The hundreds of billions of dollars sent America's way compliments of Congress and President Barack Obama nearly a year ago are trickling into Alaska by the bucketful. Among the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's priorities is a goal of delivering high-speed Internet connections to the nation's most distant communities.
Monday, Alaska telecommunications giant GCI learned it landed tens of millions of dollars of ARRA money to build a land-based broadband network in the Bush.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded GCI nearly $88 million to spend the next three years bringing southwest Alaska's technology into the 21st century. If everything goes as planned, 65 cities and villages in southwest Alaska -- a service area GCI describes as a vast wilderness roughly the size of North Dakota -- will have new or enhanced broadband access by 2012.
In the past, creating a network of towers and connections to link communities where no roads exist has been too costly to pursue, leaving satellite-based service as the only viable option to connect far flung communities beyond their regional hubs. With the combined ARRA grant and loan awards, the land-based project is finally feasible, said Martin Cary, Vice President and General Manager of GCI's Managed Broadband Services.
GCI currently operates a 43-village network in the Bethel region called Delta-Net, but it relies on satellites to beam its communications to Anchorage and beyond. That setup, Cary explained, can mean long lag times waiting for the message to travel 22,000 miles and back. The new project, called TERRA-Southwest, operated through GCI subsidiary United Utilities, Inc., intends to eliminate transmission delays by switching from the satellite link to a hybrid fiber optic and microwave grid. The new system will also add 22 additional villages to the service area.
"It's our goal to get as much of rural Alaska as possible off of satellite," he said.
In remote, rural Alaska, where transportation is limited to planes, boats and snowmobiles, telecommunications plays a magnified role in access to healthcare, education, and participation in commerce, and a faster, more reliable communications network means more economic opportunity, GCI and other applicants wrote in pursuing the money.
Where oil and gas riches are sought offshore of Alaska, a robust broadband network could bring new economic opportunities onshore. "Onshoring" is a trend in the customer service sector in which companies move their technical support centers from foreign countries and expensive cities to low-cost rural America. It's happened in Idaho, where at least one airline has a customer service center, and it's conceivable that it could also happen here in Alaska, Cary said.
The basic plan is take the network south along the road system out of Anchorage to Homer, run west under the sea to Williamsport, and then overland to Pedro Bay. The fiber would then enter Lake Iliamna to Igiugig and continue along an established corridor to Levelock, where the fiber optic system will link to a microwave network that extends to Dillingham and along Alaska's southwestern coastline up to Emmonak, and inward along the Kuskokwim and Yukon river systems.
The project is expected to create job openings to build the equipment and install it in communities, as well as maintain it once it's in place.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.
Clarification: This story was updated after publication to clarify the location of the planned network.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing