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Remote Alaska village joins 21st century with cell service

Diane JeantetThe Cordova Times
Courtesy Cathy Long

OMG: For the first time in Yakutat's history, LOL, ROFL, BRB, CYL8R and other encrypted codes often shared among texting teenagers will make their way to this remote part of Alaska.

Until July 23, the 640 residents of Yakutat, located along an isolated stretch of the Gulf of Alaska, had never owned a cell phone -- or at least never been able to make use of them. For several years a number of telephone companies promised to set up cell-phone coverage in this hard-to-reach village, but the service was never delivered.

It came as no surprise then, that although a vast majority of Yakutat residents were thrilled by the arrival of Cordova Wireless Communications, a handful remained rather skeptical.

Aware of the situation in Yakutat and willing to expand their services there, it took years before Cordova Wireless Communications, a branch of Cordova Telephone Cooperative, could venture in the area and put their plans into action. Until last summer AT&T detained a lease in the region, preventing Cordova Wireless from expanding. But the giant telecom never went further into setting up cell phone coverage, and when the lease became available, Cordova Wireless invested.

From then, the wireless company had a year to set everything up. Landlines were already functioning and the tower existed, but a shelter had yet to be built and all the electronics set up. For a year the team worked hard to meet the tight deadline. A few days ago, Cathy Long and Amy Langebartel, employees of Cordova Wireless, sealed the deal and jumped on an Alaska Airlines flight for Yakutat.

"We took five big boxes with us and we flew to Yakutat to test the equipment. It's really convenient. It's only 35 minutes away," said Cathy Long. The two women were bringing a few basic office supplies but the large blue plastic boxes were mainly filled with brand new cell phones to hand out to residents. On the opening day, Long recalls, the huge line of customers that was coming all the way out of the door.

And on July 23, exactly four days before the target date, the duo was joined by their CEO, Paul Kelly, to switch on the buttons and test the signal.

“On the first day, Amy and I activated probably close to 100 phones in an hour," said Beverly Bremner, the newly hired Yakutat representative for Cordova Wireless Communications. "It was hectic, the line was going all the way out of the building."

Her new office, a temporary folding table by the DVD section at the back of Mallot’s General Store, used to be a very popular spot. Every morning a few members of the community would gather at the back of the grocery store, commonly known as the Bullshit Corner or Whine Cellar, to chat around a warm cup of coffee.

For two and a half weeks, Amy Langebartel of Cordova Wireless trained Bemner so she could handle onsite customer service by herself.

"One of my main concerns," explained Bremner, "is that fishermen would be able to contact somebody if they need help.” Mission accomplished, she continued; fishermen have been calling from as far as 12 miles away from the shore.

But even when the signal is interrupted, texting is often possible.

"When you send a text message, you don't realize it but you just need a few seconds of good signal for it to be sent," explains Kelly, the CEO of the Cordova Wireless. In Prince William Sound, this is how fishermen often communicate.

Many in Yakutat have been taking advantage of the convenience and reassurance brought by the use of cell phones, to the point where they're already thinking about closing their landlines, Bremner said. But a few residents, the most suspicious ones, are waiting to make sure the cell phones are actually working before embracing this latest piece of technology that should bring the whole village a little closer to the 21st century.

You can reach Diane Jeantet with comments and suggestions at djeantet@thecordovatimes.com