Since 2017, GCI—Alaska's largest internet service provider—has been planning and preparing to execute an 860-mile subsea fiber system to six remote communities in Alaska, including Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands. This past fall, the ISP took a big step forward when it broke ground with trenching conduit in Unalaska after finalizing the project design and planning phase and obtaining the necessary environmental permitting. With the GCI Alaska United (AU) Aleutians Fiber Project, GCI aims to help close the digital divide for rural Alaskans.
"Our mission is to bring modern connectivity to the entire state of Alaska," said GCI President and Chief Operating Officer Greg Chapados. "This will open doors for so many people. If someone wants a career in engineering or another field but they don't want to leave their community, this service allows them to work remotely."
The concept for the project began several years ago when Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) invited Chapados to Unalaska and Dutch Harbor to witness firsthand the economic growth potential in the area thanks to private businesses. GCI then developed a business case that would enable the ISP to provide terrestrial fiber service on a sustainable basis and to give these communities the ability to thrive.
With the help of a $25 million USDA Rural Utilities Service grant through the ReConnect program awarded to GCI last year, and with GCI's own investment of $33 million, the project was able to move forward. "We are looking for ways to take bold steps, and often that takes public-private partnerships like this one," remarked Chapados.
"This is game changing," said Alaska Rep. Bryce Edgmon for District 37, who also grew up as a rural Alaskan, and referred to how these remote communities will soon gain access to the comparable broadband services offered in cities like Anchorage. "From getting the news, the weather, attracting employees, educational opportunities ... In the era of broadband, of virtual opportunities, we can cover a lot of ground with fiber optic cable and having the ability to stream in a healthcare provider from Anchorage, or a teacher out of Juneau to provide services to help school districts meet their curriculum requirements."
Chapados further explained, "It's going to be a transformational project for these communities in the Aleutians because we are deploying fiber to the premises. We take fiber optics and bring them all the way to a business building, all the way to a home. It gives you a future-proofed local access network that plugs into the long-haul fiber that is really an extraordinary improvement over other technologies."
GCI will also bring the ISP's fixed data service, found in Anchorage, into the Aleutian communities. Residents will have the opportunity to access 2 gigabit speeds—GCI's highest capacity service—at the same price tiers as those services offered in Anchorage, helping to further eliminate the digital divide.
Looking forward to 2022, the project is on schedule to lay the marine fiber this coming summer, and testing will begin shortly after that. GCI Senior Manager of Corporate Communications and Community Engagement Jenifer Nelson remarked, "We are only a year away from providing a transformational experience for these communities and businesses."