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Building Out Alaska’s Wireless Network

It may be no surprise that the state of Alaska is so large that it is difficult to cover the entire state in the footprint of a single satellite in geosynchronous orbit. What is the significance of that scenario? As a result, providing wireless service to customers across the entire state requires an extraordinary degree of planning, infrastructure, deployment, and challenging maintenance. From ice fields to rainforest island peaks, telecommunications workers operating Alaska’s wireless network are essentially adventurous explorers with a day job that looks something like a reality TV drama. Unlike the Lower 48, where four-wheel-drive makes most communications sites accessible, here it’s a case of not trains, planes, and automobiles but instead snowcats, floatplanes, and helicopters.

It was not that many years ago when a single telegraph line was being constructed through Southeast Alaska to connect the state to the Lower 48. That eventually gave way to an underwater cable—considered “fiber”—and then to satellite communications, additional cable, even more fiber, and added communications companies. Nowadays, Alaska is as wired as the rest of the world—in some cases, much more so.

The state’s backbone of communications to support the wireless network is a hybrid of wire, fiber, and microwave links that are, for the most part, transparent to the wireless user.  

Transition Time
For the end user, Alaska’s wired communications are fast becoming wireless in nature—from the user’s perspective, that is. The offerings may end up sounding a bit like alphabet soup: mobile phones, both smart and basic; computers connected via Wi-Fi hot spots, 3G, 4G, 4G LTE, high speed packet access, CDMA, GSM and a variety of other technologies. There is almost nowhere along the population corridors of this state where wireless communication is not omnipresent.

The providers of these services consist of three primary communications service providers: AT&T, General Communications, Inc., and Alaska Communications Systems. The fourth-largest service provider, Matanuska Telephone Association, is also a major player in Alaska’s telecommunication market. These are not the only providers that make up the “cloud” of wireless services in Alaska, but they are the largest.

Collectively, individual providers indicate there are more than 562,000 mobile device subscribers in the state, served by the three primary providers.

AT&T Mobility (AT&T)
“The wireless industry is arguably the most competitive in the world,” says Scott Meyers, director of sales in Alaska for AT&T. “The future is mobile broadband and that is where we are making our investment.” To that end, he says AT&T has invested $650 million between 2010 and 2012 in wireless communications in the state. A good portion of that investment is in the wires to make the expansion of wireless possible.

AT&T’s build-out includes voice and broadband with 4G, 3G, and 4G LTE; with the goal to have its entire Alaska network upgraded to 4G LTE by the end of 2014. Already, LTE is available in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and Juneau. The company completed 250 wireless upgrades in the past year alone, including new cell sites and increased cell site capacity and backhaul speeds.

Meyers says the company is committed to growth and continues to invest in expanding coverage area and increasing speeds of the network. “Consumer demand is driving wireless broadband and we are striving to meet the customer demand.” He also notes that there are places in Alaska where landlines are not available and wireless is the only option.

AT&T customers can choose from a variety of packages to include data only, voice only, or both services.

General Communications, Inc. (GCI)
Perhaps the most aggressive build-out plan in the state is to counter that of AT&T and the imminent crouching tiger of Verizon. Last June, GCI teamed up with Alaska Communications to form the Alaska Wireless Network, or AWN. According to GCI’s vice president David Morris, “AWN combines the wireless assets and coverage of the two … this will make both more efficient and increase their buying power.”

While AWN will be basic infrastructure to the two carriers, the end user will not see nor detect any difference in service.

“One big advantage,” says Morris, “is by combining the buying power, it will enable the companies to be more competitive on the cost of handsets [phones] with the nation’s major providers.”

The rollout of AWN is pending regulatory agency approval and may possibly receive the go-ahead by this July. Morris points out that, with AWN, GCI and Alaska Communications customers can travel from Ketchikan to Kotzebue and their phone will work and not be limited to the highway and cruise ship corridor limits of other carriers.

AWN will be managed by GCI with CEO Wilson Hughes as AWN’s first president and CEO.

GCI holds the number two ranking of wireless carriers in the state, with more than 142,000 subscribers. Morris says the company’s goal is to continue to expand wireless, including the data side of things. On the data side, the company is adding TurboZones at almost lightning speeds. As of this writing, nearly 1,300 of these zones are operational. A TurboZone provides data that is not typically Wi-Fi, nor is it typically cellular, says Morris. GCI customers can get download speeds up to 35-40 MB with qualifying plans. These zones or locations are typically in public areas such as restaurants, coffee shops, airports, shopping malls, and sports arenas. According to the company’s website: “If you don’t see your town listed yet, stay tuned.”

Alaska Communications Systems
With more than a one hundred year history in the state, Alaska Communications, under the stewardship of President and CEO Anand Vadopalli, serves hundreds of thousands of customers across the state at home and at work, from Alaska’s smallest businesses to the largest enterprises, government agencies, and other telecommunications providers.

With an emphasis on customer service and understanding customer and market demands, the company was among the first regional carriers in the United States to offer the iPhone, which they introduced in Alaska last April. “It’s also why we invested millions to bring Alaskans 4G LTE wireless services last year,” says Vadapalli. “Our 4G LTE service is available across the state, not just in a few markets.”
To support both wireless and wired customers, Alaska Communications offers in- and out-of-state hosted data centers to support business continuity and data recovery with 24/7/365 network monitoring services.

There is a lot of talk about the ubiquitous cloud, and the name implies wireless while it is anything but. However, the cloud is accessible with wireless broadband connections and most all of Alaska Communications’ cloud services are available via such wireless broadband connections. This includes the cloud-based voice-over-IP phone system, introduced to help customers reduce costs and streamline operations.

As a developing partner in AWN, Vadapalli says AWN will be the largest, most advanced wireless network in Alaska, serving communities that would never be served by any national carrier. As partners, Alaska Communications and GCI will independently sell the services and continue to compete with one another utilizing the AWN-provided shared wireless infrastructure. He compares AWN to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline that allows oil companies to share a single pipe and says, “AWN will provide a state-of-the-art Alaska wireless network owned and operated by Alaskans for Alaskans.”

The increased buying power of AWN will enable the carriers to bring new products to Alaska faster and likely cheaper.

“As for the future,” Vadapalli says, “we will continue to increase broadband deployment and speeds, and expand our suite of business offerings including Voice over Internet, new cloud services, and managed services for businesses.”
He went on to say, “We have a long and proud history in the state and look forward to continuing to bring Alaska’s businesses and Alaskans the latest technology and services.”

Alaska Communications has invested more than $500 million in Alaska since 2001 and the company participates on the governor’s Broadband Task Force.

Challenging Topography
With all the build-out and improvements in wireless, there are still mitigating circumstances that affect both voice and broadband service for mobile devices. Most of these factors are outside the control of the provider or carrier.

Strangely enough, probably the most daunting issue that adversely affects service is the proximity of the cell site. Closer is not necessarily better if there is a mountain or abundance of trees between a mobile user and the cell site or if the user is in a car or a building. Such interferences all adversely affect the radio signal that is trying to shake hands with the device.

The more wireless services—to include all types and classes—the more congested the radio spectrum gets, causing radio frequency interference, or RFI. These services do not all have to be in the same frequency range or class to cause cross-band interference. Add latency to the equation and it is truly amazing that such communication systems work as well as they do.

Consider the connection between devices and the source or router as a finite pipe. The more users sharing that resource, the less each user is allocated. Common carriers, or so it seems, cannot keep up with the demand. The more they build, the more users want.

To further complicate matters, it’s necessary to consider the capacity of the server and the congestion of the site. Tourism and transient workers may add to the congestion on a seasonal basis. AT&T’s Myers says there are 710,000 residents in Alaska and a lot of people work and visit here that do not live here. He speculates there could be times when there are more users than residents. Not to mention multiple devices per person.

Nicole A. Bonham Colby writes from Ketchikan.

This article first appeared in the July 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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