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.
In an interview with Fierce, Billy Wailand, SVP of GCI Corporate Development, and GCI Chief Communications Officer Heather Handyside delved into the geographical and logistical constraints that came with undertaking the roughly $60 million project.
Though Unalaska is an active fishing port, it’s also one of the most remote communities in the U.S., said Handyside. Flights to the region are unreliable and it’s inaccessible by road from the Alaskan mainland.
“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.”
The AU-Aleutians project is partially funded by a $25 million USDA ReConnect grant, with GCI covering the rest of the cost with its own capital. For the Port Lions project, the operator obtained nearly $30 million from the NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity program.
Federal funding – particularly from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – really got the ball rolling for building out to remote communities, as Wailand noted it’s generally difficult to make a business case for investing millions of dollars to service 500 and 600-person villages.
The climate noticeably impacts Alaskan construction time, depending on the project and its exact location. In any case, “we don’t get 12 months to complete projects," said Wailand.
“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.
Another project GCI is undertaking is with Bethel Native Corporation to bring 2-gig fiber to 10 communities in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The operator is leveraging a $42 million grant from the NTIA and $31 million from ReConnect to construct the 405-mile Airraq (pronounced eye-huk) fiber network.
Collaboration with tribal entities is a key tenet of GCI’s work. Handyside pointed out almost half of U.S. tribal nations are located in Alaska, and technicians are extensively trained on the protocol of building on native land. “In some cases we fly over what are considered sacred sites and our technicians know they are not to even look at that area,” she said. “We take it that 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.”