Microcom founder launches new satellite broadband project
If everything goes according to Chuck Schumann’s plans it will soon be easier to do everything from providing health care to running an oil field to streaming a favorite movie in rural Alaska.
Schumann founded the Anchorage-based satellite telecom provider Microcom in 1984. Now he’s parlaying that success — Microcom has expanded to Hawaii and Lower 48 markets — into a project to provide up to 40 gigabytes of broadband Internet capacity across Alaska.
“We’re working hard to solve the problem of access to broadband in rural Alaska. In following the industry we were always hearing people talk about solving the problem in Africa or South America or the Middle East and countries around the world and they weren’t focused on solving the problem in Alaska,” Schumann said in an interview.
Schumann’s plans started with founding Microcom subsidiary Pacific Dataport Inc., or PDI, in 2017. Pacific Dataport has since partnered with San Francisco-based satellite developer Astranis Space Technologies Corp. to build and launch one, and eventually several, “microsatellites” to support The Aurora System broadband network.
"We really couldn't have asked for a better first customer and a better partner," Astranis CEO John Gedmark said in a Pacific Dataport announcement about the project. "Not just because of PDI's vision and dedicaiton to bridging Alaska's digital divide, but also becasue this is a perfect opportunity to showcase our phased approach to bringing online the more than 4 billion people in the world without reliable internet access."
Phase one of the Aurora project is set to launch in 2020 and offer up to 7.5 gigabytes of broadband capacity across Alaska, according to Schumann. If successful, subsequent expansions to The Aurora System and a second satellite launch in 2021 will grow that capacity up to 40 gigabytes, he said.
His companies have heard from large resource developers in rural parts of the state that broadband service now is too expensive and unreliable, which just adds another layer of challenges to an already technically challenging industry.
Rural Alaska health care providers have also expressed a widespread need for better Internet access to aid in providing telehealth other information sharing needs.
Currently, Alaska has about 2.5 gigabytes per second of satellite bandwidth across multiple broadband providers, according to PDI.
The broadband tracking website BroadbandNow lists Alaska as being 80 percent covered by some sort of broadband service at an average speed of 25.8 megabytes per second. Alaska is the 44th most connected state when it comes to broadband availability, according to the site.
“A couple of years ago we were just fed up with being left out of everything because satellite platforms covering Alaska just are too low on the horizon; we were just left out of things,” Schumann said in describing a common challenge with Alaska satellite connections. “They don’t cover Alaska. (We’re) always at the mercy of taking the scraps that someone would give us.”
That is, satellite-based systems used in extreme latitudes are often obstructed by objects on the ground, or even the curvature of the earth, because they must be pointed at low-earth orbit, or LEO, satellites circling the earth at the equator.
The Aurora System will overcome that issue by utilizing geosynchronous equatorial orbit, or GEO, satellites that are launched into an orbit thousands of miles above Earth and mirror the planet’s rotation.
Schumann said the Aurora satellites will be positioned roughly over Hawaii “to give the best possible look angle” to Alaska. They will be able to provide broadband service up to 500 miles north of the North Slope, he said.
“We’ll be able to serve cruise ships transiting the Arctic Ocean with a large amount of capacity that’s being demanded by the cruise ships of the future,” he added.
The Aurora System will be run by Pacific Dataport. Microcom will offer small business and residential retail broadband from the system and Pacific Dataport will handle business-to-business and wholesale broadband contracts, according to Schumann.
While the project is still in its early stages, a Pacific Dataport release states Aurora System service should initially be available for about one-third the average cost of current broadband rates for residential and wholesale customers in the state with three times the current satellite capacity.
Schumann said the first phase, which will be “in the tens of millions of dollars” of investment, is as much of a sure thing as it can be because it is already fully funded.
“We’re already building; we’re already ordering. We’ve been in progress now for well over a month in getting the project underway so the decision was made to let the word out that we’re underway,” Schumann said, adding “that we needed to give rural Alaskans hope that we were underway.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].