Telecom & Tech
Chris Arend | Alamy Stock Photo
The Need for Speed
Internet service providers plan to close the digital divide in five to ten years
By Rachael Kvapil

ideo calling, telehealth, telework, and distance learning used to be science fiction. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic made those fantasies an everyday reality, where people live-stream everything from business meetings and conferences to medical appointments, classroom sessions, and family gatherings. People were also uploading files they would typically present in-person to colleagues, teachers, or doctors. High-speed internet eased the disruption of the pandemic by keeping some sense of continuity, yet people without fast, reliable connectivity quickly found themselves at a disadvantage. Though many have returned to physical offices and classrooms, telecommunication companies in Alaska continue to see a growing demand for improved services.

High-Speed Internet in Alaska
To define high-speed internet, it’s necessary to understand how speed is measured. Megabits per second (Mbps) is a rate of transfer equivalent to 1 million bits per second. The higher the Mbps, the faster the internet. Also, rates differ between download, or pulling data toward the user, and uploads, sending data away. To be considered “high speed,” connections must have a download speed higher than the 25 Mbps standard set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and at least a 3 Mbps upload speed. Usually, speeds range anywhere from 100 to 1,000 Mbps (1 gigabit per second, or 1 gig).
For Alaskans, GCI and Alaska Communications are the two leading companies that have delivered internet for the past twenty-three years. Though both GCI and Alaska Communications provided communications services prior to the advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-‘90s, they expanded their portfolios in 1997 and 2000, respectively. Each company approaches internet delivery in a slightly different manner. For instance, GCI operates Alaska’s largest network in terms of actual network miles, and more than 97 percent of Alaskans live within GCI’s network footprint. Alaska Communications provides advanced broadband and managed IT services on a statewide data network via a diverse undersea fiber optic system connecting Alaska to the contiguous United States. Another player, Quintillion, began to provide broadband services in 2017 to wholesale customers through a combination of subsea and terrestrial fiber optic cable networks in the Arctic and a high-latitude data acquisition (HiLDA) site in Utqiaġvik, commonly known as a polar orbit station.

All three companies agree that the pandemic accelerated the demand for faster networks. Business and residential customers required high-speed access to keep up with emerging internet applications and services, says Matt Peterson, Quintillion’s chief technology officer, and Mac McHale, Quintillion’s chief revenue officer.

“Our work will never be done… Our networks will never be complete. There will always be improvements to be made, fiber to be laid, towers to be built, and new technologies to implement.”
Lori Davey, Vice President of Business Sales, GCI
“The demand for fiber optic capability goes up as traditional technologies cannot efficiently transport large amounts of streaming video and other content,” Peterson and McHale say.

Jim Gutcher, vice president of strategy and product management for Alaska Communications, says before the pandemic, the average consumer used the internet for email, web browsing, and streaming—activities that primarily relied on download speeds. However, consumer behavior shifted dramatically at the onset of the pandemic as schools and workplaces went remote.

“The ability to share bandwidth with family members and fast upload speeds became more important than ever,” says Gutcher. “A fast upload speed is essential for activities like video conferencing and remote schooling.”

Alaska vs. the Lower 48
Even in urban settings, Alaskans understand remote living. In a state with an average of one person per square mile, residents learned long ago how to use the internet for collaborative work, distance education, and communication with health specialists. This is especially true in rural Alaska, where frequent travel to the nearest population center is time and cost prohibitive.

“It’s a reliance that much of the Lower 48 just discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Lori Davey, vice president of GCI business sales. “In Alaska, we do so out of necessity, and we’ve done it for decades. Connectivity makes it possible.”

How does Alaska’s connectivity compare to the Lower 48? The answer varies between providers. GCI says Alaskans have access to some of the highest internet speeds in the nation, with 80 percent having access to 2 gig (2,000 Mbps) internet speeds, twice as fast as the Lower 48. Quintillion places Alaska in the bottom 5 percent, citing a digital divide that has deepened in rural communities during the pandemic. Alaska Communications echoes a problem with a digital divide, where there is less coverage and slower speeds compared to the Lower 48.

Providing broadband in Alaska requires overcoming harsh climates, expansive terrain, low population density, limited construction and operation capabilities, and high power, transportation, and fuel costs. Gutcher says connecting rural areas requires heavy investment in the middle mile and last mile. The middle mile, or backhaul, is the segment of the network linking its core backbone to a local area. The last mile refers to the network components that deliver connectivity within a local area to the customer.

“Bridging the digital divide requires long-term investment, including investing in accessible and affordable middle-mile infrastructure,” says Gutcher.

Even once the infrastructure is in place, Davey says different challenges are associated with maintenance. She says it’s not unusual for a technician to travel a whole day to a remote location to conduct repairs. GCI techs often rely on snowmachines or helicopters, depending on the tower’s location, and have go-kits with supplies if they need to stay overnight.

“Our techs must be incredibly prepared,” says Davey. “If they forget a tool or key equipment, it could be days before they can return to complete the job.”

Davey adds that delivering connectivity in Alaska requires an extensive toolkit, a high degree of commitment, and innovation to overcome the challenges of building and maintaining telecommunications infrastructure in the state. It also takes a combination of technologies used by multiple providers, including fiber, microwave, and satellite.

“The ability to share bandwidth with family members and fast upload speeds became more important than ever…A fast upload speed is essential for activities like video conferencing and remote schooling.”
Jim Gutcher
Vice President of Strategy
and Product Management
The Next Five to Ten years
Shoring up the digital divide is the primary focus for Alaska Communications, GCI, and Quintillion, as is providing better reliability and speeds statewide. Peterson and McHale say local access technologies will continue to increase bandwidth, including 5G wireless, multi-gig cable, satellite internet services, and fiber to the home. GCI will continue its push to provide 2 gig internet speeds outside urban areas. In 2021, the company increased speed in Nome and Kotzebue and expects to expand as it builds out fiber-optic infrastructure in the Aleutians and elsewhere in the coming years. Davey adds that GCI is on track to provide 10 gig internet speeds to customers within the next five years. Alaska Communications, too, has plans to increase speeds statewide by upgrading urban locations via AKXinternet. Likewise, it will provide service in new rural locations and underserved areas through the FCC’s CAF II program. Gutcher says the deployment of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, such as the OneWeb constellation, will transform business connectivity and services in rural Alaska.

How people work, learn, and play in a post-pandemic world will most likely include increased online activity. Gutcher finds that consumers and businesses rely more and more on digital infrastructure, which drives improvements among service providers. Likewise, he says it also drives companies like Alaska Communications to invest in new tools and solutions, such as LEO satellites and wireless technologies. With technology evolving faster than ever, Davey says it’s crucial for Alaska to remain at the cutting edge of that technological wave.

“Our work will never be done,” says Davey. “Our networks will never be complete. There will always be improvements to be made, fiber to be laid, towers to be built, and new technologies to implement.”

“[Telepresence is] a reliance that much of the Lower 48 just discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic… In Alaska, we do so out of necessity, and we’ve done it for decades. Connectivity makes it possible.”
Lori Davey
Vice President of Business Sales
Prioritizing the parts of the state and the methods used to increase connectivity depends on several factors. Gutcher says Alaska Communications will look to expand where there’s a need. In addition to identifying underserved areas, the cost of providing and operating service and potential funding sources will influence their expansion. Peterson and McHale say Quintillion will examine what is possible in terms of proximity to their existing network and develop partnerships with communities of interest while ensuring development makes business sense.

Funding for expansion projects also comes from a variety of sources. Most GCI upgrades come from its capital. Over the past forty years, Davey says GCI has invested more than $3.5 billion in its network and facilities in Alaska. In addition to using capital funds, Alaska Communications has also taken advantage of grant-funded opportunities to connect underserved Alaskans. Most recently, Alaska Communications worked with several tribal corporations to apply for a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) tribal broadband grant that would connect approximately 12,000 rural Alaskans in twenty-three communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers to high-speed internet for the first time. The recent passage of the federal infrastructure bill also opens the door to new funding opportunities.

How projects are funded will influence how much customers pay for service, as will the number of subscribers across the state. Though GCI and Alaska Communications don’t publish the number of subscribers, Davey and Gutcher say the goal is to reach the most people at a competitive price point. Peterson and McHale further explain that pricing is a result of, and driven by, cost. Given the challenges of building in Alaska without government subsidies for capital and operating costs, Quintillion’s expansion into rural areas with urban-level pricing is unlikely.

“With targeted and proper subsidies, expansion becomes possible, and prices will reach competitive levels,” says Peterson and McHale.

Since the pandemic began, new internet service providers have started popping up around Alaska. In October 2021, Pacific Dataport announced a 2022 launch of its Aurora 4A satellite to provide better internet service to Alaska. Two months later, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska received an exclusive license from the FCC to use a mid-band broadband spectrum in several Southeast Alaska communities. The tribe’s broadband network is called Tidal Service, and its mission is only to serve communities without access. There are also several smaller existing providers across the state attempting to fill holes where they exist.

However, competition is a good thing among internet service providers. Gutcher says consumers and businesses in Alaska want choices, reliable solutions, and excellent customer service. Achieving this requires constant improvement, often spurred on by competition. Davey adds that competitors often end up being valuable partners. She says internet service providers are all doing their best to provide Alaskans with the highest level of connectivity.

“While there’s certainly a level of competitiveness, it also requires a significant amount of collaboration to ensure Alaskans throughout the state have access,” says Davey. “We can’t do it alone.”