents are spread across a massive state that is one-third the size of the contiguous United States. Some communities may have as few as 38 people, and they want connectivity—but they have been left behind in the “digital divide,” McGuire says. “We still have approximately 30,000 Alaskans that are completely unconnected and 150,000 that are under connected,” she explains. “Despite the decades of investments and hard work of existing telecoms, Alaska remains the least-connected state.”

OneWeb aims to change that by providing much-needed, low-latency satellite broadband. And OneWeb’s LEO constellation will generate a constant signal so that customers never lose the connectivity, which is crucial for the delivery of telehealth, remote education, and other essential services.

Astranis tests a flight antenna system

Astranis

Man posing for photo
Astranis tests a flight antenna system

Astranis

“What LEO will mean for us is we will be able to have faster speeds with lower ping times with better reliability. It’s going to be game-changing.”
Rolland Trowbridge, Owner
Trinity Sails and Repair
OneWeb Technology is owned by the UK government and Bharti Global, and its LEO constellation is a private-sector project that does not rely on funding from US or Alaska state governments, McGuire emphasizes. OneWeb offers the latest advancements in satellite technology, with satellites reduced from the size of a school bus to the size of a washing machine. Its satellites—which will remain in constant communication with OneWeb’s team—will roll over in a six-year lifecycle and then self-destruct once defunct. “Our satellites are designed to burn up completely upon re-entry,” McGuire explains.

Broadband internet, McGuire says, has now become a basic human necessity, and the infrastructure needs related to this technology are vast. Early pioneers have made strides with broadband, but each year the demand grows, and laying terrestrial fiber becomes more expensive. “The high latency that enterprises and households demand can only be delivered in short order by a company like OneWeb,” she says. “You can place a terminal in your community and you leapfrog over the years it takes to complete the permitting to lay terrestrial fiber. We think OneWeb is a perfect complement to terrestrial fiber. OneWeb will be the way Alaskans have the opportunity to experience fiber connectivity from the sky where broadband has not been available.”

So when will Alaskans be able to receive OneWeb’s LEO satellite service? It depends. McGuire explains: “We’re a wholesaler; I didn’t want to be part of something that would displace local economies and jobs. So we work with local internet service providers, and when the service will be available will depend on the local carriers.”

Nome resident Rolland Trowbridge can hardly wait to get OneWeb’s service. LEO satellite-based broadband will keep his business, Trinity Sails and Repair (TSR), from having to depend on the local infrastructure to survive. To create redundancy, TSR maintains multiple internet connections from various providers: a broadband connection at $1,000 a month for 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload service; another broadband connection that runs $350 monthly for 10 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload; and a satellite connection that costs $489 per month for 25 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload and with 600 milliseconds of latency or lag time.

The redundancy in connectivity is vital for TSR, which operates the Nome Department of Motor Vehicles office, performs automotive repair and diagnostics, and offers a variety of other technical services. If the internet goes down, TSR can’t research data, download software, or perform other critical business functions. “When the connection is down, we’re down,” Trowbridge says.

“What LEO will mean for us is we will be able to have faster speeds with lower ping times with better reliability,” he says. “It’s going to be game-changing.”

Pacific Dataport, OneWeb Middle-Mile Provider
In Alaska, OneWeb’s internet satellite service will not be sold directly to consumers like Trowbridge. Instead, the company will use middle-mile satellite provider Pacific Dataport to offer capacity to telecoms, schools, health clinics, and tribal organizations. Anchorage-based Pacific Dataport will be connected to the OneWeb LEO Network and will act as a wholesale provider, according to Shawn Williams, vice president of government affairs and strategy for Pacific Dataport.

GEO satellite technology is also an important part of the equation for enhancing internet connectivity in remote parts of the state, says Williams, a forty-year resident of Alaska, a member of the Karuk Tribe of California, and a former Assistant Commissioner of Commerce for the state of Alaska. That’s why Pacific Dataport is launching Aurora GEO HTS and Aurora GEO VHTS, which are more advanced than the legacy GEO satellite technology.

“The Aurora Network will have more than 100 Gbps [Gigabits per second] of capacity, and the OneWeb Network will have about 10 to 15 Gbps of capacity,” William says. “As you can tell, it’s only about 10 to 15 percent of what’s coming to Alaska, but it’s very high-quality capacity that provides very fast speeds and low latency for latency-sensitive applications.”

In the past, telecoms usually deployed fiber or microwave to reach the communities they wanted to serve, William says. But if the cost to install new middle mile was too high and the business case didn’t pencil out, that community was left behind. “By providing telecoms and others with the newest in GEO HTS satellite technology, they now have a very affordable middle mile that can be deployed anywhere—and no one gets left behind,” he says.

Microcom’s Talkeetna Alaska Teleport.

OneWeb Technology

Microcom’s Talkeetna Alaska Teleport.

OneWeb Technology

Satellites
The new satellite middle-mile options coming to Alaska will deliver new backhaul capabilities for both cellular and broadband expansion in the most remote areas. “It will enable more than eighty rural communities, which are completely unserved now, to launch their own 2.5 GHz tribal spectrum WISP [wireless internet service provider] systems and deploy broadband to their communities themselves,” Williams says. “This creates a sense of tribal sovereignty and independence knowing they won’t need to wait for a large company to deliver broadband. Satellite also preserves sacred tribal grounds. No environmental impact study is needed, and everything can be done wirelessly, if that’s what the tribe chooses.”

The Aurora Network’s GEO HTS satellites will be stationed over Alaska and cover 100 percent of the state. The first satellite is currently being built in San Francisco by Astranis and should launch in March. Alaska customers can expect to receive Aurora GEO HTS service the first quarter of 2022 and Aurora GEO VHTS service some time in 2023. The completed Aurora Network should lower the retail price of 25X3 (or faster) broadband in rural Alaska to about $99 a month, according to Williams.

“Before we start moving customers over to these satellites, we need to be confident in the providers’ abilities… There are no live LEO services in the state as of yet, and this is still a very new technology.”
William Wailand, SVP of Corporate Development
GCI
The Aurora GEO HTS satellite that Astranis is constructing is what’s known as a micro-GEO satellite. The scaled-down GEO satellite will hover 36,000 kilometers directly over Alaska, according to Astranis CEO John Gedmark. “This is the first time Alaska will have its own dedicated satellite,” he says. “That will mean all the capacity of the satellite is focused on Alaska. We will more than triple the available satellite bandwidth in Alaska. We can get a lot of communities online.”
Microcom to Offer OneWeb LEO Services to Consumers
Microcom, the founder of Pacific Dataport, has supplied satellite communication systems in Alaska for more than thirty-seven years. Microcom will be a direct-to-consumer provider of OneWeb LEO services in Alaska as well as Pacific Dataport’s Aurora GEO HTS services. Microcom owns and operates the Talkeetna Alaska Teleport that the OneWeb satellites will connect to in the region.

OneWeb LEO and Aurora GEO HTS satellites will have a profound impact on internet connectivity in rural Alaska, says Alexander Schumann, Microcom’s director of satellite broadband. “For the first time, there will be statewide service in Alaska,” he says. “No current internet provider or system serves the entire state or all Alaskans. These new services will be available to all Alaskans. These new services will also offer significantly faster speeds and higher data caps—all at cheaper prices than current offerings where service is available today.”

Rolland Trowbridge.

Astranis

Man next to satellite
Rolland Trowbridge.

Astranis

Consequently, more rural stakeholders will be able to engage in digital economies and participate in e-learning and tele-health services, online banking, and remote employment, Schumann says. “Internet connectivity will allow corporations, tribes, and villages better ability to communicate with their shareholders and provide employment opportunities,” he says. “Businesses will be able to expand to remote areas more easily. These satellite services will also provide redundant connectivity to areas where there is only one provider, therefore increasing reliability for critical communications.”

But the import of LEO and GEO satellite service extends beyond Alaska; it’s an Arctic issue, says Karen Jones, business and policy analyst at the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at The Aerospace Corporation. The independent nonprofit corporation performs objective technical analyses and assessments for various government, civil, and commercial customers, many of whom are keenly interested in the Arctic and how to best leverage new commercial satellite capabilities in the region.

“Now more than ever the polar region is increasingly important,” says Jones, who is based in Arlington, Virginia. “Allies have expanded their activities in the polar region. The US has a strong interest in protecting our interests in the Far North. The polar region is developing at a time when this commercial satellite can provide more connectivity.”

Naturally, Aerospace has been tracking the activities of OneWeb, Starlink, and other satellite-related entities. “We believe a combination of strategically aligned commercial and government assets can strategically help our connectivity in the polar region,” Jones says.

Astranis tests flight defined software.

Astranis

Astranis tests flight defined software.

Astranis

Cables
Perspective of Longtime Alaska Telecoms
Recently, Alaska Communications entered a distribution partner agreement to provide services directly to its customers in collaboration with OneWeb. At this time, Alaska Communications can work on LEO solutions for businesses and enterprises, local governments, schools, healthcare systems, and resource developers to meet individual needs, with expected commercial service available later this year, according to Jim Gutcher, vice president of strategy and product management at Alaska Communications. “We’re excited about the opportunities enabled by low-earth orbit satellites, and we believe this is good for Alaska,” he says. “We’re proud to be a distribution partner with OneWeb and look forward to creating new opportunities for Alaskans with this service.”

Gutcher says Alaska’s vast geography and terrain present many challenges, as an internet connectivity solution that works for one region of Alaska might not work for the next. “That’s why it’s important for technology providers to diversify their offerings to meet these unique challenges,” he says. “LEO satellites deliver fiber-like connectivity performance to areas that have been inaccessible via terrestrial options.”

Alaska Communications specializes in creating robust, reliable networks to fit its customers’ specific needs. In doing so, the company uses a variety of technologies across Alaska to connect customers with the services they want and need. “From traditional fiber to wireless methods like fixed wireless access and mesh fixed wireless, we use the solution that best meets the needs of the customer, community, and geography,” Gutcher says. “Low-earth-orbit satellite technology is now one more tool in our toolkit we can offer our customers and use to expand our connectivity solutions across Alaska.”

“For the first time, there will be statewide service in Alaska. No current internet provider or system serves the entire state or all Alaskans. These new services will be available to all Alaskans. These new services will also offer significantly faster speeds and higher data caps—all at cheaper prices than current offerings where service is available today.”
Alexander Schumann
Director of Satellite Broadband
Microcom
GCI, Alaska’s largest telecommunications provider, is attentively monitoring the progress of LEO satellite technology in Alaska. “Generally, we view it as an exciting development in telecommunications,” says William Wailand, senior vice president of corporate development at GCI.

“Anything that has the potential to bring additional capacity into the hard-to-reach places in the state is a positive development.”

Wailand says he’s pretty confident that LEOs will eventually become part of GCI’s satellite toolkit. However: “Before we start moving customers over to these satellites, we need to be confident in the providers’ abilities… There are no live LEO services in the state as of yet, and this is still a very new technology.”

GCI employs every available resource at its disposal to provide connectivity throughout Alaska. Where it’s possible, the company will use terrestrial middle mile to deliver that service, and it currently uses satellite to provide service to communities not served by terrestrial. And GCI is actively evaluating using LEO services at the middle mile, Wailand says. But ultimately, GCI will use the technology that is the most appropriate fit for its users’ needs. “It’s whatever allows us to deliver the best service at the best value to our customers,” he says.

Recently, GCI has been in conversations with various satellite providers about potential partnership opportunities, including Ottawa, Canada-based Telesat. According to its website and press announcements, Telesat has developed an innovative global network composed of 298 state-of-the-art LEO satellites. Telesat’s first LEO satellite, which launched in January 2018, is now supporting live demonstrations across a variety of markets and applications and expects to launch in the next few years. The Telesat Lightspeed Network is about twenty times more responsive than today’s geosynchronous satellites and on par with fiber networks. Telesat leverages a community-based broadband delivery model, focused on bringing affordable, high-capacity backhaul connectivity into a single point in the community where it is then distributed by its local last-mile partner to households, corporate customers, schools, and hospitals, as well as LTE and 5G networks.

Challenges, Partnerships, and Hybridization
There remain challenges to bringing LEO satellite technology into the mainstream for rural Alaska communities. A key lingering issue is educating consumers and policy makers about internet broadband, which has expanded beyond microwave towers and terrestrial fiber to include LEO and GEO satellites.

In the meantime, the budding partnerships between LEO/GEO satellite providers and telecoms will be interesting to watch. This “hybridization” of networks is the wave of the future, says Jones of The Aerospace Corporation. “GEOs and LEOs possibly working with terrestrials to give you the capability, speed, and other things humans need,” she explains. “This is the type of strategic partnering you will see more of in the future.”

Microcom’s Schumann is also a strong proponent of hybrid broadband services. “Using LEO and GEO technology together will combine the high-speed, high-throughput, and low-cost GEO service with low-latency LEO service and provide customers with the exact service requirement they need,” he says.

He adds: “There is no reason for a customer to purchase only higher-cost LEO service when they might only need low-latency service 10 percent of the time,” he says. “By combining the two services together, Microcom can average costs down for customers and provide them the service they need at the lowest-possible cost. This also futureproofs customer networks, enabling the ability to increase capacity when needed. Hybrid service is the future of communications in rural Alaska.”

The next few months will prove a critical time for tribes in Alaska to deploy broadband in their communities, William says. He explains: “The federal government is offering billions of dollars to deploy broadband to tribal areas, and the new satellite options LEO and GEO HTS will allow a very small community in rural Alaska the ability to get broadband. Microcom can help them plan, purchase, and install the equipment. Pacific Dataport will supply the community with the monthly backhaul needed. Microcom and Pacific Dataport together is like a ‘broadband-in-a-box’ solution.”