Microcom-OneWeb partnership promises Alaska coverage by year-end
Alaska telecommunications provider Microcom has teamed up with a global counterpart to bring high-speed internet capabilities to every inch of the state by the end of the year.
Microcom and London-based OneWeb announced an agreement Jan. 15 that will make the Anchorage-based company the Alaska distributor of space on OneWeb’s global broadband network that is currently in-the-works.
A year ago Microcom founder Chuck Schumann announced his company’s plans to eventually supply up to 80 gigabits of broadband Internet capacity statewide via several special satellites strategically positioned in orbits to provide the best possible connectivity for Alaska customers.
Microcom’s plan to drastically grow the state’s broadband capacity with its Aurora System project started with the formation of subsidiary Pacific Dataport Inc. in 2017 to implement the Aurora System.
Schumann said in an interview that the partnership with OneWeb will greatly enhance the Aurora project by, among other things, giving customers a much stronger broadband network. He anticipates the companies’ combined work will “upend” Alaska’s internet market by making higher speed, lower cost connectivity available to everyone in the state, he said.
“Both of these services working together promises the best of both words and some incredible benefits as far as resiliency and redundancy on the network because, now, I come into a location if I’m providing service for health care or any other business that needs really good, reliable communications — we’re going to be able to do that because we’ve got redundancy built into what we’re doing,” Schumann said.
The redundancy comes from the different technical approaches Pacific Dataport and OneWeb have for operating their satellites. Pacific Dataport’s small Aurora System satellites — the first of which is scheduled to launch late this year with 10 gigabits of capacity — will work in high, geosynchronous orbits more than 1,000 miles above Earth that mirror the planet’s rotation.
Historically, satellite-based systems have provided little service to Alaska because they are often obstructed by objects on the ground due to an orbital location that is too far east to serve Alaska well. However, Pacific Dataport's Aurora satellite network will be positioned roughly over Hawaii “to give the best possible look angle” to Alaska, according to Schumann. They will be able to provide broadband service up to 500 miles north of the North Slope, he said.
Pacific Dataport representatives have said a second Aurora satellite is scheduled to launch in 2022 and will increase the network’s capacity to 80 gigabits of broadband.
Currently, Alaska has about 2.5 gigabits per second of satellite bandwidth across multiple broadband providers, according to Pacific Dataport.
OneWeb Enterprise President Campbell Macfarlane said the company is using low-earth orbit, or LEO, satellites in its network and plans to employ nearly 700 of them at varying latitudes, meaning they will not have the same issues as other low-orbit satellite systems.
OneWeb’s satellites are being assembled two per day at a factory in Florida. A launch of 30 is scheduled for Feb. 7 from a facility in Kazakhstan, according to Macfarlane.
OneWeb touts a diverse list of major international companies as its partners and investors on its website, including fellow telecoms Hughes, Qualcomm and Intelstat alongside major players in other industries such as Coca Cola and aerospace giant Airbus. A corporate presentation says OneWeb has raised more than $3 billion of investment for its broadband project.
Schumann has said the Aurora project is fully financed.
On the ground, the partnership makes Pacific Dataport the Alaska distributor of OneWeb’s network for Alaska and Hawaii, according to Schumann. Pacific Dataport will sell wholesale network capacity and Microcom will serve retail and support functions, he said.
Alaska and other Arctic jurisdictions are first in line for OneWeb’s new broadband network because the satellites are being put into orbits north to south, according to Macfarlane.
OneWeb expects to go live for global service in October 2021, he said.
“Alaska will get the first taste of this new technology,” Macfarlane said. “Couple that with a hybrid GEO technology (from PDI) as well and you’ve really got the best of both worlds, so no one in Alaska can say they’re not connected. In two years time that will be a thing of the past.”
He and Schumann said they believe the coming access to high-speed broadband could transform everything from health care delivery in rural Alaska — where doctor visits are increasingly performed remotely in a service known as “telehealth” — to real-time monitoring of commercial fisheries to in-flight Internet access.
PDI and OneWeb have also been discussing the opportunities high-speed broadband could hold with resource companies, they said.
Connecting to their combined broadband network will require nothing more than a user terminal and a requisite power source.
“This is going to upend the model here in Alaska where everybody has looked at bandwidth — that Internet capacity was scarce and the prices were very high. What Pacific Dataport is doing with bringing these services together is making bandwidth plentiful across Alaska, over every inch of Alaska and bringing prices down,” Schumann said. “It’s going to be a whole different way to think. It’s going to allow people in rural communities to participate in the Internet and in the world economy — working remotely, for instance.”
Macfarlane said a company or organization in a specific location could purchase broadband capacity and the terminal equipment with the ability for excess bandwidth to be available to the community through a wi-fi network. Reliable high-speed broadband can also open up a host of information technology jobs as well.
Schumann added that reliable blanket broadband coverage also makes expanding cellular coverage easier and less expensive because phone providers would be able to use the network for a “middle mile” connection between a tower and a network hub rather than needing to install costly fiber optic links.
Macfarlane also noted that relying on satellite-based broadband networks largely eliminates the need for the cost and environmental impact of burying fiber optic cables to extend Internet to rural areas.
He compared the transition from terrestrial fiber optic Internet to broadband to the shift from landlines to cell phones that has happened over the past couple decades.
“I reckon 10 years from now the thought of putting a fiber to a remote site will be abhorrent. That’s the change; that’s how dynamic it will be,” Macfarlane said.
(Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the orbital position of Pacific Dataport's Aurora satellites.)
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].