In our last article on the Government Satellite Report, we sat down with Vickie Kelly, a business development manager at SES Space and Defense that calls Anchorage, Alaska home, to discuss why high-speed Internet connectivity is essential in America’s most rural and remote regions. We also discussed how industry partners are leveraging a combination of satellite and microwave networks to help deliver necessary connectivity to Alaska’s public schools, government organizations, and healthcare providers.
But building, operating, and maintaining a network in the incredibly harsh and extreme conditions in remote Alaska is harder than it may seem. While the climate and large size of the state would clearly cause problems, there are other challenges that are less obvious. These include the local fauna, and even the disparate cultures of the native peoples that the network providers are looking to serve.
In the second part of our discussion with Vickie, we take a deep dive into these challenges and explore the way they impact what local organizations should be looking for in their industry partners.
Government Satellite Report (GSR): Why are microwave networks utilized for connectivity in these more remote locations?
Vickie Kelly: In some areas, satellite services are the only solution for delivering coverage and connectivity. For example, the Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands that separates the north Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea, are so remote that satellite connectivity is the only option for the people there. There are also remote locations in the interior of Alaska that are only accessible via small plane that can only get connectivity with satellite.
Building a microwave network is a terrestrial solution that enables you to provide high throughput connectivity to these remote locations at a fraction of the cost of satellite. However, satellite services are still needed to provide backhaul services and connect those microwave networks back to the Internet. to get to some of these remote sites, but you still need to get back to the Internet.
However, while microwave is a lower-cost solution to satellite, it does have a high maintenance cost. Continuing to operate and repair the microwave infrastructure that comprises the network can be incredibly expensive and difficult.
For example, in one instance, a bull moose would not allow maintenance crews to get to damaged microwave equipment to fix the connection. This resulted in the maintenance crew hiring a helicopter to get to the equipment.
GSR: What unique challenges do industry partners face when building, operating, and maintaining networks in these regions? Is it the same as operating anywhere else in the globe, or do the remote location and harsh climate impact operations?
Vickie Kelly: The climate and environment certainly impact operating and maintaining a network like ours. As we discussed, the climate can make it difficult or impossible to get to the hardware for maintenance purposes. The incredible distance dictates traveling by helicopter or small plane, and those can’t fly when the weather is bad.
Also, as we discussed, the fauna of the area has been known to create its own challenges. We’ve even had foxes chew through the wires of our microwave network infrastructure. Despite having fences and other security solutions in place, the foxes found a way to get to the equipment. Apparently, they learned how to climb fences.
But there are challenges that don’t result from the weather, environment, and animals. There are also challenges that result from the different cultures and people that you serve and work with.
“…the climate can make it difficult or impossible to get to the hardware for maintenance purposes. The incredible distance dictates traveling by helicopter or small plane, and those can’t fly when the weather is bad.” – Vickie Kelly
When you’re working in remote areas of Alaska, you’re also working with the different tribes of those regions. Each of these tribes has its own culture and traditions. Culturally, you have to be very astute. You have to understand what their beliefs and traditions are, and understand if what you’re asking for may offend or betray those traditions and beliefs.
To help ensure that the people within our organization understand and respect these different cultures, we actively work to provide employment opportunities to locals. We employ and train them to help operate and maintain the equipment that’s near their town. We’ll hire them as guides and for transportation for our staff.
But we also provide them with employment opportunities because they bring additional cultural awareness to our organization, as a whole.
GSR: In addition to building, operating, and maintaining these networks, there must be other challenges and requirements that the local government faces. What other services are provided by industry partners?
Vickie Kelly: That’s an excellent question. In many cases, these organizations lack trained IT staff and support to help deliver many of the services that they need as technology becomes more essential in their daily operations. In those instances, we also provide the services that they need to make online capabilities possible.
For example, we provide bandwidth monitoring to ensure that the bandwidth is being used efficiently. We provide quality of service and bandwidth prioritization to ensure that the most mission-critical applications and workloads get priority. We deliver content filtering for schools to help keep children safe. We also provide services to help keep healthcare organizations in compliance with HIPAA requirements.
“The emergence of next-generation NGSO satellite solutions at MEO and LEO promises to offer extremely low latency, extremely high throughput satellite solutions that could provide fiber-like connectivity to practically anywhere on the globe.” – Vickie Kelly
We also enable content caching for school districts that allows them to download content so that it lives on a server locally. This means they don’t have to rely on broadband connectivity to utilize those assets.
GSR: Considering the importance of the network and the service that it delivers – as well as the unique challenges of the region – what should organizations in places like Alaska be looking for in an industry partner? What attributes, expertise and experience are necessary to operate in these environments?
Vickie Kelly: One of the most important things these organizations in Alaska need to be looking at is the contention ratios of the providers. If the bandwidth is contended, there is a good chance that it will not be available for them when they really need it – or that it won’t offer the high throughputs that they need for particular use cases or applications.
This can be difficult for end users because many network and service providers have become very good at hiding the language about the fact that their bandwidth is contended. They need to read between the lines and ask difficult questions to ensure that they’re going to get the service that they need when they need it.
“In some areas, satellite services are the only solution for delivering coverage and connectivity. For example, the Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands that separates the north Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea, are so remote that satellite connectivity is the only option for the people there.” – Vickie Kelly
I also think they should be looking for providers that not only offer a solution for today but are also innovating for the future. Just because microwave networks are the best solution for meeting the bandwidth requirements of these remote communities in Alaska now doesn’t mean they always will be.
We’re at a very exciting time in satellite and broadband connectivity. The emergence of next-generation NGSO satellite solutions at MEO and LEO promises to offer extremely low latency, extremely high throughput satellite solutions that could provide fiber-like connectivity to practically anywhere on the globe.
These organizations need to be looking for industry partners that not only recognize how this industry is evolving but are also investing in the future of these technologies. They need to be looking for organizations that have the resources, knowledge, and capabilities to bring these new technologies to bear to help meet their mission requirements.