If you live in Anchorage or another urban area with high speed internet, think back to the days of the dial-up modem. Remember how slow and annoying that was? Now you can empathize with Rural Alaskans, who still struggle with a slow and cumbersome satellite system.
But once GCI’s Project TERRA-Southwest is completed, all that will change for about 65 communities in Western Alaska.
TERRA is an acronym for “Terrestrial for Every Region in Alaska,” a tall order. But the project’s mission for now is to bring high speed internet service to Bristol Bay and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
“This is the largest project GCI has done to date,” says Jimmy Sipes, who is Vice President of Network Services for the Alaska telecommunications company. “And this is very much like fielding an army. It’s all about logistics.”
Sipes is also GCI’s chief engineer and in his 29 years with the company, this has been his most challenging project. Timing, Sipes says, has been critical. One of the big hurdles: getting all the construction materials and equipment on barges to Dillingham, one of the staging areas for Project TERRA.
“We had to catch the rivers at high water, during the spring run-off in order to get the cranes in,” says Sipes. “We had to catch the mountain-tops, just as the snow melted off, because we have a very short construction season.”
Building an information super highway in a region with no roads requires a completely different approach, especially when it runs across wilderness, that includes a federal wildlife refuge.
To get around the geographic challenges, engineers designed a hybrid communications network, that uses a mix of fiber optic cable and series of microwave relays. The new system required the construction of nine microwave towers, four mountain-top repeaters and more than 400 miles of cable, which is buried under tundra, rivers, lakes, and the sea.
Earlier this summer, crews began laying cable in Homer, where they extended it across Cook Inlet, to Williamsport in the Lake Iliamna area.
Cable was also dropped into Lake Iliamna, one of Alaska’s deepest lakes and about sixty miles from end to end. To lay the cable so that it would conform to the lake bed, GCI had to survey the lake’s underwater contours, which had never been done before.
GCI also wound up installing two underwater cables in Lake Iliamna, to provide a back-up.
“Should you get a break of that cable during the winter months,” said Sipes, “you will not be able to recover the cable to repair it until the ice goes out.”
Initially, GCI had considered skirting part of the Bristol Bay coast with cable, but decided on the microwave relay, because of sea ice.
Sipes says there’s very little knowledge about the movement of ice and sediments and their impact on cable in Alaskan waters. To learn more, GCI conducted extensive research on an undersea cable in Turnagain Arm, installed as a back-up line in case of an avalanche or other problems that might disrupt service.
The cable went in south of Anchorage, near the train museum at Potter Marsh and connected to Portage and Whittier. The studies on this segment of GCI’s fiber optic system helped make decisions about Project TERRA-Southwest.
“We looked at constructing a fiber optic cable under water from Dillingham around to Bethel, and we had to consider the possibility of a break in the cable during the period of time when its covered by ice,” said Sipes. “And the only way we could address the availability was to lay in a second cable, which would make the project economically unfeasible.”
Building redundancy into the system added to the costs, as well as getting the necessary state and federal permits.
Martin Cary, who is Vice President and General Manager of Broadband Services for GCI, says Project TERRA required more than 120 permits.
“It’s the most complicated federal permitting job we’ve ever dealt with,” says Cary. “It’s turned out to be more complicated than we imagined.”
One of the biggest challenges was getting permits to install two repeaters on mountain-tops in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
The work there was a dangerous ballet between ground crews and a helicopter pilot. Workers on the mountain moved buildings and fuel tanks into place, as they were suspended by helicopter and slowly lowered to the ground.
GCI also installed microwave towers in nine Bristol Bay communities: Levelock, Naknek, Ekwok, New Stuyahok, Koliganek, Dillingham, Manokotak, Platinum, and Good News.
The last link in the Bristol Bay part of Project TERRA will connect Good News Bay to Quinhagak, which is tied to the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta’s vast network of microwave relays. Good News Bay will hook-up to Quinhagak via a microwave repeater on Cone Mountain.
GCI has spent the last year upgrading the capacity of the Y-K Delta microwave network -- so once Project TERRA reaches Quinhagak, the backbone of the project will be in place and connect most of Southwest Alaska to the fiber optic cable system in Anchorage.
The Bristol Bay portion of the project should be finished by the end of the year and will allow internet service to move from, what is the equivalent of a virtual dirt road, to the fast lane of the information highway. Schools, health clinics and hospitals will see immediate benefits. It’ll be awhile before everyone in the community will be able to cruise the fast lane.
Next year, GCI will focus what it calls the “Last Mile,” which involves installing equipment in each community, to serve about 9,000 households and 750 businesses -- a population too small to pay for the costs of building Project TERRA-Southwest.
GCI says a telecommunications network of this size would not have been possible without federal subsidies. Thanks to the federal stimulus program, the company received 88 million dollars in grants and loans.
“We had estimated 120 new jobs as a result of the project for the construction,” says GCI’s Martin Cary, “and we believe we are well over that.”
But even more important than Project TERRA’s construction jobs, are, the jobs of the future -- made possible by high speed internet access.
“I think anything you touch (with broadband service) is going to be enhanced,” says Jason Metrokin, President and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.
Metrokin struggles with the limits of telephone and internet service with Western Alaska on a daily basis. The long satellite delays make it difficult, if not impossible, to send and receive large data file. It even makes phone service unreliable.
“Folks in our region are going to see some of the opportunity, where their livelihoods will be changed for the better,” said Metrokin.
“It’s a challenge for a small business in Rural Alaska to compete, to even put a website up,” says GCI’s Martin Cary. “This is gonna change that.”
Cary spent the early years of his career in Barrow, helping to lay the foundations of the internet highway for the North Slope Borough and the school district. He says, with a satellite-based system, it was a pretty bumpy road.
“A satellite is 22,000 miles above the earth, at the equator, so your electronic bit is having to go 22,000 miles up and 22,000 miles down. That takes a quarter of a second each way. And so that creates the delay,” said Martin. “And computer applications don’t work well in that environment. They’re expecting to get instant acknowledgements back.”
Those instant acknowledgements are needed to use new computer applications for telemedicine and the exchange of digital patient records. Martin says those records will eventually be managed by companies in the Lower 48, so it’s critical that health clinics and hospitals in Rural Alaska have broadband service.
Rural schools also need connectivity, to prepare students for jobs that require internet savvy.
The Kodiak Kenai Cable Company, a subsidiary of the Old Harbor Native Corporation, is also looking at the possibility of running an undersea cable across the coast of Western Alaska to the North Slope, which would eventually run over the top of the globe and connect to London. In 2006, KKCC completed an underwater cable link between Kodiak and Kenai.
KKCC’s Western Alaska cable project is still in the exploration phase -- but if it happens, GCI says it wouldn’t necessarily be competition, because the two companies would likely use each other’s systems to provide back-up service.
In the future, GCI would like to extend the system to Kotzebue and move northward, eventually to the North Slope, where it can connect to a fiber optic cable that follows the Trans Alaska Pipeline.
But for now, GCI is focused on Project TERRA-Southwest. And Chief Engineer says, when this new information highway is ready for traffic, he’ll feel, “Elated. Relieved. And very proud.”