Bridging the digital divide with a new kind of satellite
Alaska is a rugged state. Glaciers, vast mountain ranges, and islands that can only be reached by helicopter or canoe — Alaska has some of the most remote, hardest to reach places on the planet. Although it has cities like Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks, it’s dominated by small towns far from communications hubs, and that means Alaska has a huge connectivity challenge. According to Broadband Now, 39 percent of Alaskans are underserved when it comes to internet access — the highest rate of any state — and there are thousands of people living with no access to the internet at all. Those Alaskans who do have internet often pay multiples of what Americans in the lower 48 states pay.
The digital divide there is so severe and so challenging, it will take a new kind of satellite to solve it. That’s why here at Astranis we are incredibly excited to announce that we are launching a new broadband satellite dedicated just for Alaska.
This lack of high-speed internet is hardly a problem unique to Alaska. Large companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, Google and others have set out to try to bridge the digital divide, but usually in the context of the developing world. I’ve talked about that too, writing last March about the unfortunate reality that 4 billion people have no internet access at all. But this is not just a problem for countries far from American shores. According to the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, 25 million people have no access to 25 Mbps/3Mbps fixed broadband service, the vast majority, 77 percent, of whom, live in rural parts of the country. In my home state of Kentucky alone, that includes over a million people that are living without broadband.
But the problem may be worse than that. In a recent blog post, Microsoft noted that the Pew Research Center believes just 65 percent of Americans have broadband internet in their homes. That means as many as 115 million people in the U.S. may live without broadband internet. If the fact that the problem is that severe in the U.S., the richest country in the world, is not a wake-up call that this is a global problem we need to address, I don’t know what is.
Broadband internet beamed from the skies is often seen as the best solution to getting people in undeveloped areas online, mainly because doing it that way means not having to set up internet backbones in hard-to-reach or hard-to-serve areas. Instead, the signal comes from the sky and only local infrastructure needs be built. But the approaches being proposed to provide these signals are less than ideal: giant, hugely expensive constellations of satellites, balloons, or 737-sized gliders. None of them are anywhere near being deployed at scale, or in a way that’s cost-effective.
In Alaska, we found a partner in Pacific Dataport that is ideally situated to bring broadband access to the state. Pacific Dataport is a new venture of Microcom, the largest satellite services provider in Alaska. Microcom has long been thinking about how to bring broadband to the many areas there without access, and the myriad challenges presented by its sometimes harsh terrain. In Pacific Dataport founder Chuck Schumann, I’ve found someone whose passion for bridging Alaska’s digital divide is strikingly similar to mine for bridging it anywhere in the world people are cut off from high-speed internet.
Under the terms of our agreement, we will launch a satellite in the second half of 2020 that will provide 7.5 Gbps of capacity to Alaska, roughly tripling the entire satellite capacity available to the state today and also reducing costs by up to three times. Eventually, we hope that the partnership will provide between 40 and 50 Gbps of dedicated bandwidth.
This is a very big deal for us, not just because it’s our first partnership, but because of lessons we expect to learn in Alaska that we can use to make future partnerships either in the U.S. or abroad as efficient and effective as possible.
Having spent countless hours over the last two years talking to Chuck and learning from his many decades of work, I can safely say that there is no one with more expertise than him when it comes to working in remote places in all types of extreme terrain. Chuck and his team deploy and maintain satellite ground stations to the farthest reaches of Alaska on a daily basis. Working with Pacific Dataport, we can learn an enormous amount that will help people in other parts of the world as we roll out future satellites with other partners.
Last year, my company, Astranis Space Technologies, came out of stealth with our plan for designing, building, launching, and operating proprietary telecommunications microsatellites in geostationary orbit. We’re confident that doing so will accelerate the availability of cheaper, faster, and more reliable broadband internet. A single one of our satellites is capable of serving entire mid-sized countries, and by deploying multiple satellites in sequence, we can bring new bandwidth to anywhere on the globe.
Our commitment to a path of geostationary microsatellites isn’t meant to say that companies who deploy constellations of large, multi-hundred-million dollar satellites aren’t going to contribute to bridging the digital divide. They will. But it’s likely going to take them years to do so. We’ll be solving the problem soon — next year, in fact, in Alaska.
All across the world, we’ve seen that increased access to high-speed internet has been vital in leading to reduced inequality, better education, lower levels of poverty, better health, and more. I feel comfortable saying that we’ll soon be able to draw a straight line from what Astranis and Pacific Dataport will be doing together in small communities in rural Alaska to societal advances anywhere our satellites serve in the future.