Building communication through infrastructure
At its Oliktok Point Facility, Quintillion's land system meets the subsea cable, where switches bridge the 100G communication links from the subsea cable with Quintillion's land system. The yellow cables are optical fiber patch cords.
Arctic Alaska is renowned for its abundant wildlife, mountainous terrain, formidable weather, and isolated communities. Providing technology infrastructure in the region—which encompasses the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough, and the Nome Census Area—can be daunting.
Despite the logistical challenges, telecommunications companies Alaska Communications, Arctic Slope Telecom Association Cooperative (ASTAC), GCI, and Quintillion continue to enhance technology infrastructure in Arctic Alaska.
Alaska Communications Enhances Broadband
Alaska Communications has expanded its broadband offerings significantly to benefit rural Alaskans. According to a March news release, the company is providing new Internet connectivity that is allowing businesses in underserved areas to be more connected than ever before.
“Many businesses in the Arctic regions have offices in Anchorage and other metropolitan communities. Having access to competitive, high-speed broadband will allow them to connect without limits," Bill Bishop, senior vice president of Business Markets noted in the news release. "Businesses can become more efficient and effective because they won't be constrained by shared networks, slow connectivity, and data caps."
The company said it is proud to provide support solutions to Nome-based Kawerak, a regional nonprofit corporation, by offering competitive, high-speed broadband. This move addresses extremely high prices and substantial bandwidth constraints previously faced by the Bering Straits Native Corporation, according to the release. "This contract will have a positive impact on business, connectivity, and how Kawerak works with companies and customers outside of Nome," Bishop said.
Aside from its work in Nome, Alaska Communications is bringing new services to Utqiaġvik, Kotzebue, Point Hope, and Wainwright. Native corporations, government agencies, healthcare clinics, schools, and businesses now have access to competitive, high-speed, reliable broadband and managed IT services, the news release said. In addition, such technology is available through a fiber optic network where most new oil and gas development is occurring in Alaska's North Slope.
The fiber optic broadband network is now available following a multi-year effort by Quintillion to lay infrastructure and connect two undersea fiber optic cable networks. The connection increases capacity and builds redundancy on the subsea fiber optic system, which allows Alaska Communications to expand broadband and managed IT service offerings to Arctic-region businesses. Alaska Communications is, reportedly, first in making this new network available to business customers and select telecom carriers.
ASTAC Continues Improving Wireless
ASTAC is a full-service telecommunications company that provides fixed and mobile wireless solutions, including equipment sales and service, to the North Slope region. The member-owned telephone cooperative also provides local and long-distance, Internet, and data services, catering to eight of the region's traditional villages in Utqiaġvik, Wainwright, Atqasuk, Anaktuvuk Pass, Nuiqsut, Kaktovik, Point Hope, and Point Lay as well as the petroleum industry at the production complex at Deadhorse-Prudhoe Bay.
According to Thomas Lochner, director of business development, ASTAC has connected every home and business in the villages of Point Hope, Wainwright, and Nuiqsut to its fiber optic cable infrastructure. Point Hope and Wainwright are connected to the Internet via the Quintillion subsea fiber optic cable. The village of Nuiqsut is connected to the Internet through a combination of fiber optic and microwave technologies. Upgrades are also in store for Utqiaġvik. While having a significant fiber presence in Utqiaġvik, ASTAC is in the process of connecting every home and business in Utqiaġvik to its fiber optic system by the end of 2018.
ASTAC offers the broadest coverage of 4G and LTE wireless on the North Slope and continues to make investments to improve wireless coverage, Lochner says. These investments also will impact the village of Kotzebue. Although Kotzebue is not technically on the North Slope, ASTAC found that a significant number of its subscribers travel through Kotzebue when going to and from the villages. To meet the needs of its customers, ASTAC partnered with OTZ Telephone Cooperative to enhance coverage with a new cell site for ASTAC's customers in Kotzebue.
Currently, four of the villages in ASTAC’s service area—Kaktovik, Anaktuvuk Pass, Atqasuk, and Point Lay—lack a terrestrial "middle-mile" infrastructure. The absence of this connectivity between the villages and an Internet connection point in a place, such as Anchorage, Seattle, or Portland, creates a technological challenge for the people who live in these communities.
ASTAC is evaluating various options to provide terrestrial bandwidth to Kaktovik, Anaktuvuk Pass, Atqasuk and Point Lay. In addition, it is working to simultaneously install fiber to every building in these villages via fiber to the home (FTTH) and fiber to the premise (FTTP) delivery. “In this, ASTAC will make sure that the villages can take full advantage of the available bandwidth,” Lochner says.
The additional technology infrastructure being implemented by ASTAC will ultimately translate into more employment opportunities for Alaskans. Lochner explains: “The North Slope is rich in culture and art, and having high-speed broadband would allow artists to showcase their art to a larger audience, increase tourism, and allow for trained employees on the North Slope to stay and embrace their culture and lifestyle while remotely working anywhere in the world that their technology-based skills are needed.”
Since 2012, ASTAC has invested more than $33 million in its North Slope network. It has also given back to its membership, distributing $1.5 million in capital credits to members over that same time period.
GCI Increases Data in the Arctic
GCI has a great deal of technology infrastructure in the Arctic and statewide, primarily through a combination of fiber, microwave, and satellite. “We cover more than 90 percent of the Alaska population,” says Jenifer Nelson, senior manager of community relations. “We’ve really been on the cutting edge to use the technology that we need to reach the people that we do.”
The company employs an assortment of technology to deliver its services in the Arctic. And it has had to use a great degree of ingenuity and innovation to build out in the region.
Case in point: GCI has been busy upgrading the wireless network in some of its satellite communities to long term evolution (LTE) over satellite. So far, the company has upgraded more than twenty communities from 2G to LTE over satellite. These remote locales have gone from having zero data on their phone (only being able to make calls) to being able to access emails, send photos, and stream video. “It’s connecting them to the rest of the world and bringing the rest of the world to them,” Nelson says.
The enhancement of infrastructure is allowing Alaskans in Arctic communities to enjoy activities that most people take for granted, such as online banking and Facetiming family and friends. It’s almost impossible to live without having access to connectivity in this day and age, Nelson says. “It’s not just a convenience, but a necessity,” she says. “It allows these communities in the Arctic to sustain and exist.”
It’s exciting to see how connectivity is impacting the lives of people in remote parts of Alaska, says Bob Walsh, GCI’s director of rural broadband development. Rural Alaskans have been thrilled to have the new technology available for their cell phones. “To see them actually having those phones and being able to text and stream and everything else is significant,” Walsh says.
The connectivity provided by GCI is having a major effect on the Arctic as a whole, Walsh says. The scope of that impact ranges from being able to finally access Amazon Prime to having better connections for schools and healthcare facilities. The connectivity also equates to better employees retention. “If I have good connectivity in a village, I can stay connected to my friends in the Lower 48 and elsewhere a lot easier than before,” Walsh explains. “That was a big thing at the Red Dog Mine.”
GCI’s technology investments have translated into numerous employment opportunities. “We have a tough crew of Alaskans who build this network and maintain it,” Nelson says. “We have more than 2,000 employees, and over 90 percent of them live in Alaska.”
In rural Alaska alone, there’s a crew of more than 200 employees who maintain GCI’s network. This is mutually beneficial for the workers and GCI. Nelson explains: “It’s provided an opportunity for people living in their rural community to stay there. And it works for us because they are close to the infrastructure and can respond quickly.”
In fact, GCI is trying to “grow its own” workers in the region by maintaining an active workforce development program. It also works with universities and school districts to nurture local workers. “If we can get them close to their community, there is less turnover,” Walsh says. “GCI’s best success is by having employees who either come from the region they’re working in or at least understand the region.”
Power rectifiers at Quintillion's Pliktok Point facility within the Kuparuk
Quintillion Deploys the Latest Technology
Headquartered in Anchorage, Quintillion is bringing lower-cost, high-speed broadband service options to rural Alaska. Together with its partners, Quintillion is changing Alaska's middle-mile capabilities with the construction of new fiber optic cable systems that went live in December 2017.
Quintillion maintains expansive technology infrastructure in the Arctic. Its new 400-mile terrestrial fiber optic infrastructure goes from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, connecting to the in-field fiber network owned in a joint venture with Alaska Communications, from Deadhorse to Oliktok Point (ninety-plus miles). It has been in service for about a year. At Oliktok Point, the terrestrial systems link with Quintillion’s 1, 200 mile subsea fiber system, the first-ever submarine cable system in the North American Arctic. As a whole, the system serves 20,000 residents and businesses in those communities.
“Quintillion is deploying the very latest technology capable of meeting total aggregate demand on our system up to 30 terabits,” says Quintillion CEO George Tronsrue III. “We have the ability to triple that capacity over time as demand grows.”
The company’s subsea system was built and installed by Alcatel Submarine Networks, a global leader in the submarine cable industry. It utilizes state-of-the-art lightwave technology from Lucent Technologies and the latest and most advanced Ethernet technology provided by telecommunications networking equipment, software, and services provider Ciena Corporation. Quintillion also has telecommunication points of presence (POPs) in FFairbanks, Anchorage, and Deadhorse serving greater Alaska markets and cable landing station POPs in each of the five markets. Two of the POPs are co-located with the local exchange carrier in Kotzebue and Nome.
Building the subsea system over the last three years was a challenging and unique undertaking, according to Tronsrue. An obvious major challenge was severe winter conditions that inhibited what could be done in the Arctic Ocean and over land.
Tronsrue points out that before Quintillion’s network switched on in December 2017, the existing technology in the affected markets was satellite and microwave, which have limited bandwidth, are expensive to maintain and operate, and are not diversified systems. “To some extent, our system provides diversity for those other land-based systems of the past, but what the markets will most benefit from in the future is incremental fiber optic distribution that moves from the coast inland to markets served only by satellite or microwave/wireless today,” he says. “This is something we're interested in doing if we can get appropriate technology infrastructure funding at the federal and state level.”
The Alaska portion of the Quintillion Subsea Cable System is the first phase of a planned multi-phase international subsea cable system designed to connect Europe to Asia along the Lower Northwest Passage, providing a diverse and shorter route between the two continents. Quintillion’s future plans are to build to both the west and the east, ultimately terminating in Europe and Asia.
Once this infrastructure is in place, the next obvious demand is for an Arctic data center(s). Tronsrue says there has been a great deal of discussion about Arctic data centers, as the public/private cloud business has grown and become increasingly important to both commercial and government clients. He adds: “The Arctic environment provides natural cooling, low cost sources of energy, abundant land that is readily available and at a reasonable price, [and] physical security derived from the remoteness of various Arctic locations… which adds a positive security aspect. In addition, there are geopolitical benefits to the North American Arctic. It is a significant advantage not to have to store data in potentially unstable or unfriendly locations or land-based systems through lesser secured networks.”
Data centers are large consumers of high-speed bandwidth. The opportunity is perfectly primed for development of an Arctic data center initiative for Alaska on Quintillion’s technology/infrastructure footprint, Tronsrue says. Preliminarily, Deadhorse looks like the best option because transportation in and out by truck or air is favorable compared to other options in current Quintillion markets. This initiative would serve both government and commercial clients and provide critical infrastructure for public and private entities. “We are actively working with leading players in the cloud industry to partner with us in this endeavor and expect to be successful,” he says. “Additionally, we are also discussing this with other infrastructure providers and government to develop a technically and economically viable initiative to build and operate the first Arctic data center in the US and North America.”
An Arctic data center could bring extensive economic and employment opportunities to Alaska. This would be a multi-year project and a significant undertaking. Quintillion’s operational timeline would be late 2019 or early 2020, depending on how quickly development unfolds.
Tracy Barbour has been an Alaska Business contributor since 1999. As a former Alaskan, she is uniquely positioned to offer in-depth insight and enjoys writing about a variety of topics.