The Alaskan landscape is rife with broadband accessibility and deployment challenges, which GCI is all too familiar with. The operator recently reached a milestone with its AU-Aleutians fiber project, turning up 2-gig service in the city of Unalaska in December.
Billy Wailand, SVP of GCI Corporate Development, and GCI Chief Communications Officer Heather Handyside discussed the project’s logistical challenges and geographical restrictions in an interview with Fierce.
Despite being a bustling fishing port, Unalaska is also one of the most isolated places in the United States, according to Handyside. The area is inaccessible by road from the Alaskan mainland and flights to it are unreliable.
“It was a very daunting project just from a logistics perspective,” she said. “Not only from distance and power issues but even getting the materials out there, the crews out there to work on it…finding heavy equipment out there to do what you need to do.”
GCI kicked off the AU-Aleutians project back in 2020, aiming to bring high-speed internet to a dozen Aleutian, Alaska Peninsula, and Kodiak Island communities. Work in Unalaska is now nearing completion and GCI plans to start digging in Sand Point and King Cove in April. Future builds will take place in Akutan, Chigni Bay, Larsen Bay, and six additional communities through a partnership with the Native Village of Port Lions.
These communities vary in size, with Wailand noting some have fewer than 100 year-round residents, though the Aleutian areas will typically receive an influx of people during the fishing season. Unalaska on the other hand has around 5,000 residents when factoring in year-round and transient populations.
“You don’t get much more challenging than building an 800-mile subsea system down the Aleutian chain,” Wailand said. “Facing everything from giant seas to storms to earthquakes” as well as lack of transportation and connectivity.
Also, some of the smaller communities don’t have well-established processes in terms of where utilities are located or home addressing, Handyside added.
“You have to do a little bit more sleuthing on the ground, working with the communities directly,” she said. “Because they don’t have the administrative backup to sustain that kind of information.”
A $25 million USDA ReConnect grant is used in part to fund the AU-Aleutians project, with GCI contributing the remaining funds. The operator received close to $30 million for the Port Lions project through the NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity programme. Wailand noted that it’s typically challenging to make a business case for investing millions of dollars to service 500 and 600-person villages, so federal funding—particularly from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—really got the ball rolling for building out to remote communities. Depending on the project and the project’s precise location, Alaskan construction time is noticeably impacted by the climate. In any case, Wailand stated that “we don’t get 12 months to complete projects.”
“You generally have from break-up and thaw until the snow starts falling again…instead of 12 months you might have four or five months,” he explained, and that timeframe generally shortens the further north projects are built.
“In some cases, it’s actually the opposite. You can only work in certain tundra areas in the middle of the winter when the tundra is entirely frozen,” Wailand continued. “You have to figure out when you can take advantage of the right weather, the right conditions to actually get out there.”
If conditions aren’t optimal, it’s critical to figure out alternative build locations, so that construction crews aren’t sitting around in such a short window.
“We have migratory birds, caribou herds…we’re not allowed to build while those are migrating,” Handyside said, adding helicopters can’t be flown above those areas during that time, either.
With Bethel Native Corporation, GCI is also working on a project to provide 2-gig fibre to 10 communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of Alaska. The 405-mile Airraq fibre network is being built by the operator using a $42 million grant from the NTIA and $31 million from ReConnect.
One of the pillars of GCI’s work in a collaboration with tribal organizations. The majority of American Indian tribes are concentrated in Alaska, Handyside noted, and construction professionals have received extensive training in building on the native land protocol. Our technicians are instructed not to even look at certain areas when we fly over what are regarded as sacred sites, she said. We regard it seriously.
“And when we’re operating on protected lands, [construction crews] are often not allowed to walk off this two-acre site that we have secured or permitted,” Handyside added.
Consulting with tribes, along with federal agencies, comes into play with permitting, Wailand noted, given Alaska has a “patchwork” of federal and state lands. GCI’s permitting team works with agencies to ensure that the company completes its projects “in a way that’s deliberate, protects the resources that we have from fisheries to animals, and otherwise. “The permitting process frankly can take half the timeline of the entire project,” he said. “We’ve now gone through this process enough and have a good enough relationship with the agencies…we’re able to navigate those systems pretty well.”