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OneWeb says satellite launch brings a leap in broadband connectivity to Rural Alaska

Photo courtesy of OneWeb
SpaceX launch of OneWeb communications satellites at Kennedy Space Center on December 8, 2022

A rocket loaded with a cluster of communications satellites lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, Dec. 8 at 1:27 p.m. Alaska time -- part of OneWeb’s efforts to create a worldwide network of Low Earth Orbit, or LEO satellites.

The company says this latest expansion could be a game changer for some of Alaska’s most isolated communities, which have little or no internet access.

OneWeb, through its partners in Alaska, already serves a few remote communities in the state, and hopes this latest launch will make it possible for others to get broadband service at higher speeds.

SpaceX, which also provides high speed internet service in Alaska through its Starlink company, launched OneWeb’s new array of satellites. Its Falcon 9 rocket brought 40 OneWeb satellites to orbit.

Katie Dowd, who represents OneWeb’s North America operations, says this is the company’s largest number of satellites in one launch and will grow its LEO network of satellites to about 500.

Dowd was at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch and toured Launchpad 30A, as the Falcon 9 was being readied for take-off. She says she was overcome with emotion, when she realized it was the same launchpad used to send the first men to the moon.

“It gives you chills, honestly, just imagining how many incredible, groundbreaking moments have transpired here,” Dowd said. “And then, you get to look at the rocket, as it’s standing-up vertically, knowing our satellites are at the top.”

Dowd said each one of the 40 units is about the size of a washing machine.

“Think about the satellites as ornaments you might hang on your Christmas tree,” she said. “We start at the bottom and you hang satellites around the tree. And then you continue and hang them next to one another, around the whole circle, until you get to the top.”

While Starlink caters to consumers, OneWeb has been working with internet providers like ACS, which serves corporate customers. Pacific Dataport is another partner. It brought broadband service to the Southwest Alaska community of Akiak, on the Kuskokwim River, as well as to the Lower Yukon School District.

“Today’s launch will allow us to not only strengthen service we’re delivering in communities like Akiak, and also expand coverage and provide more services to communities like that and around the world,” Dowd said.

Tribal governments like the Tlingit and Haida Central Council in Southeast Alaska are keeping a watchful eye on OneWeb and other networks that utilize LEO networks.

Chris Cropley, who oversees Tlingit and Haida’s broadband program, says OneWeb’s expansion puts yet another tool in the toolbox to serve tribal communities. While Cropley says he’s a big fan of fiber optic cable, it’s just not the silver bullet.

“It’s going to take more billions of dollars than there are in the entire federal budget to bring fiber to everybody,” Cropley said, “where with satellites they can bring broadband to the world.”

But even so, Cropley says it’s going to take a combination of companies like GCI, which provides fiber optic cable service throughout Alaska, along with LEO networks, to meet all the needs, because Southeast Alaska is, geographically, one of the most challenging places in the country to provide broadband.

“If you had one restaurant in town, it’s not going to serve everyone,” Cropley said, “so it brings much needed competition, diversity and options.”

One of the benefits of low earth orbit satellites is that it’s a much quicker process to connect communities.

Lesil McGuire, a former state lawmaker, who now represents OneWeb in Alaska, says it will bring empowerment to communities that have been left behind in the past. It also comes at a time when broadband access is more important than ever for Rural Alaskans.

“On our coastlines, where we have some of the first climate refugees,” McGuire said, “you have people doing very sensitive climate change research.” She said it’s imperative for scientists in the field to transmit their findings to other researchers.

For Rural Alaskans, LEO networks can potentially also provide internet access on fishing boats, or at moose hunting camps and lodges, or on airplanes. OneWeb says it hopes to launch a mobile service that will reach locations like these.

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.