- By Jenna Kunze
“I have really slow internet at my house,” Alaska Native Iñupiaq seventh grader, Kaden Kulukhon, wrote in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Kulukhon was among a handful of middle schoolers and educators beseeching the FCC to approve a licensing modification to send satellites into polar orbit, effectively offering remote Alaskan villages access to broadband internet. “All the people in my house use the internet. When COVID hit all the websites that I used at school could not load at my house,” he wrote. “Even at our school some websites won’t load properly and we consider the school internet ‘fast.’”
Since 2019, business magnate and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has sought FCC approval for SpaceX Starlink, the upcoming satellite-beaming internet service, to offer high-speed internet to remote tribal areas in the U.S., where broadband is notoriously spotty, throttled and expensive.
The satellites will beam high-speed broadband connectivity to remote areas through a one-time purchase of Starlink’s self-installing equipment, including a dish receiver to fit on a user’s roof. In early January, the FCC approved the launch of 10 satellites to travel into polar orbit, covering Alaskan communities along the Arctic Circle for the first time ever.
Now, a total of 2,814 of those SpaceX satellites have the green light to fly at lower orbit, making them useful to internet users in the polar region. Flying satellites at a lower orbit allows SpaceX to deliver latency, or the time it takes for a computer to communicate with its server and back, at around 30 milliseconds, less than half of the current speed throughout the Arctic region.
“Several individuals, businesses, and organizations from Alaska submitted letters in the docket urging the Bureau to act on the SpaceX modification to allow SpaceX to begin deployment of its Starlink service in Alaska,” the FCC noted in the order. “These filings discuss the scarcity of reliable internet service, the extreme expense of the internet service that is available, the difficulties of maintaining that service, and the effect this has on Alaska communities. They argue the Starlink service will finally bring ubiquitous internet connectivity within reach for these areas.”
SpaceX promises a flat rate of $100 a month for its unlimited broadband services, plus a one-time equipment fee of $500 for the SpaceX dish. The company’s satellite service offers at least a 10-fold speed increase compared to the Arctic hub city’s current internet service. In Utqiaġvik, the transportation and political hub of the North Slope of Alaska, internet speed is about 10 megabits per second (Mbps) to upload and download, one local school teacher said. Starlink beta sites are experiencing about 150 Mbps, and in some places as fast as 250 Mbps.
Jake Calderwood, a music teacher in Utqiaġvik, who has been advocating for SpaceX in Alaska since it’s beta launch phase last year, said he expects the satellites to save families around $420 a month in internet bills.
“When the service is rolled out, it helps twofold: Schools and families will have access to high quality, modern internet and the economic impact will be vast,” Calderwood told Native News Online.
Another teacher in the roughly 200-person village of Kaktovik, Carey Halnier, wrote to the FCC that her village of 100 percent Alaska Native Iñupiaqs is “an extreme environment, one of extreme cold, extreme isolation, as well as extreme kindness and human warmth.” What her students lack, she noted, is equal access to education.
Letters from nine middle schoolers bare out that reality.
Sixth grader Lucas Aishanna wrote, “I have no internet at home with 3 kids in my house. When Covid hit I had to use paper packets for schoolwork. All the stuff I learn on the computer will not load at school.”
Another student, Ada Agiak, wrote that her home internet speed inhibits her from learning math.
“One of my favorite math games, Prodigy, keeps on lagging so I can’t learn Math on it,” Agiak wrote. “When we have remote learning, Khan and Aleks, (math websites), will not load because my other siblings are on the internet doing school work too.” She went on to say, “We would like Starlink internet because they are offering fast internet to rural Alaska.”
Additional letters of support were sent to the FCC from the Akiak Native Community—a federally recognized tribe in remote southwest Alaska—and a consortium of 50 rural community leaders of the Kodiak Archipelago Rural Regional Leadership Forum.
In opposition to the approval was one in-state telecommunications company, citing concern about satellite collision. On a larger scale, Amazon filed multiple objections to SpaceX’s application, backed by other companies saying such approval might cause interference with other satellite networks.
Ultimately, those concerns were dismissed by the FCC’s approval, which ordered that SpaceX issue a report twice a year including the number of near misses with other satellites in the past six months.
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