Rural Alaska, Arctic telecom projects continue growth

  • Ships from France are now en route to Alaska to begin laying undersea fiber optic cable as part of Phase 1 of the Quintillion project to connect Europe to Asia in a network crossing through the Arctic Ocean. Map/Courtesy/Quintillion

Broadband networks and provider contracts for Alaska’s largest telecommunications companies are slowly expanding in rural markets, focusing on large contracts with federally-funded Alaska Native organizations and municipal customers.

General Communications Inc. announced on June 21 the addition of 10 new Northwest Alaska villages into its now-completed TERRA network. Buckland, Kiana, Noorvik, Selawik, Koyuk, Elm, Golovin, White Mountain, Stebbins and St. Michael will now have access to internet connection speeds far faster than 6 megabits per second standard in many rural Alaska communities, which is well beneath the FCC benchmark of a minimum 25 megabits per second.

TERRA is a hybrid of broadband cable and microwave transmitters in stretching from Southwest to Northwest Alaska. The expansion is the second this year to build on the existing system.

The TERRA-Northwest project extends from Nome to Kotzebue. The Southwestern portion of TERRA began upgrades June 8 with new microwave radio networks from Levelock to Bethel — which allows 3G wireless data service in 28 communities in Southwestern rural Alaska villages, including Aniak, St. Mary’s, and Marshall.

GCI’s expansion will provide the standard wish list of high-speed internet applications to customers like video chat and gaming capability, but these customers are scarce in the sparsely populated Alaska bush while providing the service is expensive. Rural customers’ access, rather, follows the demands of regional centers for healthcare, education and government services.

GCI already has operating contracts with the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, Norton Sound Health Corp., and Maniilaq Association, an Alaska Native health and social services organization.

Telecommunications capability has broad applications for remote Alaska regions. Health organizations can implement telehealth options that enable health care professionals to diagnose and treat patients remotely, sparing both the expense of medical transport to more robust medical centers in urban Alaska and the difficulty of finding qualified personnel willing to move to villages.

Rural Alaska’s dismal education performance, among the nation’s lowest, also benefits from internet expansion.

“With high-speed internet access, our schools are able to leverage digital tools at a level that was not possible before. Giving students in remote communities access to cutting-edge technology to prepare them for the future workforce is critical,” said Annmarie O’Brien, superintendent of Northwest Arctic Borough School District, in a release. “Part of our district has been on TERRA for more than a year, and the impact is phenomenal. We’re thrilled for the other districts to follow suit.”

Greg Chappados, GCI’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the region’s contracts with key customers drive the company to continue expanding despite the expense.

 “The key is serving the anchor tenants,” said Chappados. “The healthcare providers, the education providers, those guys support the investment and make it possible to build the platform, then other people can get on the platform. If you were relying on those regular customers there’s not a chance that it would work.”

Larger customers — particularly medical customers — demand more and more development.

“What you’ve got to do for those customers is provide them continuing upgrades. They’re demanding customers.”

Chappados said GCI’s anchor tenants in rural Alaska pressure the company to complete the loop of broadband coverage running throughout the region by installing two Western Alaska mountaintop microwave sites at $2 million to $5 million apiece.

“A ring is a big deal in the telecommunications industry,” he said. “Those anchor tenants want higher availability, and that’s how you get it.”

Quintillion’s ships are coming in

Wireline wholesaler Quintillion’s plans for an intercontinental subsea fiber system connecting Asia and Europe continue to evolve.

The company sets the project into three phases, each of which representatives said are independently viable financially.

The first phase connects an undersea fiber system from Nome to Prudhoe Bay with an existing terrestrial fiber line running north from Fairbanks. The second will entrench a subsea line from Nome spur to Tokyo, while the third lays line from Prudhoe Bay to London.

Ships from France are currently en route to begin laying the subsea cable for phase one, scheduled for mid-July through October.

Rather than sell directly to customers, Quintillion hopes to draw Alaska’s telecommunications providers to the fiber system. Companies like GCI or Alaska Communication Systems, representatives said, should see the value of fiber over less robust platforms built and used internally.

“We know that fiber, long term, is much less expensive to operate and maintain than microwave or satellite,” said Kristina Woolston, Quintillion’s vice president of external communications. “We think the money that is currently being spent would be better spent on wireline systems. When you’re delivering long microwave hops, that’s when the system breaks down.”

Along with Cooper Investment Partners, Alaska Native organizations Arctic Slope Regional Corp., and Calista Corp. bought into the Alaska portion of the project, previously led by Canada’s Arctic Fibre. Now the project is entirely Alaskan.

Costs have shifted since the project started. Previously estimated at $250 million, Quintillion vice president of external relations Kristina Woolston can only say now the project is a “considerable investment.”

Woolston said Quintillion has already drawn up initial revenue contracts.

Separate from the undersea cable project, Quintillion has at least one contract in the area with a major telecommunications company. Quintillion already has an operating agreement with Alaska Communication Systems for the wireline segment running from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. ConocoPhillips formerly owned the fiber and is now an operating customer of Alaska Communications. 

ACS renews Kodiak telehealth contract

Outside the North Slope and away from the areas of coverage provided by the TERRA project, Alaska Communications is supplying Alaska Native health providers with coverage in Southcentral.

Alaska Communications representatives confirmed on June 21 that the company has drawn up a new five-year contract with Kodiak Area Native Association following the expiration of a previous three-year contract.

KANA provides health care services, including primary, specialty, behavioral and emergency services to Alaska Natives in Kodiak, Larson Bay, Ahiokiak, Port Lions, Old Harbor and Ouzinkie. The new contract will connect these hubs with upgraded speeds.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Updated: 
09/08/2016 - 10:30pm

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