Telecoms Stitching Fiber Across Alaska
More than 800 miles of subsea fiber is coiled inside the cargo hold of M/V Vertom Thea in Germany.
Alaska telecommunications firms are racing to connect customers to fiber optic networks, almost as fast as those networks themselves can transmit data.
Parting Proverbial Seas
Almost 2,000 tons of specially built subsea fiber is on the way from Europe to Alaska to become GCI’s 800-mile AU-Aleutians cable.
The fiber is currently on board the 330-foot M/V Vertom Thea after being loaded in Germany.
Because so few companies can build hundreds of miles of armored subsea fiber, GCI approached NSW Cable in Nordenham, Germany. While the cable production itself only took a couple months, it took considerably longer to gather the necessary materials.
“Once we submitted our order for the fiber, NSW Cable began sourcing materials—and for 800-plus miles of subsea fiber, that’s a process that takes several months,” says GCI Senior Staff Engineer Bruce Rein. “After they acquired the necessary materials—like fiber optics, steel wire for armoring, and copper for the buffer tube—they were able to build the fiber segments, including one single length segment that will be the longest non-repeatered fiber span in Alaska, once installed.”
The AU-Aleutians Fiber Project will run approximately 800 miles from Kodiak along the south side of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians to Unalaska. The project is scheduled to deliver 2 gigabit per second service to the communities of Unalaska and Akutan by the end of 2022, with branches to Sand Point and King Cove by the end of 2023 and Chignik Bay and Larsen Bay in late 2024.
“Altogether, the subsea fiber needed for the AU-Aleutians Project weighs in at more than 3.7 million pounds with segments up to nearly 230 miles long—that’s not just something you can load onto a plane,” says Rein. “The only feasible way to get our fiber to Unalaska is by cargo ship. In addition to being able to handle the sheer size, it also allows us to avoid cutting the cable into shorter segments, which would increase the number of splices needed before we could deploy it underwater and cost us a lot of time.”
The project is expected to cost $58 million. GCI was awarded a $25 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program in support of the project. The company is investing $33 million of its own capital to pay for project costs not covered by the ReConnect grant.
“While some GCI projects have required us to practically move mountains, the AU-Aleutians Fiber Project has practically required us to part the proverbial seas,” says GCI Rural Affairs Director Jen Nelson. “The logistics of making a project like this possible are complex, but the end result of delivering transformational levels of connectivity to the Aleutians makes every foot of fiber and years of work worth it.”
The Fastest Available
Alaska Communications is rolling out 2.5 gigabit per second connectivity in select neighborhoods in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Soldotna this year.
Meanwhile, Alaska Communications Fiber is ready to begin delivering 2.5 gigabit per second connectivity to select homes and businesses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Soldotna starting this summer.
“Internet usage and behaviors only a few short years ago relied primarily on download speed,” says Mark Ayers, Alaska Communications vice president of engineering. “With the increase in remote work and homeschooling, many families now have multiple simultaneous users doing video conferencing, gaming, and content streaming in the same home.”
Unlike the cable modem network commonly used to deliver high-speed internet to most urban Alaska homes, optical fiber is built to transmit the fastest symmetrical internet speeds with the lowest latency and the highest reliability.
“Fiber to the home connectivity provides the highest speed, lowest latency internet currently available in the world. These significant technical improvements over cable modem service provide a dramatically improved experience for high demand applications like gaming and high-definition video conferencing,” Ayers says.
Alaska Communications Fiber offers unlimited data with no term contract. Speed packages start at 250 Mbps and go up to 2.5 Gbps.
“We’re dedicated to giving Alaskans the services they need and want,” says Bill Bishop, president and CEO of Alaska Communications. “We’re answering the call by bringing fiber directly to our customers’ home or workplace, guaranteeing them the speeds they pay for.”
Architecture & Engineering Special Section + Small Business
In the February 2024 issue of Alaska Business, we engineered a special section that inspects the many ways architecture and engineering enrich our lives, from creating beautiful and functional spaces to crafting functional and safe transportation corridors. In addition to the built world in which we live, this issue celebrates small businesses and the many functions they provide, whether they're developing tools in the healthcare industry or opening new dining locations.