GCI to connect Southwest with broadband

Photo courtesy of GCI

Southwest Alaska is ready to get online a year after General Communications Inc. broke ground on a historic project to bring high-speed internet access to the region.

Construction of the Terra-Southwest network was completed in October and GCI is now migrating large customers such as hospitals, schools and Alaska Native corporations from satellite-based service to the new terrestrial broadband network.

Bethel will be the first to receive residential broadband access, perhaps as early as February, and by the end of 2012 some 9,000 households in 65 communities from Pedro Bay to Emmonak will be connected.

Residents in Southwest Alaska can’t wait.

“I get a couple emails a week saying, ‘when can I hook up?’” said Krag Johnsen, GCI director of rural broadband.

Johnsen noted Terra-SW is what’s known as a “middle mile” network, or an internet “superhighway” to Western Alaska. Reaching residential consumers is the “last mile” network and will require some additional gear and equipment to reach homes with wireless broadband service.

At 10 a.m. Jan. 12, the first video teleconference served as a virtual ribbon cutting between Gov. Sean Parnell and Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. President and CEO Gene Peltola utilizing the new interface between the existing DeltaNet in Bethel and Terra-SW.

The high-speed capacity will improve all manners of health care in Southwest Alaska through telemedicine, telepsychiatry and transmission of electronic health records.

Previously, mammograms taken at five subregional clinics and in Bethel would be performed and then mailed out to a radiologic contractor in Ohio, who would read the mammogram and mail it back — a process that often took 10 days or more. Now, a radiologist can give a read-back in less than 30 minutes.

Increased education and economic development possibilities are also on the horizon.

“This project is a game-changer,” Johnson said.

GCI will begin its Terra-Northwest project this year, extending the Terra-SW network from its current northernmost point in Grayling to Unalakleet and then to Shaktoolik, with plans to reach Nome by 2013.

The $88 million Terra-SW project — funded with a $44 million grant from the 2009 stimulus bill and a $44 million low-cost loan — is remarkable not only for bringing 21st century communications infrastructure to some of the most remote and impoverished parts of Alaska, but also for the construction feat of completing the network more than a year ahead of schedule.

That’s no small accomplishment in a state with a short construction season that brings a host of logistical challenges and where any delays in permitting can be costly.

Starting with marine divers placing cable along the bottom of the frozen Kvichak River last winter, GCI laid 395 miles of submarine and land-based fiber-optic cable for the Terra-SW project and constructed 13 new microwave towers, including four mountaintop repeater towers along the coast of Bristol Bay that are unlike anything else in its network.

Construction seasons are even shorter for those mountaintop locations, and were the main reason GCI budgeted two construction seasons to complete the project with three requiring federal permits.

The mountaintop repeater towers are a crucial link in the network, picking up the end of the fiber-optic cable at Levelock (about 40 miles west of Iliamna Lake) to transport the signals throughout the Kuskokwim Delta.

The four mountaintop sites need power to run year-round and each have a pair of 4,500-gallon fuel tanks storing low-sulfur diesel.

“We didn’t have a site like that in the system prior to Terra, so we didn’t have a blueprint,” said GCI Terra-SW project manager Chuck Russell. “There was a lot of engineering on the power module to make it through a winter. Initially we were just going to do one site and then do the remaining three the following year, then we just said this is kind of silly. We had the contractor mobilized, we had a barge coming up with all the equipment on it. I suppose we bet on the come a little bit.”

 “Betting on the come” is a gambling expression when a player bets without yet having what he needs to win. In GCI’s case, betting the come meant mobilizing for constructing all four towers in the expectation of receiving its needed federal permits.

The bet paid off when federal approvals — among the 120 or so permits GCI needed to complete the project — for the three remote mountaintop sites came in late spring of 2011 on the eve of the construction season.

A similarly well-timed approval from the state Department of Natural Resources allowed GCI to break ground last January on the 40-mile trench it needed to dig from the southern bank of Iliamna Lake where the new fiber-optic line stretching from Homer across Cook Inlet reached land. The trench had to be dug in the winter because the heavy equipment would sink into the soft tundra in the summer.

Along the way, divers had to lay the cable along a 1,500-foot stretch on bottom of the Kvichak River.

“These are professional hard-hat divers used to working in Cook Inlet, so they were delighted,” Russell said. “They hardly ever get to work in clear water. It was duck soup to them.”

Johnsen spent 10 years with the Denali Commission prior to joining GCI about two years ago, and understands firsthand the needs of rural Alaska as well as the historic nature of bringing high-speed internet access to the region.

With an environmental assessment numbering some 450 pages and extensive public comment and meetings, securing all necessary permits wasn’t a streamlined process, Johnsen said, but all state and federal agencies recognized the significance of moving the project forward.

“There was a lot of good will from many folks on this project to help Western Alaska with economic opportunity,” he said.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

01/12/2012 - 12:43pm