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How Terrestrial Broadband is Forever Changing Telecommunications in the Arctic

A high-speed microwave tower in Unalakleet is part of Phase 1 of TERRA Northwest.

A high-speed microwave tower in Unalakleet is part of Phase 1 of TERRA Northwest.

© GCI

On Thanksgiving Day in 1982, GCI carried its first long distance call. This was just the start of the thirty-year journey to bring advanced telecommunication services to all of Alaska—both urban and rural. And this journey continues as the technology environment—in Alaska and around the world—rapidly changes.

 

Satellite Connections

Currently, many Alaskans still receive all communication over satellite connections that are costly and plagued by signal delay. The lack of dependable high-speed connectivity limits the ability of hospitals, local health clinics, schools, and businesses to take advantage of such powerful tools as virtual classrooms, telemedicine, and modern business applications. People living in these areas are neither able to participate in today’s knowledge-based economy nor able to access global information resources.

In line with the more than 25 percent of Americans, Alaskans are increasingly ditching their home telephones in favor of wireless phones. This, paired with the continually advancing devices on which we’ve all come to rely, creates a never ending appetite for bandwidth, wireless, and advanced applications.

Satellite has been a great success story in Alaska and is still the only way some of the most remote regions can communicate. With advanced technology and large investments in satellite transponders, almost all Alaskans can receive reliable, high quality voice communication and Internet services. However, high-latency satellite is not the long-term answer.

Currently any Internet connections available via satellite travel from a home or business to a ground station, where they are uplinked. Those connections are subject to latency—the delay caused by the time needed to beam a signal to a satellite and back to Earth—and subject to disruption. Sending an image may take twenty or thirty minutes—far longer than with terrestrial systems.

Golovin will have terrestrial connectivity as part of TERRA Northwest.

© GCI

Two Billion Dollar Investment

Alaska needs to catch up in order to compete in the global economy, which is now completely reliant on fast and reliable broadband and wireless services, mostly delivered by fiber optics. In addition, recent provider partnerships mean that the vision of a statewide wireless network is becoming a reality, promising better coverage over a wider area for 95 percent of Alaskans. Furthermore, satellite is too costly and, even at its best, constrains service for residents, businesses, government, schools, and hospitals.

GCI’s network of voice, video, and broadband services now passes 80 percent of Alaska households.

To do this, we have invested more than two billion dollars, continuing with our founding vision of providing services to all Alaskans and operating an extensive state-of-the-art telecommunications network into, around, and out of Alaska.

Several years ago we developed a vision of taking all of Alaska off satellite and building a terrestrial network. No one thought we would or could do it. But ultimately we began designing and planning to build a terrestrial network to Alaska’s remote regions. We call this effort TERRA—Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska—and this vision is quickly becoming a reality.

 

First Big Step

TERRA Southwest was the first big step. It includes four hundred miles of new fiber-optic cable and thirteen new microwave towers connecting sixty-five communities from Quinhagak to Hooper Bay to Grayling. Built in 2011—ahead of schedule and under budget—TERRA Southwest is already providing high speed terrestrial bandwidth to fifty-four of the communities, and we have plans to quickly roll out service to the rest. People in the Southwest region went from unreliable satellite services to terrestrial reliability and speeds that are eight to sixteen times faster for the same price.

Today TERRA is improving the lives of residents in Southwest Alaska. The Chaninik Wind Group (CWG) and Intelligent Energy Systems built a series of smart grids designed to integrate cheaper wind power into their energy systems. Initially the grids relied on satellite Internet service for remote communications and data transmission, but for a number of reasons it wasn’t up to the task. Weather, long lag times, and satellite dishes that needed frequent adjusting all hampered CWG’s effort to use as much wind energy as possible.

CWG currently has two wind-heat systems up and running in the villages of Tuntutuliak and Kongiganak. Each village operates five 95kW wind turbines on eighty-foot towers out on the tundra. The turbines, the diesel generators that produce electricity, and the meters in local homes and offices are all interconnected by a local area network. That allows local utility managers to monitor all operations with supervisory control, data acquisition systems, and automated electrical metering. TERRA brings it all together, also enabling a variety of remote management, monitoring, and diagnostic services.

Field conditions are rough at Cape Nome where TERRA Northwest is under construction.

© GCI

Main Pay-Off

The main pay-off from all that technology is that each village can control the power flows in its system as wind speed changes, turning parts of the system on and off and configuring various components to minimize diesel generator use and optimize wind energy distribution—the more the wind blows, the more wind energy displaces the fuel used to power diesel generators. When the wind blows long and hard enough to meet all regular electricity needs, surplus wind energy kicks over to power thermal storage devices, a new type of ceramic heater now installed in many homes. The surplus energy costs about half as much as diesel fuel, so many families are seeing their total household expenses reduced by as much as half. At the same time, when they pay their energy bills, their money goes to their local utility instead of to outside fuel oil companies, keeping it closer to home where it can help nurture other community development projects.

Dennis Meiners of Intelligent Energy Systems points out that with TERRA, aside from being able to measure and control energy production and consumption more accurately, local utility managers now have reliable access to real-time technical help from engineers and suppliers all over the world. More importantly, they can take advantage of advanced metering and reporting systems supported by web-based applications.

“The villages use the smart grid system every day,” says Meiners, “and its value only increases when it is paired with reliable cell phone service via TERRA. Every day, there are texts and pictures between local power plant operators, engineers, and technicians. Issues are addressed and problems are diagnosed and solved right away. Utility managers have tools that didn’t exist before and expensive technical support trips back and forth to villages have pretty much been eliminated. TERRA has improved communications across the spectrum of operations, and that results in bringing improvements that were simply too difficult and too expensive to implement without it. As time goes by, and we learn how to improve the productivity and economics of village energy systems, TERRA will probably be taken for granted, but it is already a key asset in lowering power costs for many Alaskans.”

 

More Benefits

Another energy-related benefit for Alaskans due to TERRA involves AVEC, or the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative—the nonprofit electric utility owned by the people it serves in fifty-five villages throughout Interior and Western Alaska. AVEC is beginning to connect some of its power plants to its Anchorage headquarters through TERRA for improved monitoring and efficiencies. For the first time ever, field personnel are able to communicate with other team members while they are in the field. TERRA allows for improved communications between AVEC’s smart meters and the office, as challenges posed by the original copper telephone networks are overcome by TERRA’s high-speed, state-of-the-art system. In addition, TERRA gives AVEC the opportunity to plan for future cloud services, opening up tremendous possibilities for the organization.

TERRA is also bringing modern technology to healthcare in Southwest Alaska. Because of TERRA, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation has a much faster network, allowing it to improve a variety of healthcare services, says Joe Shawler, who works in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation’s technology division. Previously, for instance, sending a medical image might take several tries as the slow connection timed out. But now X-rays and other medical images can reach destinations in seconds.

Another view of the microwave tower in Unalakleet.

© GCI

Phasing in the Northwest

After completion of TERRA Southwest, GCI set out on finding a way to bring terrestrial connectivity to the Northwest region using a hybrid system of ground-based fiber-optic cable and high-speed microwave antennas to link dozens of Alaska villages. The distance education and telehealth customers within that region demanded it and it is now underway. Construction has been completed on Phase 1, which extended the network to Unalakleet and Shaktoolik. Phase 2 has begun and construction to Nome will be complete by the end of 2013. Phase 3—to Kotzebue—has also started and will be completed in 2014. This will be the first time Kotzebue has communicated off satellite.

Once TERRA Northwest is complete, GCI plans to extend TERRA to the Northwest villages and complete a connection back to the fiber along the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, giving TERRA the redundancy and protection necessary to fully support the state. The benefit of will be much faster connections through the Internet, opening up new possibilities in education, commerce, and healthcare for all Alaskans.

Bob Walsh grew up in Nome and has worked on issues statewide facing Rural Alaska in various capacities throughout his career. He is currently the Director of Rural Broadband Development at GCI. Walsh most recently worked on United States Senator Lisa Murkowski’s staff in Alaska covering Rural Alaska. He resides in Anchorage with his wife Patrice.

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

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