Feb. 21—A battle for space internet in Alaska is brewing as companies jockey for the right to deliver satellite broadband, in part to bridge the digital divide between villages and cities.
Starlink, a subsidiary of Elon Musk's SpaceX, is letting Alaskans sign up for inexpensive satellite internet service that it's targeting for delivery next year.
Rural Alaskans who are paying $99 to get in line say the broadband service will be revolutionary, replacing the slow, clunky internet they now receive, with its sky-high costs.
But Starlink has competitors, and companies involved in similar efforts, including Alaska-based Pacific Dataport, argue that Starlink's Arctic plans may not happen safely, if ever.
Starlink, Amazon's Kuiper Systems and OneWeb, owned partly by the U.K. government and working with Pacific Dataport, are just three of the projects hoping to deploy armies of small satellites circling the globe in low orbits, sending zippy internet to Earth.
OneWeb, Kuiper Systems and other Starlink competitors have told the Federal Communications Commission that Starlink's plans could potentially be unsafe and cause collisions that threaten other satellites with impacts from space debris.
Starlink declined to comment for this article.
The proposals could bring "broadband equality" to rural Alaska, putting internet speeds and costs more on par with urban areas, said John Wallace, who runs a technology support company in Bethel, a transportation hub for dozens of villages in Southwest Alaska.
Wallace signed up for Starlink last week, shortly after the opportunity became available. He said many rural Alaskans are forced to use the internet sparingly, and sometimes not at all, because costs can run higher than $500 a month.
Data caps lower the price, but can be too restrictive, he said.
"Out here you have to pick and choose how you use the internet," Wallace said. "If you use it for entertainment, you can't use it for work, because it's so costly. And it's worse in villages."
"It will be so exciting when people can just watch a movie, take a class, do some office work at home," he said.
Feds limit how many satellites Starlink can deploy, for now
Starlink plans deliver broadband to households and businesses for $99 per month, plus $549 in equipment and shipping, according to its website.
In rural Alaska, the costs will quickly pay for themselves, Wallace said.
Starlink has already deployed more than 1,000 satellites, and provides the broadband to about 10,000 people in the U.S. and internationally, the company told the Federal Communications Commission this month.
But the agency in January declined to approve Starlink's request to deploy 58 polar-orbiting satellites, a step toward its plan of delivering service in "high latitude geographic areas," such as Alaska's most remote areas. Starlink's broader plans before the agency involve 348 polar-orbiting satellites.
The agency, however, did allow Starlink to deploy 10 polar-orbiting satellites to test and develop the service. The partial grant of Starlink's request gives the agency time to consider the arguments raised against Starlink's proposal, the agency said in filings.
Starlink has also proposed to use lasers to communicate between satellites and reduce the number of ground stations needed, Elon Musk said in a recent tweet.
Starlink has a long way to go to meet its Alaska goals, said Shawn Williams, government affairs director at Pacific Dataport.
Williams said Pacific Dataport welcomes the competition.
"(But) anyone sending in $99 needs to know that legally, Starlink can't serve Alaska at the moment, and technically they can't serve Alaska at the moment, so this is all being done on a hope and promise," said Williams, also a former assistant commissioner in the Alaska Department of Community, Commerce and Economic Development under Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Alaska competitors keeping a close eye on Starlink
Williams said Starlink has applied with the Federal Communications Commission for many waivers and modifications.
"It can be surmised that SpaceX is making decisions and developing its system on-the-fly," Williams said. "If they figure out how to develop their (laser) technology affordably, then build and launch those in 2022, that would be the best-case scenario for rural Alaskans who want Starlink."
GCI, Alaska's largest telecommunications company, is tracking efforts by Starlink and others, in part because they could be a competitor, said Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman with GCI.
"We are watching this closely because it's really a new technology," she said.
Handyside said about 80% of Alaskans, such as Anchorage residents, enjoy access to the same fast internet service available in the Lower 48, one gigabit per second for downloads. But about 20% of Alaska's population, around 150,000 residents, live in remote, small communities where delivering the internet can be difficult, she said.
GCI plans to keep working to improve connectivity in those areas, she said. Toward that goal, GCI later this year plans to provide fast, fiber-based broadband internet to Nome and Kotzebue, Western Alaska hub communities, in a partnership with Quintillion, she said.
Pacific Dataport, founded by Alaska telecommunications company Microcom in 2017, also has a goal of providing more affordable satellite broadband internet in Alaska, Williams said.
Unlike Starlink, it plans to sell broadband in wholesale amounts, such as to telecommunications companies or tribal entities that can then sell the service to individuals, he said. It can also be sold to large consumers like school districts and hospitals. The company has already signed some contracts with wholesale customers, he said.
"The market demand has been healthy," Williams said.
A potential 'game changer,' says an Utqiaġvik music teacher
Pacific Dataport plans to sell OneWeb's capacity. OneWeb has already launched more than 100 satellites, and plans to launch hundreds more to serve regions globally. To deliver broadband in Alaska, it needs to launch 144 more satellites, an effort scheduled to be completed by July, Williams said.
OneWeb, emerged from bankruptcy in November, plans to deliver broadband to Alaskans this summer, Williams said.
OneWeb, recently emerged from bankruptcy in November, has committed to delivering service in Alaska first, said Lesil McGuire, a consultant to OneWeb and a former Alaska state senator.
Both OneWeb and Pacific Dataport are permitted to deliver service in Alaska, Williams said.
Late this year, Pacific Dataport plans to launch the first of its own two satellites, part of what it calls the Aurora Network. The second will be launched in 2023, or earlier, he said.
The technology will be next-generation, he said. But, as with more traditional satellites, they will remain positioned high above the equator. The two satellites will also provide fast, broadband internet to Alaska, he said.
The OneWeb and Pacific Dataport broadband systems will complement each other, he said.
Jake Calderwood, a music teacher at the elementary school in Utqiaġvik, said he supports all the efforts to deliver satellite broadband in Alaska.
But he paid $99 for Starlink because it has already exceeded expectations outside of Alaska, he said.
"This is a game changer," he said of Starlink.
In December, Calderwood sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission supporting Starlink's Alaska plans. The agency cited the letter in its decision allowing a test program for Starlink.
Calderwood told the agency that the high cost of internet service is why nearly all the school's 700 students aren't taking music courses during the pandemic — many families can't afford the online instruction after the school canceled in-person classes.
"In our town Utqiaġvik, Alaska internet is a luxury that many are barred from using," he wrote. "Being the farthest north city in the United States presents many challenges to access. Everything is expensive here from $10 per gallon milk to internet bills in the hundreds. My own bill ... runs in excess of $300 for 10 megabit speed and the cost varies depending on usage."
"Since hearing about SpaceX's plan to offer affordable internet to the most rural areas of the world I have held out hope that relief may be coming for many in our community," wrote Calderwood. "Especially that my students might all have equitable access to education during this time."