The remarkable story of Emmett Fitch
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The remarkable story of Emmett Fitch

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From a student that couldn’t study in his hometown to the first Starlink community gateway partner, Capacity tells the remarkable story of Emmett Fitch

In January of 2024, Starlink unveiled a new community gateway product that allows local internet providers to distribute fibre-like speed connectivity to homes, businesses, and governments.

The first of these community gateways was installed in Unalaska, Alaska, but it might not have been, if it wasn’t for a computer science and applied mathematics graduate trying to get a place on the University of Washington’s (UW) Electrical Engineering masters program.

 Enter Emmett Fitch. Born and raised in Unalaska, a small town in the middle of the Bering Sea and the largest fishing port in the US in terms of the weight of the catch, Fitch has spent most of his life there.

“I realised that to get onto the master’s program at UW, I actually needed to study. It wasn’t until this point that I realised you couldn’t use the internet in Unalaska,” he tells Capacity.

For the last four years he had been coming back to his hometown to work in the summers, often for 18 hours a day, and in the internet’s nascent years he didn’t ever need to use it. 

The same was true for the rest of the town. Fitch recalls that his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, was a substitute teacher whose students wouldn’t even consider using the internet for a research project, instead thinking the only source of information available to them was the local library.

Fitch saw this as a problem, but in order to bring connectivity to his hometown, he needed to take matters into his own hands.

He set up his own ISP, Optimera, in 2005, with a goal of installing 1,000 wireless access points across the town. It was not welcomed with open arms by the locals.

“Remember, this is before smartphones existed, so the Unalaksan residents couldn’t understand why they would need internet connectivity in the grocery store.”

“Why would I want to take my computer there?” they asked him.

Unperturbed, Fitch set out selling connectivity to businesses instead. When a much larger Alaskan telco came in to build its own WiFi network in Unalaska, he pivoted intoserving the neighbouring community of Akutan, on an island NorthEast of Unalaksa towards the Alaskan mainland.

Akutan has a temporary community of 1,000 fish processors that work there for eight to ten months of the year. Fitch installed a WiFi network in the processing plant where the employees also lived, and set up a WiFi phone company at the same time, which gave employees the opportunity to buy minutes and data by the gigabyte.

Fast forward to 2015 and despite the widespread adoption of the internet elsewhere across the US, nothing had changed in Unalaska.

There was still no LTE service, and chased out of Akutan by the same telco that forced him out of his hometown, Fitch reverted back to his idea of installing the access points and creating a data like experience for Unalaska’s residents.

Optimera already had a small foothold in the community, with some enterprise customers choosing a small local provider that could respond better to their networking issues.

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This time the reception was very different.

“The Optimera hotspot was like a slingshot,” Fitch recalls.

“The best service you could get at the time was advertised as 256kb, but in reality it was more like 56kb.”

 Perhaps an early foreshadowing of their eventual relationship, Optimera flipped the script and offered services adjacent to how Starlink does now.

“We didn’t restrict access,” he explains. “The nature of how the internet was being used at the time meant data demands were coming in short bursts, rarely was it a phonecall or a stream, it was more that someone wanted to load a webpage, and then there would be nothing while they browsed.”

“If we had 50mb of capacity available, and no one else was using it, you could access all 50mb. Our prices were pretty much the same as the large Alaskan telco, but because of this we were able to offer a much better quality of service.”

The demand was strong. Without an unlimited fibre connection, Optimera would distribute the data it could provide on its website, selling by the gigabyte for a period of 30 days.

“What we didn’t account for is that people would actually buy more than they could ever use, because they wouldn’t want to run out,” Fitch recalls.

Emboldened by its success and Unalaska’s new found thirst for connectivity, Optimera started eploying its own LTE network in 2017.

It supported this with c-band satellite transport and built its own earth station. But soon they even maxed out capacity on this.

Fortunately, Starlink had just become available in Unalaska. Geographically, the town sits just on the edge of its first-generation constellation.

“On one of our first calls with their engineers, they told us, ‘hey we’re a bit different, we sell everything by the gigabyte,’ and I said ‘great, that’s how we want to buy it!’”

The Ka band gateway product wasn’t available yet, so Fitch made do with the smaller terminals available at the time.

“We started bonding the terminals together, but anyone that’s ever tried this quickly figures out that it’s a lot harder than you’d think.”

“Coverage was spotty at first, integrating the Starlink network with its variable ping times and periodic drops made it tricky, but we figured out how to incorporate the small terminals into our network.”

Some time later, Fitch and his teams started hearing rumours that a solution more tailored to their needs was to become available.

They spoke to their contacts at Starlink, who needed someone to trial the community gateway system with, and the partnership was formed.

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Beyond being a networking company and an LTE service provider that had already built earth stations, Optimera was set apart by the fact that it’s also an electrical contractor.

“So when Starlink told us how they wanted the gateway to work, we were able to rapidly turn around and tell them how we’d do it. We’re a smaller operator, so we can be much nimbler, there’s no bureaucracy in our company.”

Fitch acknowledges that deploying a network in rural areas is not as lucrative as other telecom businesses.

“But going into a community and hooking them up for the first time, you can really see the difference that you’re making,” he says.

Fitch recalls one time he walked into a bar to find it silent and the joint’s clientele with their face in their phones.

“I got one!” someone said. Optimera’s pre-paid gigabit plans were sold out and everyone was desperately trying to buy data as older plans expired and became available.

Since then, the Starlink gateway project has provided the town with more capacity than Fitch ever thought possible back when he was learning how to lay his own cable and backpacking up mountains to install microwave backlinks between islands.

“It’s been life changing for the town,” he says. “It’s made a lot of things possible that were not possible before. It was impossible to get a picture to download before, let alone stream a movie.”

In a poetic callback to his reason for setting up Optimera in the first place, Fitch has been able to work with different educational programs enabling students to engage in distance learning.

This transformation has been compounded no end by the latest Starlink tech.

“It’s a symptom of cost,” Fitch explains. “What we could do alone was making some difference, but it was really expensive. The community gateway connectivity is now orders of magnitude cheaper than it used to be, and that’s only going to unlock more opportunities in the future.”

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