Space-Based Solutions for Closing the Arctic Digital Divide

The ISS flies over the Earth at night. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Arctic is rapidly becoming more accessible due to climate change, bringing with it increased human activity in the form of resource exploration, shipping, tourism, and scientific research. All of this necessitates adequate connectivity capabilities. However, such communications infrastructure development in the polar regions has largely not kept pace with this increased demand. The United States should proactively close the connectivity gap in Alaska and across the Arctic more broadly by partnering with and reducing regulatory barriers for the private sector in developing and deploying new satellite communications technology and engaging its northern neighbors to leverage space-based solutions for pan-regional connectivity.   

Snapshot of Arctic Connectivity

The Arctic’s unique conditions hinder the provision of broad and reliable connectivity in the region. First, mountainous terrain, expansive (and now thawing) permafrost, and harsh climate make installing and maintaining ground-based communications infrastructure difficult and therefore costly.  These factors, combined with sparse population density and therefore less demand, mean that fixed-line delivery systems in these remote regions, such as fiber optics and cable, are often not economical. Furthermore, vessels and platforms operating off-shore are not well-served by such infrastructure. Second, while these terrestrial limitations are increasingly being overcome by space-based systems, the latter face their own challenges.  Connectivity is dependent on satellite visibility and signal fidelity, which, in the polar regions, are difficult to achieve.  Most communications satellites today are placed in geosynchronous equatorial orbits (GEO, also known as geostationary orbits),[1] from which satellite visibility of the polar latitudes is often obstructed by the curvature of the earth. Third, communication links face several potential disruptions: icy antennas, rough seas, as well as the effects of rain fade and other atmospheric phenomena due to their high altitudes (approximately 35,000 km). Moreover, the “ionosphere in Alaska causes problems with high frequency (HF) radio signals and affects radar sensors. That means even the US military’s and Coast Guard’s sophisticated communications systems can be degraded in certain parts of the Arctic.”[2] The confluence of these factors helps explain why the polar regions have long been underserved by communications systems. 

In the North American Arctic, in comparison to its European and Eurasian Arctic neighbors, this lack of connectivity is particularly acute.[3] Alaska ranks last in the United States in internet download speeds,[4] with the current average fixed broadband download speed in the state hovering at only 20.6 Mbps.[5] This stands in sharp contrast to the 2018 national average of 96.25 Mbps.[6]  Only the southeast portions of the state break 25 Mbps,[7] made largely possible by access to fiber optic and cable line systems.  In the outlying areas to the southwest, west, and northwest, satellite internet is often seen as the best solution to bringing undeveloped areas online, since the signal comes from the sky and therefore requires only local infrastructure be built, rather than expansive and costly fixed-line systems.[8]  However, not only is satellite internet in Alaska patchy and slow, it is also expensive: “zip codes in the bottom 10 percent of population density [in the U.S.] pay up to 37 percent more on average for residential wired broadband than those in the top 10 percent.”[9] All of this leaves 42 percent of the state’s population underserved in terms of reliable internet access.[10] 

Inadequate connectivity poses a number of challenges and risks in the Arctic. On the one hand, connectivity fosters sustainable and resilient communities and enables economic growth.  Isolated schools benefit immensely from internet access, which enables expanded course choices and educational content through distance-learning and online testing. A prolonged lack of access to these and other services means that future generations of Alaskans will be disadvantaged in the digital marketplace when it comes to competing for jobs.[11] Telemedicine services, including video appointments, remote consultations, and electronic patient health record-keeping[12] are also made possible by internet access, and a lack of it erodes vital healthcare in isolated communities.  Furthermore, providing decent service to the Arctic stands to aid the region economically by opening up “a hugely profitable market with shipping lines and other business enterprises.”[13]  From a safety and security perspective, a lack of connectivity jeopardizes positioning, navigation and communication of maritime transportation, search and rescue (SAR), and military operations. Importantly, every scenario that happens in the lower latitudes is possible in the Arctic, but many of the communications systems used in the former do not operate as well or at all in the circumpolar north.[14] Unreliable connectivity can have dangerous consequences for humans working, researching, and traveling in such remote and harsh environments.

Advancements in Space-Based Solutions and Remaining Challenges

The Arctic is poised to benefit from increased private-sector interest in utilizing space-based solutions to bring continuous broadband coverage to the entire globe. Advances in low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology, for example, offer workarounds to some of the main limitations of GEO systems, particularly inadequate polar coverage and high latency, or communication lag time. Rather than placing only a few large satellites in GEO, constellations of smaller satellites—spanning large swaths or even the entirety of the globe—can be placed closer to the earth’s surface at altitudes of 160 to 2,000 km, reducing the latency inherent in GEO signals having to travel back and forth over tens of thousands of kilometers of space.[15] For two decades, Iridium operated the foremost LEO satellite constellation providing global communications coverage, but this did not include broadband and service interruptions were known to occur, at times lasting for several minutes.[16]  Earlier this year, work on replacing the company’s legacy satellite constellation with its second-generation fleet, Iridium Next, was completed.[17] The higher data rates offered by these new satellites will enable web browsing and higher bandwidth activities in addition to the phone call and SMS messaging services standard on the predecessor satellites.[18]  Other companies have also joined the fray, with OneWeb (UK/U.S.), TeleSat (Canada) and Space X’s Starlink (U.S.) all putting sprawling constellations of satellites into LEO to provide continuous global coverage.

However, the LEO industry faces economic hurdles, as Elon Musk stated prior to a Starlink launch: “‘No one has ever succeeded in making a viable low Earth orbit communication constellation right off the bat.’”[19] One might recall Iridium SSC, the developer of the original Iridium constellation, which went bankrupt in 1999 after a lack of customer uptake failed to compensate for the high costs involved with getting all of the satellites up and running in orbit before launching commercial services.[20]  The constellation was later purchased in 2001 by Iridium Communications, which had identified a niche market wealthy enough to keep the system running—people like explorers, scientists, reporters, and the military who required coverage in remote places where no other communications systems could be used.[21] But even when expanding this market to include remote communities presently underserved by fixed-line connections, there remains speculation about whether demand will be sufficient to support all of these new mega-constellations.[22]

The use of fewer satellites, then, would theoretically bring costs down. Highly elliptical orbits (HEO), for example, offer similar benefits to GEO in that one or two satellites placed here have a broad view of the planet, with the added merit of better polar coverage. The elongated orbital shape has the advantage of a long apogee dwell time, which enables satellites to remain not only at high altitude but also at high latitude for long periods of time. Norway is already pursuing initiatives in this direction, with the state-owned Space Norway working to launch a two-satellite system at HEO to enable full Arctic coverage for Norwegian and American users.  By carrying military payloads for the U.S. along with those for the Ministry of Defense, and by expanding to include commercial services, Space Norway aims to defray costs.[23] Russia also currently operates HEO satellites and is expanding projects in this regard. At present, the Russian Express satellite constellation covers about 40 percent of the country’s Arctic territory, and the planned addition of five new Express-RV satellites to the fleet over the next five years will bring coverage of the Russian Arctic to 100 percent.[24]  There is the option for the Express-RV system to provide additional coverage over the entire Arctic as well, and to this end Russia, at last year’s Arctic Council Senior Officials meeting session on connectivity in Levi, Finland,[25] invited fellow Arctic states to join the project to provide coverage for “the benefit of all Arctic Council Member states.”[26]

A Proactive US Approach

The U.S. should promote private-public partnerships to overcome economic hurdles associated with the development and adoption of space-based communications systems in its Arctic territory. As the Arctic Council’s Task Force on Improved Connectivity in the Arctic (TFICA) notes, “public investment often supplements private investment to increase deployment of connectivity solutions in remote and less densely populated areas.  In these types of areas in the Arctic, a profitable business case relying exclusively on private investment is difficult to achieve.”[27]  On the other side of the equation, the federal government can work to reduce regulatory barriers to innovation and adoption where possible. Industry feedback received by the TFICA in compiling its report highlighted an interest in a “regulatory environment that allows for piloting new technologies to facilitate earlier commercial development in the Arctic,” as well as regulatory clarity on the requirements that are unique to the region.[28]

In addition to its responsibility to ensure adequate connectivity in Alaska for sustainable development, resilient communities, economic growth, and national security imperatives, the U.S., as one of eight Arctic states, also has a responsibility to work with its northern neighbors in areas of mutual interest, including pan-Arctic connectivity. Regarding space-based solutions, the United States’ cooperation with Norway to achieve full Arctic satellite coverage via an HEO system is a promising step toward meeting the military’s growing connectivity needs in the region. On the civilian side, the U.S. can continue to engage in cooperative efforts to boost connectivity in areas of mutual interest to all Arctic states, such as in SAR and air traffic control for trans-Arctic flights. In this endeavor, continued cooperation in relevant Arctic Council working groups and task forces, as well as with other organizations such as the Arctic Economic Council, could prove fruitful. By taking such steps, the U.S. will be better connected in Alaska and the broader Arctic, and therefore better positioned to engage in the region’s future. 


[1] Geosynchronous and geostationary orbits are sometimes used interchangeably but there are important differences. A geosynchronous orbit (GSO) can be circular or elliptical, with an orbital period equal to Earth’s rotation time.  To keep time with Earth’s movement, GSO satellites must be placed at an altitude of 35,786 km from the planet’s surface. A geostationary, or geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO), is a special kind of geosynchronous orbit; in order to be “stationary,” the orbit must have a constant latitude and longitude, therefore it should be circular and, as the name implies, be in the plane of the equator.  See:  Umair Hussaini, “Geosynchronous vs Geostationary Orbits – Types of Orbits (1/2),” Technobyte, August 18, 2019,   

[2] Bill Eidson, “Navigating the Arctic’s Communications Challenges,” MITRE, July 2019,

[3] “Telecommunications Infrastructure in the Arctic: A Circumpolar Assessment,” Task Force on Telecommunications Infrastructure in the Arctic (TFTIA) Report, The Arctic Council, 2017, 10,

[4] “Broadband Providers By State,” Broadband Now, November 20, 2019,

[5] “Internet Access in Alaska,” Broadband Now, October 16, 2019,

[6] “United States: Fixed Broadband Speedtest Data,” (Report), Speed Test, December 12, 2018,

[7] “Internet Access in Alaska,” October 2019.

[8] John Gedmark, “Why We’re Excited About Alaska,” Medium, January 16, 2019,

[9] “Digital Divide: Broadband Pricing by State, Zip Code, and Income Level,” Broadband Now, January 4, 2019,

[10] “Internet Access in Alaska,” October 2019.

[11] Melodie Bowler, “Overregulating the Internet Would Stall Progress to Connect Alaska,” Alaska Policy Forum, August 12, 2019,

[12] Liz Ruskin, “Rural Alaska Clinics Depend on Broadband Internet. What Happens When It Goes Out?” KTOO Public Media, September 12, 2019,

[13] Erin Winick, “Why the Future of Satellite Internet Might be Decided in Rural Alaska,” MIT Technology Review, February 14, 2019,

[14] Jeremy D. Singer, “Testing Satellite Communications Links on Top of the World,” MITRE, December 2016,

[15] Daniel Oberhaus, “SpaceX Is Banking on Satellite Internet. Maybe It Shouldn’t,” Wired, May 15, 2019,

[16] “Arctic Poses Communications Challenges,” European Space Agency, Accessed November 20, 2019,

[17] Caleb Henry, “Iridium Ends Legacy Satellite Service, Switches all Traffic to Next Fleet,” SpaceNews, February 6, 2019,

[18] Doris Orman, “What’s Iridium NEXT?” Outfitter Satellite Phones blog, May 4, 2015,

[19] Oberhaus, 2019.

[20] William Graham, “Iridium NEXT-5 satellites ride to orbit on SpaceX Falcon 9,”, March 29, 2018,

[21] Doug Millard, “Iridium: Story of a Communications Solution No One Listened To,” NewScientist, August 3, 2016,

[22] Oberhaus, 2019.

[23] Caleb Henry, “Space Norway in Final Procurement for Two Highly Elliptical Orbit Satellites,” SpaceNews, April 10, 2019,

[24] “Russia Planning $1bn Arctic Communication Satellites System,” Russia Business Today, April 25, 2018,

[25] Andrey Kirillovich, “Satellite Connectivity for Telecommunications Development in the Arctic Regions of Russia,” (Presentation at the Arctic Council Senior Officials Meeting Session on Connectivity, Levi, Finland, March 23, 2018),

[26] Kirillovich, 10.

[27] “Report: Improving Connectivity in the Arctic,” Task Force on Improved Connectivity in the Arctic (TFICA) Report, The Arctic Council, May 7, 2019, 45,

[28] TFICA Report, 46.

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