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After long wait, Verizon rolls out data service in Alaska

Ben Anderson

Alaskans who have been awaiting the arrival of national mobile phone service provider Verizon will finally get their wish Friday, when the company will officially flip the switch on its 4G LTE data service in the Last Frontier, ending a long wait for residents who have been eager for more telecom competition. But before you get too excited, the company still won't be offering retail storefronts or phone numbers with 907 area codes in the state, and likely won't until sometime next year. But if you're looking to snatch up a new tablet computer or create an LTE hotspot for your home, Friday will be your first real chance.

For years, AT&T has been the national provider of choice for Alaskans when it came to mobile phone and data service in the state, competing primarily with homegrown telecommunication companies GCI and Alaska Communications (ACS). Verizon has already made itself known on the Alaska scene: last year, as a pre-emptive strike of sorts, AT&T began providing high-speed 4G LTE data service to the Anchorage market, despite other larger U.S. markets still lacking the speedy network.

ACS, which has long carried the roaming services for Verizon customers in Alaska, similarly rolled out an LTE network last year. GCI, meanwhile, relies primarily on another type of “4G” network -- 4G is really more of a marketing term than a true reflection of data speed -- which is typically slower than LTE. But ACS and GCI have announced a partial merger which would unite their wireless services in the state, shoring up against the business behemoths of AT&T and Verizon. That system, dubbed the Alaska Wireless Network, would reach a vast majority of the state's population, thanks to GCI's deep rural penetration. That merger is still winding its way through the Federal Communications Commission review process.

Verizon said in a press release that its Alaska data service will go live on Friday from the company’s “nerve center” in midtown Anchorage. The company said that its coverage area will extend from Anchorage to Fairbanks, North Pole, Juneau, Eagle River and the Matanuska-Susitna region, encompassing a majority of the state’s population.

Scott Charlston, a Verizon spokesman based in Washington state, said that some customers may have already been seeing LTE service in recent weeks as company engineers continue the process of "testing and tweaking" the system prior to the official rollout on Friday. According to Verizon Alaska Vice President Demian Voiles, said that the soft rollout thus far has been "flawless."

Verizon also announced plans to begin selling 4G LTE-capable devices at Alaska retailers on July 1. Prices for Verizon’s services are expected to be the same in Alaska as the rest of the U.S., reports Dermot Cole of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Unfortunately, those devices will be limited to things like tablet computers and wireless hotspots, with voice services -- read: cell phones -- not expected until sometime in 2014. Voiles said that official Verizon retail stores can be expected sometime next year, which is when Alaskans can get a phone set up with that coveted 907 area code.

"We’re going to be offering the voice services in 2014," Voiles said. "For right now it’s just data services." 

Alaskans can still set up a Verizon phone, but it will have to be done somewhere outside of the state until the company unveils those voice services. 

Until then, voice services for existing Verizon customers in Alaska will continue to be provided by other carriers, but those customers might see a change in their mobile internet and data speeds over the weekend.

Alaska-based ACS appears to be staying optimistic, though, despite the blow of losing those roaming Verizon data customers. ACS spokeswoman Heather Cavanaugh said in an email that the company will continue to further develop its own data network, even as the merger with GCI's wireless network moves forward.

"When (the deal) closes, The Alaska Wireless  Network will provide the largest, most advanced wireless network in Alaska, serving more communities than any other carrier," Cavanaugh wrote. "The Alaska Wireless Network will provide a state of the art wireless network owned and operated by Alaskans for Alaskans."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com