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In Alaska: It Takes a (Broadband) Village

October 19, 2012

In the “Lower 48,” the buzz about broadband usually revolves around speed: how many data megabits per second (Mbps) rocket up and down the network. In Alaska, broadband data rates are important, but there’s another performance indicator that’s getting lots of attention.

It’s latency, a measurement of how long it takes for a data packet to get from its source – say, a desktop computer at home – to its destination, such as a web server in Virginia. Latency has been a particularly big deal for Alaska Internet users because until recently many were relegated to using satellite communications networks to roam the web, download digital files and communicate using e-mail. From a networking standpoint, that means outgoing data packets have to make a 22,000-mile climb to a communications satellite and back down again before they hit the public Internet. That journey, along with overarching data rate limitations tied to satellite data networks, introduces maddening time delays and performance problems most broadband users never encounter.

“If you wanted to download a movie, it meant starting in the morning and hoping by that evening it would be ready,” says David Morris, a vice president with the Alaska cable company General Communication Inc.

But now that’s changing, thanks to an ambitious initiative from GCI. In 2011, the Anchorage-based company began building out a terrestrial, fiber-rich broadband network that will extend to some of the most isolated villages in Alaska, bringing true broadband performance (and low latency) to residents who never thought they’d see the day.

GCI calls the next-generation networking program “Terrestrial for Every Region in Alaska” (TERRA). Combining high-capacity optical fiber lines with wireless microwave facilities, the network was nearing completion as of September 2012 across Southwest Alaska in a territory that’s roughly the size of Oregon. Following its completion, GCI is launching a second phase stretching across Northwest Alaska.

Construction adventure

The construction demands for the first phase, extending to rural communities across Alaska’s Bristol Bay and Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, have been daunting. Limited by weather conditions, GCI crews have had to precision-time their work to take advantage of narrow windows when mountaintop terrain is accessible, and to dig trenches for fiber lines in wilderness areas where no roads exist. Among the impressive feats: laying cable underneath Alaska’s Lake Illiama, which measures 60 miles tip to tip.

The combination of a limited user base – roughly 9,000 potential households – and extensive capital requirements make the economics of the project challenging. Roughly $44 million in broadband stimulus funds provided under the Dept. of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service program have helped GCI make the numbers work. Still, the company is investing $102 million of its own risk capital in the project, partly on the expectation that heavy users including local health-care organizations and school districts will make extensive use of the TERRA network.

Area schools see broadband as an enabler of improved distance-education programs that allow subject-expert teachers to reach students across multiple villages. Health-care providers rely on broadband to bridge rural clinics with hospitals, physicians and training facilities located hundreds of miles away. Both sectors have had to deal with performance limitations of prevailing satellite networks that TERRA is expected to replace. (See “Tech Upgrade in Southwest on a Roll,” Bristol Bay Times.)

Public officials also see broadband as a way for residents to plug into a broader economic base. “Folks in our region are going to see some of the opportunity, where their livelihoods will be changed for the better,” said Jason Metrokin, President and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., in an interview for a website produced by Alaska broadcaster KTUU-TV.

For GCI, the early numbers are encouraging. Morris says the company is seeing strong demand for broadband connections not only among institutions, but from residents in villages like Akiachak and Toksook Bay who are now able to participate in the broadband ecosystem. “The demand for our data product has doubled overnight,” says GCI’s Morris. “You’re starting to see users stream video and access services and applications they’ve never had before.”