Year in Review: Satellite-based broadband effort advances through pandemic

It was an on again-off again start to the year — but ultimately on — for a deal that promises to bring multiple layers of broadband coverage to Alaska.

Alaska telecommunications provider Microcom and London-based OneWeb announced an agreement Jan. 15 that would make the Anchorage-based company the Alaska distributor of space on OneWeb’s global broadband network that is currently in-the-works.

Microcom leaders said OneWeb’s broadband network utilizing nearly 700 low-earth orbit satellites would complement the company’s own Aurora broadband network currently in development.

The onset of the pandemic did not stop the work by Microcom subsidiary Pacific Dataport Inc. on the fully financed Aurora broadband project but it did push OneWeb into bankruptcy.

OneWeb was pulled from bankruptcy in July when the U.K. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy teamed with investment firm Bharti Global Ltd. to commit more than $1 billion to purchase OneWeb and restart its global satellite project.

OneWeb and PDI leaders said their deal was back on as well. The original plan to start offering service in Alaska by the end of the year was pushed back several months by the pandemic.

2. ACS goes private

Alaska Communications Systems announced on election day that it would be purchased by an affiliate of the global investment firms Macquarie Capital and GCM Grosvenor for $300 million in cash.

The deal announced received unanimous support from the Alaska Communications board of directors, according to CEO Bill Bishop, and represents a nearly 51 percent premium on the 30-day weighted average price of Alaska Communications stock as of Nov. 2.

Under the deal the Macquarie and GCM affiliate will acquire all outstanding shares of Alaska Communications common stock at $3 per share.

The company reported total assets of $567 million and total liabilities of $401.4 million through the third quarter.

The Anchorage-based telecom netted $2.3 million during the quarter on, coincidentally, 2.3 percent year-over-year total revenue growth. Total revenue for the quarter was $60.5 million and it is up 2.8 percent for the year at $178.2 million, according to the quarterly earnings report.

Alaska Communications sold its wireless phone business to GCI in early 2015 in a $300 million cash deal that transferred roughly 109,000 customers between the competitors.

Company leaders expect to close the deal in the second half of 2021 presuming the requisite shareholder and regulatory hurdles are cleared.

3. Broadband grants

A pair of Alaska telecoms got $46.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in late October to install new fiber optic broadband networks in parts of the state’s remote island regions.

Unicom Inc., a GCI subsidiary, agreed match a $25 million grant with its own $33 million investment to build a roughly 800-mile subsea fiber network stretching from Kodiak along the Gulf side of the Alaska Peninsula to Unalaska.

Southeast utility Alaska Power and Telephone Wireless Co. was awarded $21.5 million for its SEALink broadband project, which aims to provide a fiber optic network to all premises in the Prince of Wales Island communities of Kasaan and Coffman Cove.

Contributing $7 million of its own capital to the project, Alaska Power and Telephone also plans to install a 214-mile fiber optic cable running from Prince of Wales north to Petersburg and Juneau.

The rural Alaska broadband grants are part of $550 million in grants awarded through the second round of the USDA’s ReConnect Program.

Work on the SEALink project in Southeast is scheduled to continue until 2025; at which point Alaska Power and Telephone says it will likely be able to extend high-speed broadband to other Prince of Wales communities.

GCI expects its Alaska United-Aleutians Fiber project will be substantially complete by the end of 2022.

Updated: 
12/16/2020 - 9:14am