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GCI plans 5G wireless network in Anchorage for faster internet

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: June 19
  • Published June 18

GCI technician Andy Parker stands atop a cell tower on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. Parker was performing a quality audit on work done by a contractor. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Alaska telecom company GCI will start building a 5G wireless network in Anchorage this summer, making for faster internet and greater network capacity.

GCI is partnering with Swedish telecom company Ericsson to build the network, the companies announced on Monday. They are billing the forthcoming 5G network as the first in Alaska and the northernmost such network in the nation.

A 5G — fifth-generation — network will increase the capacity of GCI’s wireless network in Anchorage by 10 times or more and provide better coverage, GCI CEO Ron Duncan said. The investment in the Anchorage project in the next year will be in the range of $30 million or more, he said.

Work will start this summer to install 5G technology and upgrades at cell sites. The project will be completed in 2020, Duncan said, with initial 5G service starting in the first half of the year.

“It takes connectivity to the next level," Duncan said Monday in an interview. “Rather than thinking about ‘Am I plugged in?’ ‘Am I near an access point?’, virtually everywhere you go, whatever device you choose, is going to have the full amount of speed and connectivity that it needs.”

From left, GCI CEO Ron Duncan, Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm, and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz talk after a press conference announcing GCI's rollout of 5G wireless service on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. GCI will use technology from Ericsson in their 5G network, which will roll out first to Anchorage before expanding to other parts of Alaska. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A 5G network, for example, would allow a mobile device to stream high-quality video without buffering or lag time.

There are a few places in the Lower 48 where 5G has been deployed, The Washington Post reported in April, but the network is not yet widely available. Companies are competing to be the first to deploy it on a large scale.

5G “is going to be the backbone of digitalization and actually part of a critical infrastructure in the nation," Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm told news media in Anchorage Monday.

Anchorage will be the 22nd city in the world to deploy Ericsson’s 5G technology, Duncan said. GCI anticipates that the network will later expand to other parts of the state, he said.

"Bringing technology that is just coming off the drawing boards and starting to be built nationwide, and have that happening here in Anchorage, is exciting,” said Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association.

Customers will need a new phone to access all of the capabilities 5G provides. Duncan said that initially he doesn’t expect customers’ rates to change.

Having a 5G network in Alaska’s largest city will make Anchorage “that much more competitive, that much more attractive" for drawing new businesses and residents as well as retaining those that are already here, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said at the event Monday.

AT&T has deployed what it calls “5G Evolution," or 5G E, in markets around the country, including Anchorage. AT&T describes 5G E in a 2018 blog post on its website as “laying the 5G network foundation" with technologies that “can enable faster speeds now, and upgrade to 5G when it’s ready.”

Other national carriers criticized AT&T for its 5G E marketing. Sprint chief technology officer John Saw said AT&T was “blatantly misleading consumers,” The Washington Post reported earlier this year.

It’s hard to predict exactly what kinds of new technology 5G might enable, just as people didn’t predict 4G would enable e-commerce transactions on smartphones, Ekholm said. One example Duncan pointed to was the potential for autonomous cars, because 5G would allow them to have uninterrupted connectivity.

“We didn’t know back then what was going to happen with maps and mapping, and how directions and those things were going to work,” said Duncan, referring to when carriers launched 3G and 4G networks years ago. “We had no clue what was going to happen with the phone as a payment device. We didn’t understand what would happen with Facetime and connectivity. Those were all applications that hadn’t been invented, and couldn’t have been invented without more speed, more devices and more connectivity."

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