Alaska becomes a ‘First Frontier’ for 5G
GCI is partnering with global telecom giant Ericsson to make Anchorage among the first cities worldwide to have a standards-based 5G data network.
The leaders of the Alaska- and Sweden-based companies made the announcement June 18 during a project unveiling at Alaska Pacific University.
The transformation to a 5G network will be “one of the biggest initiatives in GCI’s history,” CEO Ron Duncan said.
“The result will be a wireline-wireless experience that will provide our customers nearly ubiquitous data connectivity across the city,” Duncan said.
GCI has worked with Ericsson for roughly a decade; the companies also partnered on the recently completed TERRA project, which offers fiber-based high-speed broadband internet to more than 80 Western Alaska communities.
Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm said GCI is joining “an elite group of operators” in being one of the first to launch a true 5G network.
“Maybe it’s time to rephrase and not call Alaska the Last Frontier, but the ‘First Frontier,’” Ekholm said.
The roughly $30 million project will increase Anchorage’s wireless data capacity by 10-fold and will make Anchorage the 22nd city worldwide to utilize Ericsson’s 5G technology, through GCI’s network, according to Duncan.
Ericsson is a telecommunications technology developer that sells network infrastructure and software to telecom retailers and others. About 40 percent of the world’s mobile phone traffic occurs through an Ericsson network, according to the company.
5G is a term used for the fifth generation of wireless networks.
The speed and capacity of 5G networks will make such data networks increasingly critical infrastructure, Ekholm said, comparing them to bridges, roads and airports, while acknowledging that it’s still unknown what uses others will come up with for the faster networks. He noted that developers did not consider mobile phone e-commerce or banking when building 4G networks.
Supporting artificial intelligence, autonomous cars and “smart city” infrastructure were some of the things 5G networks could be utilized for, the men surmised.
“What we know is that 10-times speed, 10-times lower latency, 100-times more connected devices per surface area — we will offer a lot of innovation,” Ekholm said.
He estimated there will be roughly 1.9 billion 5G subscriptions globally by 2024.
Duncan said he expects the Anchorage project to be done by the end of next year, with the first 5G being available in parts of the city early next year.
The work will involve installing Ericsson’s standards-based 5G New Radio equipment and software at 82 cell tower sites across the city, according to GCI.
Those towers will work in conjunction with “microcells” — through wireline connections in buildings and elsewhere — across the city to fully form the new network, Duncan explained. He said it’s unclear when the company might expand 5G coverage to other parts of the state.
Ekholm added partnering with GCI allows Ericsson to test its products in and get feedback from one of the northernmost markets in the world with a harsh climate.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said GCI’s work will help make the city a more competitive place to attract new people and businesses and retain existing ones.
“We live in a time of rapid acceleration where we are more connected than ever before, where things are moving more quickly than they ever have in the past. Unless we are on the cutting edge, we will be left behind,” Berkowitz said.
For the Municipality of Anchorage, a faster, higher-capacity mobile network will help the city better deploy resources, such as police, monitor more of its assets in real-time and generally operate more efficiently, according to Berkowitz.
“I know that GCI is one of our largest taxpayers; Ron reminds me of that periodically and I am sure that he’s going to appreciate the fact that with 5G we will be able to spend his tax dollars much more efficiently,” he quipped.
He said the network would have been immensely helpful while officials were responding to last November’s 7.1 magnitude earthquake.
AT&T, GCI’s primary mobile phone competitor, announced last year that Anchorage would be part of its 5G network rollout, which was set to be deployed this year and next.
So far, the AT&T has updated its network to 5G Evolution in Anchorage, Bethel and Kusilvak in Western Alaska, which enables customers in those areas with 5G-enabled devices to access faster speeds, spokesman Brent Camara wrote in an email to the Journal.
“While we have not yet announced specific plans for 5G cities in Alaska, we continue investing in building the network our customers need today and preparing for the future,” he said.
Duncan said in a follow-up media briefing that only AT&T customers in Chicago and a handful of other Lower 48 cities are able to realize the benefits of the new networks.
He added that rates for GCI mobile data plans shouldn’t change with the deployment of the 5G network, but noted that more expensive, 5G-capable devices are required to harness the network’s capabilities.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].