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GCI will spend $26 million to bolster cable, wireless in Fairbanks

Amanda Bohman

FAIRBANKS -- The president of General Communication Inc., better known as GCI, announced Monday the company is spending $26 million to improve wireless service and bring Internet and cable television to areas of Fairbanks where there is none.

The company will spend $6 million this summer and the rest over the next five years. 

"We hope to be able to bring substantially improved wireless speeds to you by the end of the year," GCI President Ron Duncan said at the annual shareholders meeting in the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel. "LTE  (long-term evolution) with speeds in excess of 10 megabytes will be the norm in Fairbanks by the end of 2013."

That means smartphone users with GCI service will no longer need to buffer when watching videos. "Hopefully, you can watch all of the video you want," Duncan said. 

His announcement comes weeks after a new competitor, wireless giant Verizon, entered the scene with its own high-speed network. Verizon began offering data service -- texting and Internet -- on mobile phones this summer in Alaska, spending about $100 million, according to the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

In anticipation of the new competitor, GCI and Alaska Communications Systems announced last year they are merging their wireless networks, creating the new Alaska Wireless Network. Duncan said the deal, in which each company will pool resources but continue to sell wireless plans independently, is pending federal regulatory review. The GCI president hopes to close the deal next month.

In his remarks to shareholders, Duncan touched on Verizon briefly without mentioning the company by name. "Our ability to serve customers everywhere in Alaska will continue to distinguish us from the new competitors here in town," he said.

GCI has a goal to offer high-speed wireless service to 80 percent of Alaska residents by the end of 2014. Most of the investment in Fairbanks is going toward improving GCI's cable and Internet business over the next five years.

Duncan said GCI's Internet customers can expect faster speeds with new broadband technology coming online in Fairbanks later this year. He boasted of an Internet speed "more than five times faster than anything else available in the market and more than twice as fast as any of our cable-Internet offerings."

GCI expects to offer cable and Internet service to 1,500 homes in Fairbanks that would otherwise lack a cable or Internet provider, Duncan said.

The company continues to expand its overland fiber optic and microwave network in rural Alaska. The project is called TERRA and it covers 68 communities, primarily in Southcentral and Western Alaska. GCI promises to deliver higher bandwidths and more reliability than satellite service. Nome will be added this year while site development is underway in Kotzebue.

A route adding communities along the Yukon River is under consideration, too, Duncan said. "We take a little bite each year," he said.

GCI is also venturing into the news business with deals pending to buy three television stations in Anchorage, Juneau and Sitka. That deal is also awaiting regulatory review with other television stations fearing GCI will use its cable platform to choke out competition from the other news providers.

Duncan said the news company, Denali Media Holdings, a GCI subsidiary, will be ready to go on the air with a newscast this fall.

"We are excited to get into the news business," Duncan said during an interview. "We're building a studio now. It will be a full HD (high definition) studio. We're hiring people and getting ready to go."

Contact freelance writer Amanda Bohman at aknewsgirl(at)gmail.com