Alaska Communications
Terrific Tech
For every industry, there’s a technological innovation supporting its operations
By Tracy Barbour

hen Samson Tug and Barge needed to modernize its computer network, GCI customized a full-scale solution. The Sitka-based, interstate shipping company had new networks installed in eighteen locations, made upgrades to eighty computers—and gained access to what Vice President Cory Baggen describes as a “legion” of IT people. Thanks to GCI’s team, Baggen was able to take a two-week vacation in Panama this spring—without needing to have her laptop or the internet available to troubleshoot work-related technical problems. “I knew the business support team would cover me, and I wouldn’t have to worry about anything,” says Baggen, who has an IT background and fills multiple roles at her company.

GCI has provided IT and technical support for Samson Tug and Barge’s users, servers, and network for more than ten years. “They’re perfect for us,” Baggen says. “The management of the company is stellar; they really look out for Alaska businesses.”

Each Industry Has Unique Needs
Companies like Samson Tug and Barge represent a diversity of economic sectors in Alaska, and they depend on various technology solutions to meet their specific needs.

“In a perfect world, having one general technology solution would be wonderful, but it would also be improbable from a practical viewpoint as every industry is different and has distinct requirements,” says Matthew Craig, a senior consultant for CTG, which has an office in Anchorage and other locations worldwide. “There are many technology solution providers in the marketplace trying to achieve a one-stop-shop technology solution,” says Craig, who is working remotely out of the Alaska office from Houston, Texas. “Many of these technology solutions excel in certain areas but are lacking in other areas, which requires organizations to review various technology solutions based on their business objectives.”

Choosing a technology solution requires a solid understanding of a business’s workflows and work processes, Craig says. Many organizations may choose a technology solution based on what other organizations use, or worse yet, based on how well the technology performs during a presentation/demonstration. “The important thing to remember is that technology is an enabler to an organization’s work processes,” he says. “As such, it is critical to first evaluate or review new or existing work processes before you identify and evaluate technology solution(s) that complement them.”

Industry-specific technology is successful if it meets the customer’s needs, solves problems, and opens new opportunities, according to Jim Gutcher, vice president of strategy and product management at Alaska Communications. Therefore, his company makes a conscious effort to tailor its network solutions to meet the needs of the customer. “Our customers are the experts in their respective industries,” he explains. “Each industry has unique needs and use cases. We collaborate with our customers and our in-house subject-matter experts to create network and IT solutions that enable their success.”

For example, some industries use applications that rely on large amounts of real-time data to make decisions, such as artificial intelligence (AI). But for AI to work effectively in real time, a connection with low latency (transmission delay) is a must, Gutcher says. “In this case, we would provide a solution with low-latency, reliable connectivity and the use of cloud resources to drive a business result for the customer,” he says.

“In a perfect world, having one general technology solution would be wonderful, but it would also be improbable from a practical viewpoint as every industry is different and has distinct requirements.”
Matthew Craig, Senior Consultant, CTG
Customizing business solutions is also the norm at GCI, which caters to a myriad of industries. Lori Davey, GCI’s vice president of business sales, explains: “Our customers choose the technology that best meets their needs, and we are able to engineer our networks based on our customer requirements for managed and unmanaged circuits. We have a very collaborative relationship and often work together years in advance of technology changes to ensure that our networks are ready to meet their needs.”
GCI Empowers Customers
GCI enables the technology of its customers, according to Davey. Its account management team is organized by industry to better understand the unique requirements of the customers in that space and essentially become an extension of their team. “We really try to understand their challenges and come up with creative solutions,” she says. “GCI has the most comprehensive network in the state and can design custom networks utilizing terrestrial, wireless, and sometimes satellite connectivity to meet the needs of diverse geography.”

For example, GCI has diverse fiber going to the North Slope to support oil and gas exploration and production. And as the technology becomes more capable, the need for constant connectivity increases. Remote monitoring and camera sensors can replace road miles to check on unmanned sites with supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) as well as the ability to stream video for operational support. These systems of hardware, software, and connectivity enable the company to control industrial processes locally or at remote locations; monitor, gather, and process real-time data; interact with devices such as sensors, valves, pumps, motors, and more through human-machine interface software; and record events into a log file. “These systems are crucial for industrial organizations since they maintain efficiency, process data for smarter decisions and communicate issues, and ultimately mitigate unnecessary downtime,” Davey says.

She adds: “Our industry-focused program has specialized and unrivaled knowledge on the delivery of technology, telecommunications, and managed services to the most remote regions of Alaska. We empower companies with the robust tools and cutting-edge solutions needed to support operations and meet their business goals. Our working philosophy is based on integration, agility, and customer enablement. Combined, these three traits create a platform for technological service delivery that will be responsive to any present and future needs.”

Alaska Communication Provides Vital Support
Technology—industry-specific or not—relies on broadband internet. And as a broadband and IT leader in Alaska, Alaska Communications supports all business sectors with robust network solutions. In the energy sector, for instance, the company facilitates the infrastructure needed to run a successful mine, camp, or exploration enterprise by delivering secure and reliable voice, data, and internet services with IT infrastructure for mission-critical communications. These services can be crucial. “Resource developers often operate in demanding remote environments yet need urban-level connectivity. This includes highly reliable solutions for mission-critical operations as well as end-to-end solutions to equip employees with improved quality of life with connectivity to family and entertainment options,” Gutcher says.

In the healthcare industry, Alaska Communications provides organizations with technology needed to improve patient care through collaborative tools, interactive technologies to engage patients, and telehealth capabilities. As an E-Rate service provider, the company delivers reliable connectivity and technology equipment to urban and rural school districts. “Each have unique security requirements with solutions that meet both the needs of the customer, students, and patients and criteria to receive government funding,” Gutcher says.

In addition to offering wide area network connectivity, Alaska Communications supports its customers with local area networks and IT needs. For example, it is using fixed wireless as a “last-mile” solution for one of its customers on the North Slope. It also offers a scalable set of business services from full-service desk support and IT monitoring to proactive environment maintenance and guidance to keep pace with ever-changing industry standards.

Satellite is often required in the most remote areas, and Alaska Communications is meeting those needs as well. “We’ve been a trusted satellite provider for years and are adding low-earth orbit satellites through OneWeb Technology to our solution portfolio,” Gutcher says. “Being able to provide a service that has fiber-like characteristics enables new use cases that previously assumed low-latency characteristics.”

CTG Accelerates Digital Transformation
CTG provides digital transformation solutions—such as information management, cloud solutions, IT operations support, workflow optimization, automation, and testing—that help clients rapidly achieve their IT and business goals, such as improving efficiency, lowering costs of operations, and enabling data-driven decision making.

It helps companies address industry-specific challenges using technology such as “digital twin,” which involves developing a digital replica of physical objects. Digital twin is gaining popularity because it addresses many use cases for improving overall operating performance, monitoring assets, performing predictive analysis, and improving overall value to a business organization.

However, digital twin can mean different things to organizations in different industries. Some organizations believe the intelligent 3D CAD model is the digital-twin, and others may believe monitoring devices that provide real-time data of operating equipment represent the digital twin. As a result, technology solution providers are customizing their message to highlight how digital twin solutions can address industry-specific challenges. “CTG works with each organization to develop a digital strategy that will bring value to their business,” Craig says. “Our process of developing a digital strategy includes developing new or updating existing work processes, assisting in evaluating technology solutions that complement the digital strategy, and assisting in developing implementation and execution plans.”

In the oil and gas sector, industry-specific technology around digital twin allows businesses to access more accurate and up-to-date information to make informed decisions and mitigate costly mistakes, Craig says. Organizations will have a data source that all stakeholders have access to from anywhere in the world to plan and execute project work (work share) without data duplication or inconsistent data.

However, Craig points out, the biggest challenge concerning any technology is having all stakeholders commit to following through and taking ownership and responsibility in accepting and adopting the company’s decision to implement a technology strategy. “New work habits, methods, contracts, and processes are necessary to affect change, and if organizations fail to get the commitment in adopting the processes required to implement an industry-specific technology solution, then the technology will not be able to achieve its intended goal,” he says.

Students at the Kusilvak Career Academy use technology to facilitate learning.

Alaska Communications

Students at the Kusilvak Career Academy use technology to facilitate learning.

Alaska Communications

Students at the Kusilvak Career Academy use technology to facilitate learning
MTA Tailors Solutions
MTA is seeing a growth in the demand for upload bandwidth across the board, according to its director of commercial solutions, Jared Lindman. But the need is critical for finance, healthcare, and engineering as these businesses cannot operate without sufficient bandwidth to move large files in a secure and timely manner. “MTA has helped these industries solve this problem with Direct Internet Access [DIA], which provides a secure ‘private lane’ to the information superhighway,” Lindman says. “And it does so with symmetrical upload and download bandwidth, meaning you send data to the cloud as fast as you could pull it down.”

By using a tailor-made solution like DIA, MTA is helping Alaska businesses keep pace with digital transformation. Specific solutions also require a partnership that is much deeper than just “client-seller” so that MTA can anticipate future hurdles to its partners achieving their goals.

MTA’s industry-specific technology offerings are also designed to help companies meet the changes and challenges they encounter. “With the continued globalization of the economy, Alaska and its businesses are faced with more opportunity—and challenges—than ever,” Lindman says. “Having the right tools and technologies will be essential for future success, and secure, reliable bandwidth will be needed to support them. By understanding an industry’s specific challenges, MTA is able to provide the right foundation for their technologies to build on.”

Evolving Use of Technology
Alaska providers have watched the use of technology evolve with the shifting needs of their customers. In the oil and gas industry, for example, as technology has evolved, organizations have implemented technology to manage information at various levels. This could be the result of government regulatory requirements for the environment and for health, safety, and security. However, the main reason for implementing technology—especially cloud technology—is to enhance efficiency, lower cost, and improve the quality of the product, Craig says. “The speed of the internet and computer hardware and software continue to improve at lower costs, which is changing how organizations use technology as part of their business strategy,” he says. “Providers are challenged to provide solutions that are interoperable with other technology firms and provide common or neutral data formats shared across different platforms.”

Davey is also seeing shifts in the way GCI’s customers employ connectivity. Where connectivity was once just about a phone line and being able to access email or search engines, now connectivity is vital to being operational. Many organizations have transitioned from applications on local servers to cloud-based applications—which means connectivity is more important than ever. “Cyber security is one of the reasons for offloading applications to cloud-based systems,” she says. “Many of the IT expertise is based in the Lower 48 or in one location in Alaska, whereas many organizations have operations throughout the state.”

Case in point: GCI’s cloud-based applications were instrumental when viruses attacked computer files at Samson Tug and Barge’s Seattle office several years ago. The viruses corrupted file after file at multiple locations and caused the company to temporarily shut down to halt the assault. But GCI had everything back up and running in about a week, enabling the 70-year-old business to survive the attack. “If GCI hadn’t come to help us, I don’t know if we would be in business,” Baggen says.

Like many providers, Alaska Communications has noticed accelerated use of the cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT) and AI. And more devices mean more data and opportunities to create insights. “This is only possible with a robust network to collect the data and create robust and ubiquitous pathways to the engines that provide insights,” Gutcher says.

Gutcher also says cybercrime is becoming a more serious threat facing businesses of all sizes. While security gets a lot of visibility in some verticals, it is a must for all industries. “Large-scale attacks are happening around the country and even here in Alaska,” he explains. “Staying ahead of the trends and identifying emerging threats is paramount.”

A student at the Kusilvak Career Academy uses technology to facilitate learning.

Alaska Communications

A student at the Kusilvak Career Academy uses technology in the form of an electronic whiteboard to facilitate learning
A student at the Kusilvak Career Academy uses technology to facilitate learning.

Alaska Communications

Continuing, he says: “We provide our customers with robust end-to-end support. We use a layered approach to security, including firewall management, spam filtering, and end-point-detection and response to ensure our customers businesses are protected. In May, the president of the United States issued an executive order aimed at improving the nation’s cyber security. As part of this order, government agencies and private sector businesses that do business with the government are subject to certain standards and regulations. Our network of industry experts can provide guidance, consultation, and remediation to help our customers meet the needed requirements.”
Relevant Trends
GCI also watched several recent trends unfold—some driven by technological innovations and others accelerated by the pandemic. For example, there was an increase in demand for augmented reality, and COVID-19 accelerated the need. “When we weren’t able to travel and send experts to the North Slope, we saw a rapid need for smart glasses for remote support with experts somewhere else in the world,” Davey explains.

In addition, GCI has noticed a rise in the deployment of drone technology for remote inspections for towers and pipelines. “The use of drones is able to take the dangerous job of tower climbing for inspections to a much more precise technology with high-definition cameras and the ability to store the footage,” she says.

Technology providers are also witnessing some significant trends around the use of industry-specific solutions. Tech adoption is rapidly increasing in all industries, and most technologies involve connecting to the network, according to Lindman. “Every connected device offers a door into your private network—a door that, if not secured, can become an entry point for unwanted visitors,” he says. “More and more, we see proactive network plans to prepare for risk.”

Security, Lindman says, has been and always will be an increasing demand in technology. “But in more recent years, with the increasing adoption of cloud infrastructure, edge computing, remote applications, software defined networking—and, of course, Zoom calls—the requirement for upload bandwidth is beginning to skyrocket,” he says. “For industries like finance, healthcare, and engineering, a solution like DIA has become table stakes.”