MAKing It: Meet the crew connecting Alaska to the world

SPONSORED: North Slope Telecom Inc. helps open communication lines in some of the most remote areas of the state.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

The staff at North Slope Telecom Inc. are often the first crew to arrive at a new project site and the last to pack up and leave.

Whether constructing radio towers in the Arctic or laying broadband fiber across the tundra, the telecommunications contractor plays an outsized role in everyday Alaska life.

“We make sure that all Alaskans can connect to the outside world,” said Sharon Kazem, president at North Slope Telecom.

For nearly 40 years, the team has helped build a stronger Alaska. Its work affects almost every resident in some way, facilitating phone calls and internet access for homes and industries small and large, and in some of the state’s most remote areas.

As massive economic and infrastructure investment comes to the state, North Slope Telecom sees a bright future for all of Alaska. The company is making the most of the opportunity with help from a team of local financial experts.

Connecting Alaska: The golden rule

When Kazem began working at North Slope Telecom two decades ago, the company had 24 employees. Today, it employs around 72 people. Despite its relatively small size, the company specializes in multiple lines of business.

“We engineer, design, prepare and construct telecommunications infrastructure,” Kazem said. “We provide a whole gamut of services.”

The North Slope Telecom team installs phone, fiber internet and cable television for businesses and residents. The business provides services for oil producers, utilities companies, hotels, retail and health facilities, and the public sector. It also assists telecommunications carriers in laying fiber network in remote areas and directly into homes.

“We touch commercial. We touch residential,” said Kazem. “Whoever our customer is, we are facilitating communication.”

At remote sites, telecommunications infrastructure is a two-step process. First, temporary infrastructure is built so crews can communicate during a project build. Once the site has transitioned to its permanent facility, the temporary radio towers and equipment are removed.

That’s why the team often arrives first and leaves last: the projects take them to every region of Alaska.

“We eat, sleep and work on mountain tops, river valleys, frozen tundra and island rainforest,” said Rob Cone-Clark, vice president at North Slope Telecom.

Alaska’s beauty is matched by its challenging geography and climate. The team’s golden rule is a “very strong ethic for safety, health and environmental concerns,” he said.

“Our company began in the oil fields, where if your communications go down, or there’s a problem, alarms start going off and facilities get evacuated,” said Cone-Clark. “That has really affected our approach. We learned that being highly accurate and producing a quality product counts a lot more than speed.”

“Safety is just part of our inner workings,” Kazem agreed.

Opportunities during a ‘historic time’ for Alaska

Alaska’s economic trends are localized and often run counter to the national economy, Kazem said. That’s one reason why North Slope Telecom loves banking with First National Bank Alaska.

“They understand the unique economy of Alaska. I can’t speak enough about what a big benefit that is,” said Kazem.

Brett Watson is an assistant professor of applied and natural resource economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. He also contributes research to Alaska’s Economy, a report published by First National Bank Alaska.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress in 2021, is bringing projects like new roads, bridges and renewable energy to every state. $7.5 billion in federal funding has been announced for Alaska so far, said Watson.

Roughly $2 billion is being used to bring broadband fiber internet to underserved communities in Alaska’s Southwest and Interior, including towns on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. North Slope Telecom is helping with the projects.

“It will change the life of the people in those remote areas,” said Cone-Clark. The power of being connected and accessible online cannot be overstated: “They will be able to sell their wares, get education, get healthcare and have access to the wider world.”

The fiber optic cable is already being laid using a new technique pioneered in Alaska. Heavily armored sub-sea cable is placed on the tundra or at the bottom of a river. It sinks naturally and is encapsulated by vegetation. No digging necessary.

“It may be impossible to get fiber optic cables to these communities otherwise,” Cone-Clark said.

Another economic boon is coming from private investment: Two new oil fields, Willow and Pikka, are also being developed on Alaska’s North Slope.

“It is hard to overestimate the (oil fields’) impact, both for the state’s private sector and public sector,” said Watson.

Willow and Pikka are expected to add around 250,000 barrels per day at peak production, a more than 50% increase from current pipeline production, he said.

This will “provide some relief to the state’s balance sheets,” Watson said. “And the state government is also an economic engine in itself.”

The flurry of economic activity from both federal and private investment will help buoy Alaska’s workforce, driving up competition for skilled workers and increasing wages.

“It’s a good time to be in the construction industry,” Watson said.

“It’s a historic time. Once in a generation,” said Cone-Clark.

Cone-Clark began his career as a field technician. The opportunity took him across the state.

“Building systems for telecommunications has allowed me to experience much of the grandeur of Alaska in a way very few people have the opportunity,” said Cone-Clark. “I would encourage young people to look at this as a pathway to a good life.”[PP1]

The importance of local connection

As North Slope Telecom has grown, so has its suite of banking tools. Today, the company uses First National’s corporate credit cards, fraud prevention services, electronic payments and credit card processing, among other products, said Sheila Lomboy, vice president and lending unit team leader.

Last year, the bank saw a huge rise in attempted fraud, said Lomboy. In response, First National increased its outreach. One instance of fraud can profoundly affect a business, and the bank’s fraud filters are well-loved by many customers, including North Slope Telecom, said Lori Petraglia, business development officer and treasury management consultant at First National.

First National’s corporate credit cards also offer robust benefits for businesses. These cards marry convenience and security; employee purchases are streamlined, with heightened security features, including real-time data and ability to change card limits in an instant.

First National’s team approach allows businesses to tap into expert financial advice, no matter their needs. During the pandemic, First National helped North Slope Telecom work through Paycheck Protection Program loan applications.

“We could not have navigated that successfully without them,” said Kazem. “They were absolutely instrumental.”

“We truly care,” said Petraglia. “It’s not about quotas. It’s about how we can help.”

North Slope Telecom has the same philosophy. Kazem understands the importance of communication in Alaska, especially in remote areas where people’s safety depends on having connectivity.

“Broadband access has an outsized effect on quality of life and health in rural Alaska when compared to the rest of the United States,” said Kazem. “Services like healthcare, education, access to employment that are taken for granted on road-system communities can be delivered via internet connections to our more remote neighbors.”

As North Slope Telecom looks to the future, it sees economic opportunity for Alaska for decades to come. Along the way, its team will help lay the groundwork for a stronger, more connected state.

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to help Alaskans shape a brighter tomorrow by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.