Astranis satellite illustration
A rendering of an Astranis small geostationary satellite. Credit: Astranis

WASHINGTON — Astranis, a startup designing small geostationary satellites for internet connectivity, has signed an Alaskan telecommunications provider as its first customer.

Pacific Dataport Inc. of Anchorage, Alaska, will lease capacity on the satellite through a long-term contract worth “tens of millions of dollars,” Astranis CEO John Gedmark said in an interview. Astranis will own and operate the satellite.

The satellite, so far unnamed, will cover the entire state of Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands, with Ka-band connectivity for broadband, according to officials from Astranis and Pacific Dataport.

Gedmark said the satellite’s design calls for a mass of 300 kilograms — substantially smaller than typical geostationary satellites weighing several thousand kilograms, but still enough to provide meaningful capacity. Astranis will build the satellite in preparation for a launch in the second half of 2020, he said.

Astranis and Pacific Dataport said the satellite’s 7.5 gigabits per second (Gbps) of throughput will more than triple the amount of satellite capacity available to Alaskans.

“We just couldn’t take it anymore,” said Chuck Schumann, founder of Pacific Dataport and its largest shareholder Microcom. “Everyone would talk about solving broadband in countries around the world, focusing on Africa, South America and the Middle East, and would always leave out Alaska.”

Schumann founded Microcom in 1984 as a satellite television company. Over the past six or so years, he said, more Alaskans have been demanding broadband in addition to — and sometimes instead of — Microcom’s satellite television service. That led him to found Pacific Dataport in 2016.

“The majority of Alaska does not have access to a single [high-throughput satellite] provider, and that’s what we want to change,” Schumann said.

Space Partnership International (SPI), a Bethesda, Maryland-based consulting firm that helped arrange for Bangladesh to buy and launch its first satellite, Bangabandhu-1, last year, is a founding partner for Pacific Dataport. SPI Managing Director Bruce Kraselsky, said the firm led Pacific Dataport’s satellite systems engineering, program management, procurement and oversight, and regulatory aspects of the satellite program. SPI also invested in Pacific Dataport and has a seat on its board of directors, he said.

“It was clear to SPI from the start, based on our experience working in other rural and remote regions of the world, that there is significant unmet demand for broadband in Alaska, and that satellite is the only affordable, reliable way to provide it, wherever it is needed throughout the State,” Kraselsky said by email. “Alaska is simply too large, the terrain too difficult, the climate conditions too severe, and the rural and remote population too dispersed, for terrestrial networks to be a viable option.”

Gedmark said Astranis’ first satellite has a design life of seven years, about half that of a traditional geostationary telecom satellite. Pacific Dataport intends to use the satellite as the first in a larger system it is planning called the Aurora system, which would eventually provide 40 to 50 gigabits per second of capacity to Alaska, according to Schumann.

Pacific Dataport is currently seeking bids for a second, larger satellite, Schumann said.

Pacific Dataport is the third company in five months to purchase a small geostationary telecom satellite, following GapSat of Hong Kong in September with GapSat-1 from Terran Orbital and Swedish startup Ovzon in December with Ovzon-3 from SSL.

Eurconsult analyst Rachel Villain said that small GEO communications satellites have historically never been cost-effective on a per-gigabit basis because of poor payload performance and high launch costs.

“But now with digital signal processing, software-defined radios, electric propulsion and lower launch costs, perhaps the equation of the small and cost-effective small GEO will [close],” she said.

Villain said Euroconsult gauges the threshold for cost-effectiveness at $1 million spent per Gbps for U.S. manufacturers, and 1 million euros ($1.15 million) per Gbps for European manufacturers.

“This is something which can be achieved only with a very large [high-throughput satellite], like the Konnect VHTS of Eutelsat or [ViaSat’s] ViaSat-3,” she said. “So on one hand we have these very capable and costly satellites, and on the other hand, perhaps there is a market for having smaller and more cost-effective geostationary communications satellites.”

Gedmark declined to say if Astranis met Euroconsult’s cost metric, but said electric propulsion has been the biggest game changer for making small GEOs with shorter life spans feasible.

“You have to do the calculus, and we found that it works out great,” he said. “The key for us is we have found a model where we can build a very standardized satellite platform and because the satellite is so simple … we feel confident that the costs are going to be extremely compelling, especially when we start making many of them, and that’s the key. You have to make many of them to drag down costs where we want them to be, and that is our goal over the next several years.”

Schumann said Pacific Dataport will initially offer Alaskan consumers a broadband service delivering  25 megabits per second downlink and 3 megabits per second uplink. Faster data transmission rates will be offered as Pacific Dataport builds out its system.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...