21st Century Technology Reaches the North Slope

Apr 2, 2018Arctic, Oil & Gas, Telecom & Tech

A GCI employee at work; GCI operates Alaska’s largest and fastest 4G LTE network.


Tracy Barbour

Resource development moves at lightning speed with fiber optics, IoT

Imagine an oilfield camp sitting in the middle of nowhere on Alaska’s North Slope in December. A giant drilling rig, cranes, and other equipment dominate the landscape, as workers busily prepare for the painstaking task of drilling.

But before drilling can begin, reliable telecommunications services must be established to support the makeshift camp. Telecom equipment is hauled to the remote location and installed in sub-zero temperatures and sometimes blinding blizzards. And that’s just a fraction of the challenges businesses face while providing telecommunications services to oil and gas and support services companies in Alaska.

There are a variety of companies that supply telecom services to oilfields, offshore drilling rigs, and cargo ships that support the statewide efforts of Alaska’s oil and gas businesses.

Alaska Communications Invests in Fiber and Satellite

Headquartered in Anchorage, Alaska Communications is a leading provider of advanced broadband and IT managed service solutions for businesses and consumers in Alaska. The company operates an advanced, statewide data and voice network with the latest technology and diverse undersea fiber optic system connecting Alaska to the contiguous United States.

Alaska Communications works closely with its oil and gas customers to develop industry-specific, custom solutions including a full range of custom data, managed IT, and voice services to companies that operate both in the field and on rigs. The company has also built custom Wi-Fi networks for marine vessels.

“Currently, we work with multiple oil and gas companies from explorers and producers to suppliers in Alaska and the Lower 48, including Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico,” says Bill Bishop, senior vice president of Business Markets.

Bill Bishop, Senior Vice President of Business Markets, Alaska Communications

Several years ago, Alaska Communications partnered with Quintillion Holdings to give Alaska’s North Slope oil and gas companies access to reliable, high-speed broadband service through fiber optic networks. Alaska Communications acquired a fiber optic network from ConocoPhillips in the portion of Alaska’s North Slope oil patch where the most new development is occurring.

According to a company press release from 2015, the network was designed to enable commercially-available, high-speed connectivity where only high-cost microwave and satellite communications were previously accessible. In addition to its focused service offerings to business and enterprise customers, Alaska Communications and Quintillion also partnered to make the network available to other telecom carriers in the market, further increasing the variety of new product and service offerings.

The fiber investment boosted connectivity to a number of oil and gas fields, including the Kuparuk River Unit, Colville River Unit, Milne Point Unit, Prudhoe Bay Unit, and Oooguruk Unit. It also added to Alaska Communications’ portfolio of managed IT solutions and professional services on the North Slope and is part of the company’s continued focus to provide reliable broadband and IT solutions across Alaska.

Last year, Alaska Communications worked with Quintillion again to secure fiber optic access— this time for Northwest Alaska. The agreement gave Native corporations, government agencies, healthcare clinics, and schools in Northwest Alaska access to competitive, high-speed, reliable broadband and managed IT services for the first time in this region. It also brings high-speed fiber optic access, on a substantially more affordable basis, to these communities.

Under the deal, Alaska Communications will be a reseller to select telecom carriers in addition to serving business customers with its expanded network. And Quintillion will purchase capacity services for its newly constructed terrestrial system to the oil fields of the North Slope on Alaska Communications’ fiber optic network from Fairbanks to the Lower 48.

Also as part of the 2017 agreement, Alaska Communications will connect the original fiber to its existing network via Quintillion’s new terrestrial network. This enables the company to provide redundancy and expand broadband and managed IT services offerings to even more oil and gas companies on the North Slope.

“We are continuously investing in our fiber and satellite network and look forward to continuing our support of the oil and gas sector,” Bishop says.

Thomas Lochner, Director of Business Development, ASTAC

Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Upgrades

Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative (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 utility cooperative also provides local and long distance, Internet, and data services. It serves 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.

ASTAC also offers a private 4G LTE (long term evolution) network. The service, which was upgraded last year, allows customers to receive the equivalent of their home network out in the field. “This means that you could be on an exploration platform and work on a computer the same way you operate at your office network,” says Thomas Lochner, ASTAC’s director of business development and sales.

“What we have is a truly private network—it’s not over the open Internet. I don’t know of anybody else in Alaska or nationwide who is offering this service.”

The 4G LTE—which has lower latency than satellite—allows for more reliability and flexibility. This can be especially beneficial for oil and gas companies and other customers needing telecom services for mobile rigs or remote locations. Last April, ASTAC added new radios to improve its private LTE network. “We want to make sure we keep up with the technology once it’s ‘fully baked’ by the equipment providers,” Lochner says.

ASTAC is also planning other upgrades and new services to enhance its suite of telecom solutions. This year, it plans to develop more offerings related to the Internet of Things (IoT) and enabling a “Smart Oilfield.” ASTAC is partnering with a company that developed a smart camera system to monitor analog gauges at well heads and transmit information back to the company that owns the equipment. The camera will be able to essentially “read” the information on the analog gauges, so no one will have to come out to view them manually. ASTAC will be responsible for maintaining the equipment that reads the gauges and transmitting the information back to the customer on the North Slope or anywhere else in ASTAC’s terrestrial network and private 4G LTE network.

Using a smart camera system to read and transmit information from analog gauges is more cost-effective than replacing them. Plus, it can reduce manpower costs for oil and gas companies. “It allows them to not have a staff of folks to look at the gauges on the North Slope,” he says.

Incidentally, ASTAC can provide services to companies that operate in an oil field as well as on a rig in the sea. However, it doesn’t have the satellite infrastructure to provide reliable service to cargo vessels since its coverage extends only about seven miles out to sea.

Another project ASTAC has planned for 2018 involves the Dalton Highway, which is a lifeline for North Slope oil and gas and support services companies. There’s no telecommunications coverage along a 500-mile stretch of the highway from Fairbanks to Deadhorse. “If something happens, you either have to use a satellite phone or wait for the next truck to come by,” Lochner says.

To alleviate this problem, ASTAC is partnering with several other companies to build additional cell towers along the highway. The first tower for the project will be at the Franklin Bluffs area about forty miles south of Prudhoe Bay. The tower will meet the coverage ASTAC already provides for Deadhorse and slightly southward. The buildout won’t remedy the entire 500 miles of “dead space”—which traverses a jagged mountain range—but it will cover a significant portion of it. Lochner explains, “What we’re aiming for is for people to not be greater than a half hour out of range.”

The new cell sites will further ASTAC’s infrastructure investments in the region. Since 2012, the cooperative 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 Offers Integrated Solutions

Alaska’s largest telecommunications company, GCI, provides a wide variety of commercial and professional services to the energy sector. They include both wired and wireless options, such as fiber optic cable-based services and LTE or microwave-based based solutions. The company’s professional services include engineering, project management, documentation, onsite IT/telecom technician construction efforts, and operational support. GCI’s LTE-based service offering covers the majority of the North Slope oil fields.

GCI also provides what is known as “full life cycle support” to the energy sector. “GCI partners with you to explore, design, construct, and then operate your facilities, all while bringing the most relevant technologies, which help improve efficiencies,” says Rick Hansen, senior director of GCI’s Industry Solutions team.

A crane sets a GCI tower in Platinum.

Hansen says GCI understands the energy sector and strives to serve as an integrated partner for clients. “Over the past twenty years, our team of technicians, engineers, and project managers have worked hard to earn the trust of our clients by providing a no-surprises approach to our projects and to our relationships,” he says. “We listen to our partner’s needs and then match the appropriate technology solution to meet them while planning for the future.”

Over the years, GCI has established a strong track record of providing services that support exploration and operations on the North Slope, offshore in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. “We provide reliable cost-effective connectivity, which creates operational efficiencies,” Hansen says. “The more remote areas of the state are serviced by our satellite network [VSAT] systems and have a very strong history of connecting folks off the beaten path.”

GCI’s VSAT (very small aperture terminal) systems can provide services to a vessel at sea, and its terrestrial systems can connect those users to its LTE-based systems when in port. The company also has the technologies and infrastructure to assist the freight/cargo industry.

In addition to serving oil and gas industry clients, GCI works closely with and provides services to the support industry and its many members. The company also has an active role in the Alaska Support Industry Alliance and the Alaska Resource Development Council. “GCI is connected and works hard to be the leader in these critical industries throughout Alaska,” Hansen says. “Efficient and responsible resource development is one of the main engines that powers the Alaska economy.”

GCI also provides clients with a variety of IT services. Its Industry Solutions team includes infrastructure, server, security, and outsourced desktop technicians to help meet backend needs. “We are here to help your project and your company use the latest technology to its fullest,” Hansen says.

Safety is a core value at GCI, which recently surpassed three million hours of safe work time. Trust is also essential, and GCI is focused on safely delivering technology-related, value-added solutions to its partners. “Trust is not given, it is earned in our business,” Hansen says. “Because of our very strong team in Deadhorse, Anchorage, Houston, and elsewhere, we have earned the trust of many partners throughout the energy sector.”

Leighton Lee, CEO, New Horizons Telecom

New Horizons Telecom Focuses on Engineering and Installation

New Horizons Telecom is a full-service engineering and installation telecommunications and infrastructure company. The Palmer-based business provides the hardware—much of which people never see—that service providers use to meet their clients’ telecom needs. This includes installing towers and antennas for mobile phones; commercial structures and foundations; and communications equipment ranging from high-performance microwave and fiber optic network components to high-speed wireless systems.

“It’s our job to provide the physical pieces needed by our clients so they can continue to serve their clients successfully,” says CEO Leighton Lee.

Recently, New Horizons worked with communications giant Quintillion on a project to run more than 760 miles of subsea cable from Nome to Prudhoe Bay, with points branching off to village landings at Nome, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Utqiaġvik, and Oliktok Point. New Horizons was contracted to design and install the ocean terminals and terrestrial fiber optic cable for the project, which brings high-speed Internet and communication capabilities to these communities.

Within the oil and gas industry, New Horizons’ role in telecommunications primarily encompasses engineering and installation. For instance, if a cargo ship serving the oil and gas industry needed Wi-Fi, New Horizons could be contracted by a satellite provider to facilitate the process. It would install a satellite uplink antenna, the rack that would house the equipment, and the radio equipment. “We would receive that signal and put in all the hardware necessary, which would allow the provider to come in, configure that equipment, and provide that service to that vessel,” Lee says.

Satellite has been the telecommunications tool of choice for the kind of extreme and remote conditions that oil and gas and support services companies often encounter. Thanks to high-tech, low-Earth orbit satellite, it’s possible for cargo ships and isolated oil rigs to have a viable Internet connection. “Low-Earth orbit takes latency down from 600 milliseconds to 20 seconds,” Lee says. “The low-Earth orbit gives vessels and rigs much better broadband capability.”

New Horizons also works with oil and gas fields to implement its more conventional infrastructure services such as fiber optic cables in roads and buildings. For instance, the company has installed data systems along the trans-Alaska Pipeline as well as installed towers and lines in Prudhoe Bay. New Horizons also helps with the program management aspect of telecom projects, assisting with permitting and environmental consultation. “For example, we might get a call from GCI, and we’ll engage with them to determine what makes the most sense.” Lee says. “We then design and go out and construct those systems. Then all the customer needs to do is configure that system and provide that service.”

Looking to the future, New Horizons is focused on leveraging IoT. This emerging technology, Lee says, will give oil companies more connectivity and flexibility in the deployment of control systems and monitoring systems. He explains: “The oil and gas industry needs more devices connected to the Internet and overarching monitoring programs. Every one of those will benefit from artificial intelligence, which can be useful for monitoring systems.”

The North Slope is a challenging work environment, Lee says, but New Horizons has a staff of employees who are trained to work there effectively and safely. This year, New Horizons will celebrate forty years of serving government, commercial, and oil and gas clients.

Quintillion Delivers Competitive Fiber Services

Based in Anchorage, Quintillion focuses on bringing lower-cost, high-speed broadband service options to rural Alaska on a wholesale basis. Quintillion, together with a number of partners, is changing Alaska’s middle mile capabilities with the construction of new fiber optic cable systems, including subsea fiber optic cable from Prudhoe to Nome with additional connections into Utqiaġvik, Wainwright, Point Hope, and Kotzebue, and terrestrial cable from Fairbanks to the oil and gas industry at Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay.

“Quintillion’s backbone connectivity in these areas will enable Internet providers to deliver services to oilfield operations on land and to near-shore areas in the sea,” says Matt Peterson, vice president of Network Management. “Service could be extended to cargo ships nearby the service areas via radio link or via 4G/LTE mobile telephone services.”

A crane sets a GCI tower in Platinum.

The Alaska portion of the Quintillion Subsea Cable System is the first phase of a planned multi-phase, international subsea cable system that is designed to connect Europe to Asia along the Lower Northwest Passage, providing a diverse and shorter route between the two continents. In Alaska, Quintillion’s network provides nearly unlimited capacity, low latency, and reliable backbone connections for Internet service providers in Prudhoe Bay, Utqiaġvik, Wainwright, Point Hope, Kotzebue, and Nome.

The Quintillion subsea fiber optic cable system was launched December 1, 2017 in five northern Alaska communities. Quintillion serves as a bandwidth services provider, enabling high speed broadband capability to consumers and businesses in these communities. Crews completed installation of the Alaska Arctic portion of the Quintillion Subsea Cable System in early October. “The system performed flawlessly during test mode and is now live to service providers in Utqiaġvik, Wainwright, Point Hope, Nome, and Kotzebue, enabling 21st century communications in the Alaska Arctic for the first time,” Peterson says.

Quintillion’s cable system can deliver gigabit and higher bandwidth services on a 1,400-mile subsea and terrestrial fiber optic network, including a subsea trunk line from Prudhoe Bay to Nome with branching lines to the five communities. The system is providing access to high-speed broadband capacity for telecommunication service providers at a far lower cost and improved quality of service than existing satellite and microwave options, according to Peterson. He says, “Introduction of high-speed Internet to Quintillion’s markets is enabling improved health and education services, helping to spur economic development, empowering local businesses, and allowing consumers access to video and other high-speed applications that were previously unavailable or unaffordable for many potential Quintillion end-user customers.

Optical fiber communication networks form the basis for broadband network globally, Peterson says. “Quintillion is pleased to bring competitive fiber services to Prudhoe and pioneer the subsea route to bring this technology to communities in the Arctic,” he says. “We are excited about the opportunities to extend this capability to other areas, both nearby our current service locations and additional communities in Alaska.”

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.

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