Alaska’s GCI busts out some splits to get a perfect 10G

Alaskan operator GCI will roll out a mix of high-splits and node splits on its hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) network and deploy greenfield fiber in a number of rural communities in order to deliver 10-gig services to residents in the state within the next few years, COO Greg Chapados told Fierce.

The planned move to 10G is part of a five-year network upgrade plan that was announced in May 2021. The first phase of that effort included a leap from 1-gig to 2-gig in 2022. But Chapados said it was able to debut its first multi-gig offer ahead of schedule, lighting up 2-gig service at the end of last year.

“We have rolled out 2-gig to all the communities we can roll 2-gig out to right now,” he said. Its 2-gig footprint covers approximately 80% of Alaska’s population and around 40% of GCI’s cable customers are already taking the service, he added.

Already Chapados said GCI is beginning to lay the groundwork for its next leap to 10-gig service by upgrading its HFC network with a combination of node splits and high-splits. Right now, Chapados said GCI’s node size structure is probably 50% larger than the industry standard. It’s aiming to bring that down significantly.

“We still have a ways to go here with regard to node splits,” he said, noting it is working to drive fiber deeper into its network. “We can get to the bandwidth, capacity and speed we want, its just that we’ve got more work to do there in terms of taking that older plant and upgrading it thoroughly and in a consistent and thought through way so we can get to 10-gigs.”

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Chapados added GCI is also taking steps to move from a low- to high-split configuration to get more upstream bandwidth. Cable operators like GCI have traditionally used an upstream band of 5 MHz to 42 MHz. The move to a high-split setup will boost the upper end of that range to 204 MHz.

GCI will use DOCSIS 4.0 for its 10-gig move, and more specifically has its eye on an implementation of frequency division duplex DOCSIS (FDD, also known as extended spectrum DOCSIS or ESD). Chapados said it both plans to retire its QAM video services in a shift to IPTV and eventually increase the bandwidth on its plant to 1.8 GHz.

In more rural areas where it is expanding and doesn’t have existing cable plant, Chapados noted GCI plans to deploy fiber-to-the-premises. It is using EPON rather than XGS-PON because the former integrates with its provisioning while providing the same 10-gig capabilities.

Because of the nature of the technology, “by the end of that build, a community like Dutch Harbor will have fiber middle mile facilities and a local access fiber-to-the-prem network. It will be the most advanced network we’ve deployed in Alaska. It will be more advanced than Anchorage because it’s fiber to the prem. That’s an exciting thing,” he said.

Unique challenges

While GCI is pressing full steam ahead with its upgrades, Chapados was quick to point out it faces a number of unique hurdles due to the nature of the state it operates in. For starters, the weather patterns in such a northerly climate mean it only has a short window in which to conduct field work for node splits and fiber deployments.

“Virtually everything we do as a company follows a giant seasonal schedule,” he explained. January and February are reserved for planning and setting up logistics. Work can get underway in the spring as the ground thaws and by summer, GCI is in the midst of a “massive build mode.” But things slow soon after, and in rural areas especially can come to a grinding halt as early as September as weather makes it impossible to reach certain locations safely.

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The operator also faces a unique permitting landscape. While most operators regularly deal with municipal permitting processes, Chapados noted there is a huge amount of federal ownership of land in the state.

“Probably around up to 70% of the state is owned by the federal government” with much of that dedicated to national parks and wildlife refuges, he said. “So you have to take those into account when you’re planning because you can’t just cross those conservation system units at will,” he noted.

Another element is the extensive work GCI does working with tribes and Alaska native organizations. The U.S. officially recognizes 574 Indian tribes. More than 220 of these are in Alaska. In cases where federal funding from programs like the Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program is at stake, Chapados said tribal consent for a project is required in order to receive monetary support.

“This is more than a courtesy, this is a big shift in the Biden Administration’s approach that’s intended to reinforce the importance of the tribal governments,” he said. “The tribes are much more prominent in the process and working with them is really essential. And we’ve been upping our efforts there across the board. It’s the right thing to do.”