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Shortening the gap between the connectivity “haves” and “have nots” in Alaska

The digital transformation of the government didn’t start with the COVID-19 pandemic. It predated it by years. However, the pandemic functioned to hit “fast forward” on many digital transformation projects and programs that were either already in the works or being contemplated in many government entities and organizations.

When people could no longer go to a government building or office to file paperwork, submit an application, or pick up an important document, it became essential that government organizations give them digital and virtual alternatives. Information had to be made more readily available on government Websites, people needed to be able to download and submit applications for citizen services online, and AI solutions were needed to answer basic questions about government services and policies since many public servants were out of the office.

But what happens in that environment when government organizations want to go digital, but lack basic connectivity? What happens when the constituents they serve don’t have access to high-speed Internet access? And what impact does it have when modern applications and solutions that are hosted in the cloud simply can’t be accessed or utilized by an organization?

This is exactly the problem facing many of America’s rural and remote locations, such as the remote, sparsely-populated areas of the country’s largest state, Alaska.

We recently sat down with Vickie Kelly, a business development manager at SES Space and Defense that calls Anchorage, Alaska home, to discuss how the company is leveraging satellite and microwave networks to bring basic connectivity to school districts and government organizations in Alaska’s wildest regions.

Government Satellite Report (GSR): When it comes to connectivity for public schools and government organizations in remote parts of Alaska, what options do they have? Are typical, terrestrial broadband networks available to them? Why or why not?

Vickie Kelly: In Alaska, connectivity is a case of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” In an urban area, you do have connectivity by fiber that – while a bit more expensive than in the lower 48 – still offers quality connectivity. But the broader portion of Alaska is not urban. It’s defined as remote.

Connectivity for our remote school districts and government organizations is not typical. And there are a number of reasons for that.

Alaska is two-thirds the size of the lower 48 states combined. It’s huge and stretches over a large area containing numerous different topographic and geologic features. It’s almost impossible to run fiber in that environment due to the sheer scope and the terrain. The state’s high risk of natural disasters also plays a role, with frequent earthquakes that can disrupt fiber installation or damage existing fiber lines.

Also, it may sound humorous to those in the lower 48, but fiber and other infrastructure and hardware can be impacted by the local fauna. We’ve seen numerous instances of fiber being chewed and hardware being damaged by bears, foxes, and local animals.

Combined, these factors have resulted in many of the more remote, rural areas of the state having no connectivity via typical, terrestrial networks – like fiber.

GSR: Why is this a problem in these regions, specifically? What could high throughput connectivity enable these districts to do that isn’t possible without it?

Vickie Kelly: We just had an excellent example of how impactful a lack of connectivity can be due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When schools had to shut down, the majority of students had no home Internet. Schools found themselves assembling paper packets of assignments for kids that their parents would pick up.

That seems unreal in this time of connectivity – especially in the lower 48 – but it’s the reality in many of these small, remote towns and villages.

“We’ve traditionally leveraged a proprietary microwave network…to deliver connectivity to more remote places in Alaska. We supplement that microwave network with satellite services…and we’re increasingly looking at NGSO satellite offerings to deliver higher throughput, low latency connectivity to these regions.” – Vicky Kelly

Many teachers in urban areas take Internet-enabled tools for granted. Educational videos on YouTube. Cloud-based learning applications. Video teleconferencing for distance learning. These applications require broadband Internet to access, and low latency to use effectively, or else they’ll time out.

That’s particularly problematic in this region because they need these capabilities – potentially even more than urban school districts and districts in the lower 48.

For example, remote schools are very small. Teachers are generalists and teach multiple classes and subjects. In this environment, distance learning via video teleconferencing could be used to bring in faculty that teach more niche classes – such as foreign languages, music, or even advanced placement classes. This could enable schools and districts to deliver a more diverse, well-rounded educational experience to students.

I used to work in a school district that offered band and orchestra through distance learning via video. That’s a valuable resource for students, but it’s not possible without broadband connectivity.

But that’s only one example of a capability or application that these students can’t access because of their remote location. There are many more, and the number is increasing as technology advances and becomes a more fundamental part of education and curriculum.

“In Alaska, connectivity is a case of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” In an urban area, you do have connectivity by fiber that…still offers quality connectivity. But the broader portion of Alaska is not urban. It’s defined as remote.” – Vicky Kelly

For example, gaming is widely becoming a recognized part of school athletics, with many schools and school districts launching competitive gaming teams. That’s not possible for many of these remote school districts without fiber connectivity. In fact, it may not even be possible with traditional GEO satellite connectivity.

GSR: How have industry partners helped deliver connectivity to these regions in the past? What types of networks are utilized to deliver these services and capabilities to these regions?

Vickie Kelly: To the more remote locations in Alaska, industry partners have had to rely on either microwave networks or satellite services to deliver connectivity. However, there have been some plans proposed to lay additional subsea fiber to connect some more rural, remote areas. And for the urban areas, there are terrestrial fiber and copper networks that are providing connectivity.

We’ve traditionally leveraged a proprietary microwave network that we own, operate, and manage independently to deliver connectivity to more remote places in Alaska. We supplement that microwave network with satellite services where necessary, and we’re increasingly looking at non-geostationary (NGSO) satellite offerings to deliver higher throughput, low latency connectivity to these regions.

GSR: Are these networks only for public schools, or are they also used for other public sector use cases?

Vickie Kelly:
Our microwave network is used to support a lot more organizations than just schools and school districts. In fact, one of our first customers was the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), an Alaskan Native non-profit corporation that provides health and social services to tribal members across much of the rural, remote parts of Alaska.

“Many teachers in urban areas take Internet-enabled tools for granted. Educational videos on YouTube. Cloud-based learning applications. Video teleconferencing for distance learning. These applications require broadband Internet to access…” – Vicky Kelly

For the TCC, we support healthcare clinics with the connectivity necessary to access essential online medical applications and services. We also enable telemedicine solutions that provide access to healthcare for people that need to stay in their homes, or when the weather makes it impossible to fly out to see a doctor or specialist.

In addition to our contributions to the local healthcare community, we also use our network to provide connectivity to tribal administrative offices and government entities. We provide connectivity to village police departments, fire departments, and emergency medical services. We also enable Radio over IP (RoIP) services for first responders.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve also begun to explore providing access to high-bandwidth connectivity for students and homes.

In our next article on the Government Satellite Report, we’ll feature the second part of our two-part conversation with Vickie, when we discuss the challenges that companies face when building, operating, and maintaining a network in these remote parts of Alaska.

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