A new communications satellite dedicated to Alaska is set for its launch next summer. It will provide affordable broadband service across the state, said Chuck Schumann, CEO of Alaska-based Pacific DataPort Inc.
It will also provide improved satellite access. Existing satellites that provide service to Alaska are in more southern latitudes so that they serve most of the state including Anchorage from very low angles.
That means the Chugach Mountains and trees around homes frequently block access.
The Aurora 4A satellite, the first of two planned by Pacific DataPort, will roar into space atop a SpaceEx Falcon Heavy rocket from the SpaceEx commercial launch facility at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Schumann said the satellite will be placed into orbit by “direct entry,” a space industry term for a direct launch to geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the earth. The usual procedure, he said, is to lift a geosynchronous satellite to its high orbit in several stages, a procedure that can take up to four months.
By directly launching to orbit Pacific DataPort will get the satellite into operation, and service provided, much sooner, he said. The company is also building a “Gateway,” a satellite downlink facility, at a former Alascom space communications facility in Talkeetna along with a similar facility in Utah. Astranis Space Technologies Corp., based in San Francisco, is now constructing the Aurora 4-A satellite.
Pacific DataPort’s goal is to offer broadband and high-speed Internet service to any part of Alaska for about $99 per month once both satellites are in geosynchronous orbit and essentially fixed in position over the North Pacific, Schumann said. The satellite’s orbit will match the planet’s rotation so it is stationary relative to the earth.
Current monthly fees high-speed Internet are higher many parts of Alaska and much higher in rural communities if service is available at all.
There are terrestrial-based fiber optic and microwave systems that serve parts of rural Alaska, like GCI’s TERRA system in parts of western and northwest Alaska and Quintillion’s offshore fiber optic that serves certain coastal communities in northern and northwest Alaska, but the service isn’t cheap.
Lack of access to high-speed Internet and broadband at affordable costs has emerged as a major impediment to distance-learning for schools in smaller Alaska communities, a problem exacerbated by current COVID-19-related shutdowns of schools and more reliance on on-line classes across the state.
High-speed Internet may be available in schools, now mostly closed due to COVID-19, but not in students’ homes, where many young people are struggling with limited Internet to download learning materials and upload completed lessons. Even in communities with access to the Internet by way of satellite there are annoying delays while signals travel to and from satellites in space. The Aurora satellite, with new technology, will eliminate this for all practical purposes.
Also, what most Alaskans think of as broadband is not really that, at least by Lower 48 standards. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as having the ability to download data at 25 megabytes per second and to upload at three megabytes per second.
The FCC has given Alaska a special definition of a download speed of 10 megabytes per second and an upload speed of one megabyte per second. Technically, that qualifies as high-speed Internet but not broadband. The Aurora satellites will be able to provide service at “25/3” download and upload.
Schumann is enthusiastic about what the service could do. “Imagine a future where everyone in Alaska, living everywhere, will have instant access to broadband, if they want it. This could be a huge ‘game-changer’ for Alaska,” he said.
The Aurora 4A satellite will also be one of the first compact high-capacity satellites to be put in geosynchronous orbit typically at an altitude of 22,000 miles above the earth. Once in position, the Aurora 4A and Aurora IV, the second satellite that will follow the first, will be able to reach all parts of the state including areas off Alaska’s Arctic coast to a distance of several hundred miles offshore.
Satellite coverage of the Arctic offshore, which is not now available, will benefit oil and gas companies exploring offshore as well as scientists on research vessels and commercial vessels operating in Arctic regions. Communications satellites now serving Alaska are positioned at latitudes too far south to reach all of the state or the Arctic.
Also, the existing satellites are aging and will soon be past their service life, and most are at low latitudes with less “lookdown” capabilities for much of the state. The Aurora satellites will replace these with more advanced technology while also putting new satellites in geosynchronous orbits at higher latitudes so that all parts of Alaska can be served.
Two satellites are being launched so that there is a backup in case one malfunctions. Aurora 4-A is smaller and is being launched first so the Pacific DataPort can establish contracts with customers and secure revenue while the launch of the larger Aurora IV is being planned.
The first satellite, Aurora 4A, will have a capacity of 7.5 gigabytes per second, while the second satellite, Aurora IV, will have a capacity of 70 gigabytes per second. This is the speed at which data can be processed.
The current schedule calls for Aurora IV, which with more advanced service, to be put in orbit in about three years, but the second satellite requires more investment than the first and financing, from private sources, is still being raised.
Aurora IV could be launched sooner if public investment could be obtained to supplement private funds. The money could come from federal COVID-19 impact funds if Congress passes a new COVID-19 economic stimulus plan, or other state of federal sources. An argument can be made for a degree of public funding because the Aurora satellites will improve broadband access, and at lower costs, for rural health facilities as well as on-line learning in schools.
The project doesn’t quite fit existing state infrastructure investment programs like the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, however. AIDEA’s governing statute, for example, doesn’t allow for an investment for a satellite in space. The agency can only invest in surface facilities within Alaska.