Next year, GCI will focus what it calls the “Last Mile,” which involves installing equipment in each community, to serve about 9,000 households and 750 businesses -- a population too small to pay for the costs of building Project TERRA-Southwest.
GCI says a telecommunications network of this size would not have been possible without federal subsidies. Thanks to the federal stimulus program, the company received 88 million dollars in grants and loans.
“We had estimated 120 new jobs as a result of the project for the construction,” says GCI’s Martin Cary, “and we believe we are well over that.”
But even more important than Project TERRA’s construction jobs, are, the jobs of the future -- made possible by high speed internet access.
“I think anything you touch (with broadband service) is going to be enhanced,” says Jason Metrokin, President and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.
Metrokin struggles with the limits of telephone and internet service with Western Alaska on a daily basis. The long satellite delays make it difficult, if not impossible, to send and receive large data file. It even makes phone service unreliable.
“Folks in our region are going to see some of the opportunity, where their livelihoods will be changed for the better,” said Metrokin.
“It’s a challenge for a small business in Rural Alaska to compete, to even put a website up,” says GCI’s Martin Cary. “This is gonna change that.”
Cary spent the early years of his career in Barrow, helping to lay the foundations of the internet highway for the North Slope Borough and the school district. He says, with a satellite-based system, it was a pretty bumpy road.
“A satellite is 22,000 miles above the earth, at the equator, so your electronic bit is having to go 22,000 miles up and 22,000 miles down. That takes a quarter of a second each way. And so that creates the delay,” said Martin. “And computer applications don’t work well in that environment. They’re expecting to get instant acknowledgements back.”
Those instant acknowledgements are needed to use new computer applications for telemedicine and the exchange of digital patient records. Martin says those records will eventually be managed by companies in the Lower 48, so it’s critical that health clinics and hospitals in Rural Alaska have broadband service.
Rural schools also need connectivity, to prepare students for jobs that require internet savvy.
The Kodiak Kenai Cable Company, a subsidiary of the Old Harbor Native Corporation, is also looking at the possibility of running an undersea cable across the coast of Western Alaska to the North Slope, which would eventually run over the top of the globe and connect to London. In 2006, KKCC completed an underwater cable link between Kodiak and Kenai.
KKCC’s Western Alaska cable project is still in the exploration phase -- but if it happens, GCI says it wouldn’t necessarily be competition, because the two companies would likely use each other’s systems to provide back-up service.
In the future, GCI would like to extend the system to Kotzebue and move northward, eventually to the North Slope, where it can connect to a fiber optic cable that follows the Trans Alaska Pipeline.
But for now, GCI is focused on Project TERRA-Southwest. And Chief Engineer says, when this new information highway is ready for traffic, he’ll feel, “Elated. Relieved. And very proud.”