2023: A Year of Progress for the Airraq Network Project
GCI’s Bruce Rein leads a survey crew near Eek to identify potential fiber landing locations for the Airraq Network.
It has been a busy year for the joint BNC-GCI Airraq Network fiber project, which will bring transformational speeds, unlimited data, and urban pricing to effectively close the digital divide for thirteen communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska.
Laying the Groundwork
It was the year of the survey for the Airraq Network fiber project. Crews traveled throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in 2023, gathering information for the fiber project to bolster planning and logistics efforts for construction, which is expected to begin next year. The Airraq Network will deliver 2.5 gig residential internet speeds, unlimited data, and urban pricing to thirteen Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities in the coming years.
The Airraq Network (pronounced EYE-huck), is named for the traditional Yup’ik game similar to cat’s cradle, which translates as “string that tells the story.”
Kicking off the summer’s surveys, a team led by GCI Principal Engineer of Telecommunications Delivery Bruce Rein and members of the Benthic GeoScience team spent approximately two weeks in Bristol Bay aboard the R/V Wolstad, a 121-foot research vessel, carefully and methodically gathering data and samples for analysis along the Airraq Network’s subsea fiber route for phases one and two of the project.
“The Benthic GeoScience team, with help from the Wolstad’s crew, used specialized equipment to measure the proposed route point by point and finalize the GPS track,” says Rein. “We also used the opportunity for a lot of other analysis and information gathering, like scanning the seafloor for obstructions, collecting samples, identifying ice scours, mapping sediment waves and verifying preparatory research on local fishing grounds, vessel anchoring areas, historic sites, and anything else that could impact the subsea fiber route.”
Crews also completed a riverine survey of the fiber route, which began near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River and proceeded to Tuntutuliak and into smaller waterways, like the Eek River, that are part of the Airraq Network’s inland route.
“Since part of this network will be deployed in the shallower riverways, we used smaller vessels and portable survey equipment that’s more suitable to the Kuskokwim River and surrounding area,” says Rein. “In addition to gathering information similar to the subsea portion of the survey, the crew worked with communities and their wealth of local knowledge to fine tune the route and help determine the best method for deploying fiber along the river.”
Throughout this fall and winter, survey crews continued their efforts, visiting Airraq communities, assessing local infrastructure, and conducting aerial surveys for the new fiber network.
Teams from IT Telecom Marine, STG, and AMSS, which have been awarded contracts for the installation of the marine cable, installation of equipment shelters, and construction of equipment shelters, respectively, visited each site to further develop construction and installation plans for the coming years. Project contractor UTI has bought and delivered two specialized tracked vehicles, which will enable the safe and efficient installation of the tundra cable portion of the system once final permits are granted.
“This is a massive lift, and it’s one that’s crucial to the project,” says GCI Principal Program Manager Rebecca Markley. “Our teams have covered a lot of miles on, over, and through all types of terrain. From the sea and rivers to tundra and local communities, we’re gathering all the information necessary to ensure this project can be built efficiently while having as little environmental impact as possible.”
“The work completed this year lays the foundation for closing the digital divide in the Bethel region,” says BNC President & CEO Ana Hoffman. “We’re excited to see boats in the water and crews on the ground, preparing our region for fiber-optic connectivity. The people of the Y-K Delta are looking forward to having more affordable, reliable connectivity in Western Alaska.”
More Communities Join the Airraq System
From left: GCI SVP of Corporate Development Billy Wailand; Cordova Telephone Cooperative CEO Jeremiah Beckett; US Representative Mary Peltola; Bush-Tell Inc. General Manager Roy Wrazen; Senior Advisor to the President of the United States Mitch Landrie; USDA Rural Utilities Services Assistant Administrator Christopher McLean; and USDA Rural Development State Director for Alaska Julia Hnilicka pose together at the August 2023 grant announcement press conference.
As survey crews plied the waterways, skies, and roads of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, it was announced the Airraq Network would reach even deeper into Western Alaska. With the award of a $35 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture Rural Development’s ReConnect program, GCI will extend the project’s fiber-optic backbone an additional 455 miles to reach Toksook Bay, Emmonak, and Tununak.
“GCI is excited for the opportunity to close the digital divide in even more Western Alaska communities,” says GCI Senior Vice President of Corporate Development Billy Wailand. “Fiber is the high-capacity, low-latency, future-proof technology that the region needs. Once connected, residents of Toksook Bay, Emmonak, Tununak, and the ten other Airraq Network communities, including Bethel, will have access to the same internet speeds, plans, and pricing as our customers in Anchorage and other urban communities.”
“We’re going to see a dramatic improvement to the reliability and speed, unlimited data options, and significantly more affordable plans in the region. Faster speeds will better accommodate growing needs in the region including online learning and telehealth,” says Bethel Native Corporation President and CEO Ana Hoffman. “We value the partnership between BNC and GCI and our collective commitment to deliver this service together.”
Phase three of the Airraq Network will bring ultra-high-speed connectivity to 1,800 more Alaskans and will be a foundation for future fiber projects in the region.
Closing the Digital Divide
First Lady Jill Biden wears the handcrafted qaspuq presented to her by Representative Mary Peltola and Bethel Native Corporation President and CEO Ana Hoffman at the May 17 event in Bethel.
The project has drawn the attention of federal officials, most notably First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who traveled with Peltola to Bethel in May, visiting Peltola’s home region and hosting an event highlighting the Biden-Harris Administration’s historic investments in broadband connectivity through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). IIJA programs and funding are closing the digital divide in Alaska and throughout the nation.
“The funding is going directly to Bethel Native Corporation because you know what your communities need, and I love the name that you’ve chosen for it,” said Biden at the May 18 event. “An Airraq isn’t the story itself. It’s a tool that helps us tell it. A simple string that becomes a thing of beauty with the creativity and joy and hope we bring to it. The connections of this community are already deep. But with Airraq, you will be able to bring them to life in new ways.”
BNC’s Ana Hoffman joined the First Lady on stage at the event held at Bethel High School.
“Investments made through IIJA and the Biden-Harris Administration will have a profound impact on the Y-K Delta and communities throughout the nation,” said Hoffman. “The Yup’ik people have lived and thrived here, in one of the most-challenging climates on earth, for generations, maintaining a vibrant culture, strong traditions and enduring values. There are many other communities Dr. Biden could have visited. We are honored she chose ours to demonstrate the importance of investment in connectivity to close the digital divide. I appreciate the way the community came together to address all of the unique logistics needed to accommodate this visit.”