First Steps, Last Mile for Rural Alaska Broadband Fiber Projects
GCI’s Bruce Rein leads a survey crew near Eek to identify potential landing locations for the Airraq Network fiber optic cable.
With Alaska’s short construction season, every second counts, so work is getting underway immediately on the Airraq Network (pronounced EYE-huk). Less than two weeks after Bethel Native Corporation and GCI announced the project to bring a fiber optic cable up the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, survey crews were already on site.
The surveyors are led by GCI Principal Engineer of Telecommunications Delivery Bruce Rein, who’s only weeks removed from completing the subsea fiber deployment for GCI’s AU-Aleutians Fiber Network. Rein says the team took an hour-long ride from Eek in an open-topped skiff to a point where the Airraq Network cable would come ashore.
“We wasted no time to beat the onset of winter freeze-up, moving quickly from one iconic project to another,” Rein says. “We found a perfect spot. There’s lots of engineering to do, but for now it looks like the most efficient route is to lay fiber up a river channel then go ashore and follow a winter trail over wetlands to Eek—and then on to Bethel.”
The crew spent more than five hours at the remote area locating a suitable site, placing survey monuments, and setting a tide level monitor in the river. Project contractor Benthic Geoscience conducted an initial feasibility survey to capture likely landing sites using geo-referenced drone photography.
The Airraq Network is a 405-mile fiber optic network to bring urban-scale broadband internet to more than 10,000 people in Bethel, Platinum, Eek, Napaskiak, Oscarville, Atmautluak, Kasigluk, Nunapitchuk, Quinhagak, and Tuntutuliak. The project is funded by $73 million in federal grants.
“Before the grant was even announced, GCI spent months on project planning, permitting, compliance, and project design so we were ready to hit the ground running,” says GCI Senior Vice President of Corporate Development Billy Wailand.
As BNC’s subgrantee partner, GCI will construct and operate the fiber network and upgrade its existing cable plant in Bethel and deploy fiber-to-the-premises local access networks. The service is scheduled to launch in Bethel at the end of 2024.
Crews use pressurized air to “jet” fiber optic cable through hundreds of thousands of feet of conduit in Unalaska.
Although the job is finished for Rein in the subsea deployment of the AU-Aleutians fiber, work continues on shoreside connections.
A year ago, ground crews in Unalaska began digging trenches for 529,000 feet of conduit. Those empty channels have been waiting to be filled with the fiber itself.
Rather than pull cable through the conduit, the better option for a brand-new network is to push the cable using pressurized air, a process known as “jetting.”
“It’s a more complicated technique, but it allows smaller crews to more efficiently install the fiber thousands of feet at a time,” says GCI Project Manager Mike Bertsch. “Jetting the fiber also enables it to traverse directional and elevation changes more easily and reduces the chances for potential friction-related damage than pulling. And, so far, it’s working incredibly well in Unalaska.”
Bertsch says 80 percent of the fiber needed to connect nearly every building in Unalaska has been deployed already. The system will go live by the end of the year, and then AU-Aleutians connections will be added, like beads on a necklace, working back toward Kodiak Island.
Akutan, Sand Point, King Cove, Chignik Bay, and Larsen Bay are slated to be hooked up by the end of 2024. The AU-Aleutians project is expected to cost $58 million. GCI was awarded a $25 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture, and the company is investing $33 million of its own capital.
Another $29.3 million grant to the Native Village of Port Lions will let GCI extend urban-level connectivity to Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Lake, Cold Bay, False Pass, Ouzinkie, and Port Lions in the coming years.