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GCI offering new Internet fiber service that's 20 times faster

Alex DeMarban

A homegrown Alaska telecom company plans to spend more than $100 million to sharply boost broadband Internet speeds in the Anchorage area for free, with neighborhoods expressing the most interest getting first dibs.

GCI wants to deploy 1-gigabit Internet service in the Anchorage area by 2015, providing a service that's 20 times faster than the top speed offered by GCI today -- and 100 times faster than the average speed nationwide.

As part of the ramp-up, GCI announced on Thursday it had already doubled the speed for 1,000 customers on its premier fiber service known as Re:D, taking their service from 50 megabits per second to 100. Their monthly rates were also reduced $25 to $175.

Additional increases in speed as a result of the fiber buildup will not lead to higher prices, including when customers reach 1 gigabit, said Ron Duncan, chief executive of GCI. As for customers who prefer slower, cheaper service -- like the 12 megabit per second plan for $49 a month -- they can keep their existing plan. As more of Anchorage signs up for the 1 gigabyte option, those slower Internet surfers might eventually see slightly speedier service, but they won't have to pay more for it.

What's a gig good for?

“You can save a lot of time, for starters,” said Duncan at press conference at the company's midtown offices. “You can get your HD movie downloaded in 18 seconds instead of 30 minutes. It doesn't even give you time to make the popcorn. You can download a console game in 33 seconds rather than 55 minutes. Just think how many more games your kids can play, how they can run up the bill on your games.”

The announcement comes as GCI faces new competitive headwinds. Mobile service provider Verizon Wireless recently moved to Alaska, offering high-speed 4G LTE data service, even though that service has yet to arrive in many Lower 48 communities. Cable provider GCI has also begun acquiring TV stations in Alaska through its subsidiary Denali Media, and it recently ended a bloody public feud with KTUU-TV that led GCI to drop the popular station in several markets.

GCI said limiting its plans for fiber expansion to Anchorage makes sense because expansion will rely on a dense base of customers. But Duncan said areas already served by broadband, such as Fairbanks, also can request the service.

The speed will be increased in part by reducing the amount of homes already served by a single fiber optic node. Updated software for modems also helps make the transition possible, Duncan said.

Residents can “evangelize” the benefits to neighbors to build interest and be the first to get the improved service, said Duncan. They can sign up online, and the public will be able to see who has expressed interest. 

“We'll use that to plan out our individual neighborhoods,” said Duncan. “We'll say, 'Well there's a density of 50 or 60 people here, our guys can get to that area pretty quickly and pretty cheaply.”

Anchorage neighborhoods expressing the most interest will be the first to get fiber Re:D.

“But ultimately, virtually every place in the city will have access to the service,” Duncan said.

Some neighborhoods and buildings will get 1 gigabit well in advance of 2015, Duncan said. “When we turn up a building or a neighborhood, we'll promote it and drive some excitement,” he said. “It's a way to generate interest in the project and a way for us to optimize how we do build-out because we can't rip up all the streets and dig up all the fiber at once.” 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com