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GCI expands broadband to Northwest Alaska

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
State of Alaska photo

Alaska’s telecommunications giant GCI announced this week the expansion of its terrestrial broadband network into Kotzebue and other Northwest Alaska locations. This means Phase 3 of TERRA-Northwest, and construction of six additional microwave sites between the communities of Shaktoolik and Kotzebue.

This expansion will offer broadband Internet services to businesses, residents, and government and nonprofit entities in Kotzebue. This includes the Maniilaq Association and the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. Those institutions are currently online through satellite service. The terrestrial connection is intended to offer a significant boost in speed, a convenience for locals and an efficiency tool for education and healthcare providers.

“The main benefit of the Phase 3 expansion of TERRA-NW will be higher speed, lower latency data service, supporting education, healthcare and Internet, enhancing the quality of life and economic opportunity for rural communities throughout the Northwest Arctic Borough,” said Ron Duncan, president and chief executive officer of GCI, in a release. “GCI embarks on this project with the future of all Alaska in mind. We deeply appreciate the support provided to GCI by communities, their leaders, and our customers throughout the state."

GCI completed a similar expansion into southwest Alaska last year. TERRA-Southwest links 400 miles of fiber-optic cable and 13 microwave sites, which connected 65 communities to the broadband network.

“Today, satellite latency continues to hinder our advanced applications like video teleconferencing and electronic health records,” said Eugene Smith in a release. Smith is Kotzebue’s mayor and the chief information officer for Maniilaq Association. “After the completion of the TERRA-NW project, latency will be massively reduced and our ability to deliver telehealth applications at our regional hospital will be greatly improved,” Smith said.

TERRA-Northwest, Phase 3 will involve 205 miles of extended microwave network. Five of the six new towers will be in remote locations. The total cost of this phase is estimated at $28 million, constructed and owned by GCI’s subsidiary Unicom. At this time, GCI is deploying broadband cable modem service in Kotzebue, to be completed by the end of October.

Construction of Phase 3 for high-speed broadband service should begin next year and be completed by late 2014. GCI is currently awaiting permitting approval from the Bureau of Land Management.

Phase 1 is currently under construction, connecting the northern end of the TERRA-Southwest region at Shageluk, to the communities of Unalakleet and Shaktoolik.

Phase 2 connects Shaktoolik to Nome, for which the permitting is already approved. That construction should be completed in December of 2013, approximately one year before the completion of this most recently announced phase that will extend the network to Kotzebue.

GCI provides 70 percent of Alaska’s consumer broadband services. It is Alaska’s largest telecommunications network.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch@reportalaska.com.