Leveraging 5G
Faster, more stable, and more secure wireless connectivity
By Tracy Barbour

G technology is having a significant impact at Spawn Ideas. The Anchorage-based advertising agency is operating in hybrid mode: employees work two days in the office and three days from home, with about one-third of them completely remote. Most of the company’s thirty employees take advantage of 5G wireless service to communicate with colleagues and clients across Alaska, Washington, Montana, Iowa, Oregon, and Washington, DC.

The availability of 5G makes hybrid and remote work more feasible for Spawn Ideas. It enables employees to have ubiquitous and secure connectivity. For example, many use a mobile phone as a WiFi hotspot for their laptop when conducting Zoom calls or doing other business away from the office. With 5G, they can work wherever they are, which is a huge advantage—and luxury, according to President and CEO Karen King. “We are really spoiled by 5G’s data transfer speeds,” King says. “We’re used to low latency. We’re used to the stability and reliability of having a 5G [compatible] phone and service.”

Spawn Ideas uses wireless service from GCI which, incidentally, is also a client of the agency. “Living in Anchorage, I feel that I have all of the advantages with service from GCI that anyone else has in other US locations,” King says, referring to the speed and dependability of 5G cellular service.

The use of 5G technology has been steadily increasing among consumers and companies like Spawn Ideas. By 2025, 5G networks are expected to have more than 1.7 billion subscribers globally, according to Global System for Mobile Communications, which represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide. Most cellular carriers began ramping up their efforts to deploy 5G a few years ago. At this stage, 4G is still relevant because 5G networks and devices rely on 4G to enhance performance.

5G, the fifth generation of wireless technology, is the technological upgrade to the 4G networks that connect most current cell phones. 5G technology uses shorter, higher-frequency bands of the radio spectrum to deliver greater load capacity, faster speeds, lower latency (delay in transmission), and improved flexibility. The actual speed and range of 5G cellular signals varies according to where frequencies fall within the spectrum. Since 5G can run on any frequency of the airwaves, it allows telecommunications companies to deliver different 5G experiences to their customers. 5G can be implemented in low band—which uses a frequency range similar to 4G cellphones—or mid band or high band.

Being a relatively new technology, 5G continues to evolve with the development of networks and devices. As 5G got off the ground, the biggest limiting factor was device availability, according to Josh Lonn, vice president of wireless products at GCI. “Most networks launched without a customer-ready device to market, including GCI’s 5G network,” he says. “On the consumer side, we saw earlier support on the Android side, as we launched the S20 5G in mid-2020, followed by the 5G-capable iPhone 12 later that year. That device ecosystem has matured beautifully over the last couple of years, pushing 5G availability down to affordable levels for consumers. Our customers love those phones and know they are getting the best available service in Alaska.”

“Compared to previous generations of wireless networks, 5G’s faster speeds and low latency are creating more opportunities for massive IoT and sensors connectivity, fueling innovation and digital transformation across all industries.”
Jason Inskeep
AVP of 5G Center of Excellence
Applications and Implications

Many industries are just now pondering how they can best leverage 5G technology. Initial use cases involve “stranded” data where building a wired connection doesn’t make sense. Other applications include enhanced mobile workforce scenarios.

“5G for business is still early-days enough where it is tough to tease apart use cases that could just as effectively be served with a strong LTE [long-term evolution] network,” says Aaron Helmericks, senior director of energy and mining at GCI Business. “Over time, the buzzwords of today, like ‘network slicing’ and ‘ultra-reliable, low-latency communications’ will start to make more sense as the device ecosystem evolves and as the customer business cases sharpen. But, again, these services are an evolution over what we can already do—in some cases, on a more limited basis using LTE [which was the generation just before 4G].”

Helmericks says 5G isn’t as game-changing for business in the way it has been for consumers. All that will change as the foundation grows stronger. “We’re in the third year of a ten-year curve,” he says. “Think of where LTE was in the third year of its evolution [circa 2012]: data rates were still what we’d consider to be in the yawner category today, and the industry was just starting to think about advanced LTE services like VoLTE [voice over LTE] and MIMO [multiple-input and multiple-output].”

VoLTE and MIMO are essential elements of wireless communication standards. VoLTE is an LTE high-speed wireless communication standard for mobile phones and data terminals, including internet of things (IoT) devices and wearables. And MIMO is a method for multiplying the capacity of a radio link using multiple transmission and receiving antennas to exploit multipath propagation.

5G is still in the initial stage of development, Helmericks says. “That said, the next set of 5G enhancements coming down the roadmap will be focused on providing large enterprise businesses the next-generation wireless connectivity capabilities like enhanced security, network slicing, mission-critical, and edge compute,” he says.

AT&T describes 5G as the “most transformative wireless technology” yet, with huge potential to spark innovation in everything from transportation to entertainment. Businesses today need to think and operate differently—and 5G makes that possible, says Jason Inskeep, AVP of AT&T’s 5G Center of Excellence in Texas. “Compared to previous generations of wireless networks, 5G’s faster speeds and low latency are creating more opportunities for massive IoT and sensors connectivity, fueling innovation and digital transformation across all industries,” he says.

Although 5G requires upgraded cellular networks and devices capable of accessing the new networks, mobile providers are maintaining their 4G networks as they invest in 5G deployment. In addition, people who have 5G phones can expect them to work even where 5G service is limited because the 5G phones are backward compatible.
How does 5G compare to the 4G service most people use? The Federal Communications Commission indicates that some 5G services will provide data speeds up to 100 times faster and almost instantaneous response time. For example, it can take almost six minutes to download a feature-length movie with 4G. With 5G, the same movie can download as quickly as 15 seconds. Technically, current 4G speeds are approximately 12 to 36 megabytes per second (Mbps), while 5G services are expected to support speeds of up to 300 Mbps or greater.

Aside from mobile applications, some telecom providers are offering broadband wireless as an alternative to wired connections, such as digital subscriber line, fiber, or cable services.

The stability and reliability of 5G phone and internet erase much of the inconvenience of working remotely.

whyframestudio |

Woman in a bright yellow sweater on the phone, looking at a laptop
The stability and reliability of 5G phone and internet erase much of the inconvenience of working remotely.

whyframestudio |

AT&T’s 5G Offerings
AT&T’s 5G network reaches more than 281 million people and nearly 22,000 cities and towns in the country while its wireless network covers more than 99 percent of Americans (based on overall coverage in US licensed areas).

The company delivers three “flavors” of 5G—low band, mid band, and high band—to give customers individualized experiences, faster speeds, and greater capacity. In Alaska, AT&T offers low-band 5G, which can travel farther than its high-band 5G+ and penetrate buildings and objects. Its lower-frequency waves are slower for data, but it’s practically impervious to distortion.

AT&T’s mid-band 5G+ (using C-band spectrum) is faster and more responsive for the most demanding apps and services, from gaming to streaming to video conferencing. It travels farther than AT&T high-band 5G+ and provides faster speeds than the low-band version. And AT&T’s high-band 5G+ (using millimeter wave spectrum) delivers super-fast speeds but has limited reach. It’s more prone to distortion and is primarily employed in stadiums and high-traffic areas like entertainment venues.

According to Inskeep, companies large and small across all industries are transforming their business due to the impact of Industry 4.0, the oncoming (or ongoing) revolution involving massive IoT device proliferation and data intensive applications. “For example, AT&T is working with a company [whose name AT&T did not disclose] in Alaska to provide reliable and secure connectivity on the North Slope through a private wireless network,” Inskeep says. “Outdoor remote areas have dependency on connected devices, and WiFi can’t support all of the customer’s needs.”

AT&T’s 5G and private wireless networks serve the customer’s need. Inskeep explains, “With the private network, the company’s workers can access applications and IoT analytics and input information gathered in the field on their mobile devices, and the data stays private on the company’s local network. Before the installation of the private network, workers would have to make handwritten notes about their equipment inspections. The private network also can support cameras to monitor gauges and other equipment remotely, reducing the amount of trips workers must take to remote facilities in
treacherous terrains.”

5G from GCI
GCI launched Alaska’s first 1 Gbps and 2 Gbps internet service as well as the first standards-based 5G new radio (NR) service in the Anchorage Bowl in 2020. Recently GCI expanded its 5G footprint across the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. “Together, these areas cover over half of Alaska’s population,” Lonn says. “We will continue to push 5G service into our other urban markets, like Fairbanks, Juneau, and Kenai.”

As its next major undertaking, GCI is working on 5G service on the North Slope. In doing so, 5G will provide the area with wireless network connectivity to remote equipment, vehicles, inspection drones, mobile industrial IoT devices, and workers. GCI envisions improvements in productivity, efficiency, accuracy, and automation of intricate control processes at oil fields. “We’re excited to bring 5G to the North Slope in 2023, bringing state-of-the-art connectivity to our enterprise partners in that area,” Lonn says.

In addition to expanding coverage, GCI has focused on improving the speed of its 5G service. When the company launched Hometown 5G, it lit up five bands of radio spectrum. “Think of all that added spectrum as brand-new lanes on a superhighway,” Lonn says. “Even with the strong subscriber growth we’ve seen since our upgrade, those competitive speed test results show that there is still plenty of room to cruise.”

Currently, GCI delivers 5G to customers in all fifty states through a partnership with T-Mobile. The GCI 5G network in Alaska and the T-Mobile network that GCI customers have access to run on low band (600 MHz) spectrum. With GCI and T-Mobile’s low-band signal, information can still transmit at a rapid rate and travel through walls and buildings.

GCI says its 5G network provides bandwidth secure enough to support all unified communications and operational platforms for businesses, and the company sells a variety of 5G devices. These offerings from GCI allow consumers to leverage the latest 5G technology for their current and future needs. “Any customer that buys a 5G product or buys into Alaska’s most advanced network will be experiencing the best possible wireless connectivity in the state,” Lonn says. “Remember that where we are now is not how the 5G technology will perform in several years, and we haven’t even thought of the use cases that will revolutionize wireless connectivity.”

Downtown Fairbanks is next in line for 5G service, after GCI furnishes the North Slope so that industrial users have access to the technology now in place in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough.

Christine_Kohler | iStock

A few buildings on a street, one with a colorful mural on it depicting a woman on a sewing maching with floral fabric billowing out of it.
Downtown Fairbanks is next in line for 5G service, after GCI furnishes the North Slope so that industrial users have access to the technology now in place in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough.

Christine_Kohler | iStock

Workforce and Supply Concerns
Broadband providers call statewide fiber connections a “game changer” because it could enable Alaskans in the most remote villages to pursue careers without leaving home.

“By creating digital equity, we are looking to make new entries into the workforce that are best exemplified by remote workers,” says Lochner. “They will be able to join the global economy from their own villages.”

To build this broadband infrastructure will require engineers, heavy equipment operators, technicians, technical and front desk support, transportation and logistics coordinators, and more. The problem is there might not be enough skilled workers to go around.

“The Infrastructure and Jobs Act is also funding road, bridge, and airport construction, and they’ll need personnel to get that work done,” says Burke. “We’ll be competing with other sectors to find the employees we need.”

As the supply of people is spread thin, so is the supply of critical parts.

“Carriers all across the country are working with vendors, the administration, and people in Congress to try to get companies to ramp up production to make sure that we have the supplies we need when the money starts flowing,” Burke says. “We’re trying to get ahead of it. Fingers crossed that things will get better.”

While Congress has mandated that the broadband expansion needs to be completed within five years, it may take longer to come to fruition.

“When we order fiber optic cable, the lead time is about two years,” says Burke, adding that MTA is currently ordering supplies for work to be done in summer 2024. “This creates a real challenge to build things quickly. We’re also struggling to get a skilled workforce, which could create a roadblock as well.”

From Plan to Project
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working on nationwide broadband mapping that pinpoints what kind of broadband service and speed is available at every location, called the “fabric.” This map will help determine how money is allocated to each state, weighted for areas with high installation costs.

The first iteration of the fabric map was released at the end of June, and Alaska’s internet providers noticed some pretty significant problems.

“At the time the original maps were released, we became aware that at least sixty-nine Alaska communities were missing, and there were more than a hundred others deficient in structures based on the 2020 census,” says Von Bargen. “That data set has since been improved upon by the FCC’s contractor, identifying tens of thousands of potential locations in Alaska. We are confident we can get to where we need to be working with our federal partners.”

The Alaska Office of Broadband has since done a high-level review of the revised fabric map, and the office is also acquiring` its own satellite mapping data in partnership with the Rasmuson Foundation.

“This will allow us to extract building footprints to compare to the FCC information to make sure that potential broadband service areas are not missed,” says Von Bargen.

Planning funds are on the way, with a $567,000 Digital Equity planning grant and a $5 million BEAD planning grant arriving this fall. Once fabric mapping has been completed, the NTIA will make its calculations and the remaining $95 million in funds will be released to the state.

“We don’t know exactly when the NTIA will make those allocation decisions, though we’re working on getting our five-year action plan, initial proposal, and final proposal finished as quickly as possible,” says Von Bargen. “While states are given statutorily mandated maximum timeframes to get these done, we believe that time is of the essence, and we want to get it finished in less than the allowable time.”

Though an almost overwhelming task, the Office of Broadband has been able to keep the project moving at a fast pace since the day Governor Dunleavy created it.

“We have been really impressed with the work that the administration did to get the groundwork in place for the establishment of the broadband deployment office, including the foresight to put together the broadband task force that led to the passing of House Bill 363,” says Windt Pearson. “They have positioned the state well to participate in the BEAD program so that we can hit the ground running.”

“We have a lot of work ahead of us to get the job done, and we’re really excited,” says Burke. “Just imagine what an impact this project will have on Alaskans’ lives.”