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4G comes to Alaska -- in a sense

Ben Anderson

On Monday, General Communication, Inc. announced that it was introducing 4G service to Alaska with a new network that features faster download speeds on a mobile phone -- if you live in Anchorage and actually have the phone and corresponding plan, that is. And even then, it may not be the 4G some consumers are expecting.

"The new 4G service is capable of download speeds rated up to 21 Megabits per second, with typical speeds more than 10 times faster than current network speeds," a press release from the company said. According to GCI's Vice President of Corporate Services David Morris, the average 3G download speed is around 2 Megabits per second.

"Everytime you go to a new 'G,' you dramatically increase the speed of a phone," Morris said. He said that in order accommodate the new network, they had to offload data from the wireless network into a fiberoptic network, a process known as "backhauling."

GCI's competitor Alaska Communications Systems announced back in June that it was planning its own 4G network and was investing $32 million in in its own backhaul upgrade, although updates on that project have not been forthcoming since. ACS Spokeswoman Heather Cavanaugh couldn't provide specifics, but said that the company expects to roll out the service before the end of the year and will announce the communities it will serve in the coming weeks or months.

There are numerous iterations of what consumers know as "4G," but according to a recent NPR interview, true 4G is not yet available at the consumer level. The GCI 4G network is what's known as an High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) plus network, a significant step up from the standard HSPA system that most 3G phones utilize. That HSPA plus network is what allows for the 21-Megabit download speed. Because consumers are used to the standard "G" measuring system, wireless companies -- including AT&T and T-Mobile -- have come to refer to HSPA plus as a 4G network.

ACS's planned 4G upgrade will use a different system known as LTE that will provide speeds about twice that of HSPA plus, Cavanaugh said. Verizon Wireless has tested its own LTE network's download speed at between 40 and 50 megabits in the Lower 48.

But there is still a significant speed increase on GCI's new network, so people in Anchorage who want a faster phone now have an option. Morris said that three phones will be immediately compatible with the new network.

GCI said in the press release that it plans to introduce the 4G service to other communities before the end of the year, while introducing 3G service into others. GCI is also in the midst of installing a broadband Internet network in rural Southwest Alaska scheduled for completion by the end to 2012.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com