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Expansion, Innovation, and Evolution

Dec 1, 2018Telecom & Tech

Tracy Barbour

Today, many organizations depend heavily on having access to secure and reliable data networks to support their operations.

The ins and outsof Internet in Alaska

A data network—often referred to as a computer network or simply a network—is a telecommunications network that allows computers to exchange data.

Telecom providers give businesses and consumers access to the exterior and interior equipment they need to transfer data between various points. For example, Advanced Physical Therapy relies on GCI for its Internet and intra-office connection, according to Jesse Berg, the practice’s systems administrator. GCI handles the network connection between the company’s Anchorage location and four other sites in Wasilla, Soldotna, Seward, and Fairbanks.

Advanced Physical Therapy has 150 to 170 devices connected to its network, ranging from laptops and desktops to switches and routers. Almost everything Advanced Physical Therapy does depends on the security and reliability of its data network. For instance, the company’s electronic medical records are hosted in Anchorage, including critical patient schedules. And everything must be compliant with the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA), so maintaining reliable and secure access to data is essential. “There is nothing more important than making sure everything on our network is as secure as can be because we deal with such important information,” Berg says.

“Our footprint looks a bit different in Alaska due to the very remote and isolated areas that cannot even be accessed by roads, but the services are typically the same. In fact, Anchorage is one of our 239 5G Evolution markets across the country. 5G Evolution technologies serve as a foundation for our future 5G wireless networking.”

—Shawn Uschmann
Director of External Affairs Alaska, AT&T

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Data Service not Behind in Urban Alaska

Data transfer has evolved significantly over the years, especially as it relates to the Internet, according to Dan Boyette, vice president and general manager of GCI’s TERRA Aleutian Program. In the mid-90s, there were dial-up modems that used phone lines to transport data—the beginning of the Internet for consumer purposes. Technology has progressed from dial-up connections via twisted copper pairs originally used to carry voice traffic to delivering up to gigabit-per-second connections over fiber optic cable systems. “Where it’s going to go is anybody’s guess, but it’s clear that the demand for greater speeds and greatly expanded customer use cases will continue,” Boyette says.

But what exactly equates to “fast”? Fast Internet or broadband service is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as offering a minimum of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. That speed can support email, research, video streaming, and graphics for more than one device at a time. While it’s faster than old dial-up connections—which are generally less than 1 Mbps—it’s slower than the service that’s available in most American cities.

Technologically, Alaska has a long-standing reputation of lagging behind the Lower 48. So how do data networks in Alaska actually compare to those in other states? It depends on the location, Boyette says. First, within Alaska, data network speeds vary greatly—which is also the case with the rest of the country. Remote areas of Alaska that are fed by latency-prone satellite service rather than terrestrial networks do tend to lag behind other parts of the state.

Dan Boyette, Vice President and General Manager of the TERRA Aleutian Program, GCI


However, data services in some parts of America—particularly in rural areas—are equal to, slower than, or even behind those in Alaska. Places like Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau are not behind when it comes to data service, Boyette says. In fact, 77 percent of Alaskans have access to Internet speeds of 1 gigabit (Gb) per second with GCI. But only 19.3 percent of Texans have access to 1 Gb speeds, and it takes ten providers to give them that access. “It’s really hard to quantify where we stack up with the Lower 48,” he says. “But I think that with all of rural America, there’s still a lot to be done to get good reliable broadband services.”

Data networks in Alaska’s urban areas compare favorably to networks in the Lower 48, having the same structure and quality, says Tom Simes, senior manager of network and systems engineering at Alaska Communications. What makes Alaska unique is the challenge presented by our remote population density. He explains: “Moving further away from urban hubs, it can be challenging to serve remote communities. It’s not uncommon in rural areas to have your closest neighbor living miles away.”

Providing services in a place like Alaska calls for a combination of expansion, innovation, and evolution. Alaska Communications is always innovating and seeking new technologies, such as employing satellite-based service and exchanging copper for fiber, to expand its network to remote areas. “A new technology we are piloting right now is Fixed Wireless or FiWi,” Simes says. “As part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund, we’re installing FiWi in remote communities to expand high-speed Internet access. Currently, installations are underway in Chena and Ninilchik. We’re also partnering to provide high-speed Internet via fiber to the North Slope.”

AT&T generally deploys most of the same network technologies in Alaska that it does across the country. Most of its wireless network in Alaska has 4G LTE capability, and the company continues to invest in upgrades and additional capacity to support customer demand, according to Shawn Uschmann, AT&T’s director of external affairs in Alaska. “Our footprint looks a bit different in Alaska due to the very remote and isolated areas that cannot even be accessed by roads, but the services are typically the same,” he says. “In fact, Anchorage is one of our 239 5G Evolution markets across the country. 5G Evolution technologies serve as a foundation for our future 5G wireless networking.”

Telecom providers in Alaska are continually upgrading, expanding, and evolving to give Alaskans access to network services at higher speeds and greater volume. Here’s a closer look at what GCI, Alaska Communications, and AT&T are undertaking in these areas.

GCI Offers Diverse Technology

GCI’s network is comprised of diverse technology that has steadily advanced over the years. The company has built its terrestrial broadband network—TERRA—to reach communities throughout Alaska. “We reach almost every community in the state in one way or another,” Boyette says.

In the Western Alaska community of Bethel, for example, GCI can offer an array of products due to a terrestrial delivery system that employs fiber optic cables and terrestrial microwave systems, thus providing the speed and capacity and low latency required.

Shawn Uschmann
Director of External Affairs Alaska, A&TT


Boyette says redundancy is also a major component of providing a secure and reliable network to customers: buried cables with a low propensity to break, satellite backup for TERRA and other terrestrial networks, and two undersea fiber cables running down to the Lower 48. Boyette explains: “You try to build redundancy into your network wherever possible and, with that, you also have to make sure you have restorable capabilities that are easily implemented just in case there is an issue.”

GCI uses numerous metrics to measure the performance of its network. While no company can claim 100 percent reliability, GCI says it comes close. “We measure our network reliability in greater than 99 percent of the time increments,” Boyette says. “What we want to do is to improve on that.”

Alaska Communications Continues to Evolve

Alaska Communications’ pedigree goes back more than 100 years to the days of the first Juneau telegraph. Since then, it has evolved its network as shown by a series of “firsts” in Alaska, according to Simes. He explains: “We were the first in Alaska to launch Metro Ethernet in 1996. In 2000, Alaska Communications was the first in the state to launch MPLS [Multi-Protocol Label Switching]. Fast-forward to 2009, we were the first to offer geographically diverse connectivity to the Lower 48—tripling the bandwidth leaving the state. In 2013, we were the first Alaskan company [second in the US, third in the world] to achieve Carrier Ethernet 2.0 certification for reliable, scalable, and secure business data services. In the nine years since installing AKORN [Alaska-Oregon Network], we’ve increased speeds ten-fold.”

Alaska Communications’ network is diversely routed within the state and through undersea fiber to the Lower 48. The network is not only diverse and redundant, but it is extensively peered with other service providers for high bandwidth/low latency access, Simes says. The company’s network also extends to private and public cloud providers to offer new cloud capabilities. And it is expanding in Alaska using IP-based satellite and fixed wireless technology to offer high-speed, unlimited Internet to remote communities. “Our network brings the highest level of technology, reliability, security, and cloud enablement to Alaska businesses,” Simes says.

Alaska Communications applies the same level of standards and cutting-edge technology as companies in the Lower 48. The company secures customers’ employee and business information from malicious attacks with a defense-in-depth security strategy. “We design our network to be redundant and diverse and monitor it continuously,” Simes says. “People are just as important as the technology. We have expert people planning, monitoring, and maintaining our network and our customers’ networks.”

Alaska Communications Network Map.

Alaska Communications

However, Simes emphasizes that providing and maintaining secure and reliable data services starts with sound planning. Alaska Communications adapts its network to the forward-looking needs of its customers and communities. It comes down to diversity, resiliency, redundancy, and security, along with perpetual monitoring, Simes says. “We have expert personnel monitoring our network 24/7, 365 days a year,” he explains. “Additionally, should a disaster strike, we have business continuity plans in place and exercise them regularly, so we can help our customers recover as rapidly as possible.”

AT&T Considers Many Factors

AT&T serves its wireline customers in Alaska as an interexchange carrier by providing the connections between villages, towns, and cities across the state. Local phone companies, also called local exchange carriers, provide the “last mile,” which is the portion of the network that connects its network directly to consumers. In many cases, these local carriers also provide the connection between its interexchange network and cell sites. Approximately 80 percent of Alaska’s population lives on or near the Alaska road system or in Alaska’s Southeast, Uschmann says. Wireline customers in these locations are connected through fiber optic cables or digital microwave radio systems. For the remaining customers, in harder to reach places where fiber and microwave radio systems aren’t practical, AT&T delivers services via its satellite network with approximately 170 earth stations. AT&T also provides wireless service to communities in Alaska. “As the first to connect all Alaskan villages to the rest of the US and the rest of the world, the AT&T network continues to reach more locations in the state than any other,” he says.

“We design our network to be redundant and diverse and monitor it continuously… People are just as important as the technology. We have expert people planning, monitoring, and maintaining our network and our customers’ networks.”

—Tom Simes, Senior Manager of Network and Systems Engineering, Alaska Communications

AT&T takes many factors into consideration when designing its wired and wireless networks. Infrastructure, population, accessibility, and even weather conditions can affect which technologies it deploys to provide customers with the most reliable service. One of the main considerations for wired and wireless network maintenance in Alaska is in the design of network delivery locations. Travel to many locations can be difficult—especially in the winter—so remote diagnostic and repair capabilities are built into the network, allowing quick access to its technical staff.

In addition, special techniques are required to make certain repairs in Alaska, and AT&T’s technicians are well-trained on maintaining its network, Uschmann says. For example, repairing an underground fiber optic cable in the winter might require the use of large heaters to soften the ground enough to reach the cable without causing further damage. In warmer weather, AT&T might have technicians and a helicopter staged to travel to a mountain top cell site, which may be fogged in for days at a time. “Due to many factors like these, we use remote maintenance and alternate routing in our network to allow prompt service restoral until our technicians can safely reach a site and affect repairs,” he says.

AT&T’s network is also designed with security in mind. Uschmann explains, “The Ethernet transport that carries data across our network from cell towers to switches and between them is configured to avoid sharing Ethernet capacity. This is one way we enhance data security and maintain data throughput.”

The network has evolved tremendously since AT&T began providing service in Alaska in the 1980s. Within the past few years, the network has gotten much smarter and easier to manage remotely through advancements in software and software-controlled network elements. Uschmann says, “Our software-based network can help with tasks ranging from diagnosing an issue to repairing it. And we’ll continue to incorporate these technologies where practical to improve efficiencies and increase the reliability of our network.”

In recent years AT&T has invested more than $150 million to enhance its network in Alaska. In 2017 alone, it made more than 350 upgrades that have improved wireless coverage, capacity, and speed. It has also added cell sites, expanded its LTE footprint, and deployed additional LTE spectrum.

The company is also planning additional upgrades as part of its FirstNet deployment. AT&T is working in a public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority to bring public safety a much-needed technology upgrade. As part of that, it will expand coverage in key areas of the state. “The network will be used exclusively by first responders during emergencies but available to provide additional speed and capacity to our customers when not in use by FirstNet,” Uschmann says.

AT&T will continue to make upgrades as part of its efforts to meet an ever-increasing customer demand for mobile and wireline data services, he says.

Alaska Business June 2024 cover
In This Issue
Delivering Anchorage's Promise
June 2024
Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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