Fiber, Satellites Provide Options for Rural Broadband in Alaska

Alaska is finally getting an Internet makeover.

by Naomi Klouda, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage / June 15, 2017
Thirty three miles north of Haines, Alaska, is this rural landscape and roadhouse. Flickr/ JLS Photography - Alaska

(TNS) -- Competition and collaboration between telecom companies promises to bring the costs down for Alaska in the coming two years as Quintillion, Alaska Communications and AT&T launch projects building out wireless and fiber optic networks.

Alaska Communications developed a non-exclusive memorandum of understanding to become the first reseller of OneWeb enabled broadband access in Alaska starting in 2019. That puts rural Alaska a step closer to more affordable broadband access, said CEO Anand Vadapalli.

By “closer,” that’s exactly what’s about to happen as 900 low Earth orbit, or LEO, satellites connect in greater proximity to Alaska. The LEOs will be deployed by OneWeb in late 2018 or early 2019, Vadapalli said in a June 9 interview.

Alaska historically had poor coverage from the satellite industry because of its high latitude, he noted.

This is just the latest improvement in broadband access for rural Alaska.

GCI recently completed its six-year TERRA project that involved multiple phases, starting in 2011 when 400 miles of fiber optic cable and 13 new microwave towers began providing network connection for 65 communities in southwest Alaska.

The TERRA Southwest and Northwest phases currently serve 72 communities totaling nearly 40,000 residents, and another 12 communities will be connected by the end of 2017, according to GCI.

OneWeb’s low latency service enables seamless connectivity and the same user experience and lag-free web browsing. The streaming capabilities, video conferencing, voice communications, and enterprise applications access will put Alaska on equal par with the Lower 48, according to Greg Wyler, the founder and executive chairman.

“Uniquely, because of the polar orbit, OneWeb’s terminals can view the satellites almost directly overhead at any time, providing clear line of sight access,” Wyler said in a news release.

In April, a different collaboration, this one between Alaska Communications and Quintillion, went live from Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks.

Construction is nearly complete on the first segment of the multi-phase Quintillion Subsea Cable System. Phase 1-Alaska is a 1,200-mile subsea fiber optic cable main trunk line between Nome and Prudhoe Bay.

Additional branches are installed into the Alaskan communities of Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright and Utqiagvik (Barrow).

The Quintillion Cable System, a new terrestrial fiber between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, was installed along the Dalton Highway and is now in service.

At Fairbanks, the new fiber connects to existing networks reaching Anchorage, Portland, Ore., and Seattle. This is a first: providing fiber link between the continental United States and the North American Arctic, said Quintillion Vice President of External Relations Kristina Woolston.

Quintillion will maintain the Alaska portion and the system build-out scheduled to reach London in the east and Tokyo west via fiber optic buried under the Arctic sea.

The famed Northwest Passage that was promised to 18th and 19th century Europeans as a more economic trade route wasn’t discovered in time to help them out. But in this century, the Northwest Passage is the shortcut that will serve East and West in a safer and less costly internet connection, Woolston said.

Currently, Japan’s Internet is routed through the Middle East. A shorter route and safer connection is wanted for a variety of reasons, Woolston said. It provides more diversity for all inter-continental routes.

“Shorter is faster and in a lot of these connections, seconds or milliseconds can make a lot of difference, which is why there is demand for this system,” she said.

In Alaska, Quintillion handles the fiber optic infrastructure that Alaska Communications will tap into while OneWeb supplies the satellite link.

OneWeb sells Alaska Communications the new LEO satellite technology access, leading to greater bandwidth and low time lag along with a better price structure for rural Alaska.

“In the older technology, the higher the satellite meant slower speed. That’s just the law of physics. It takes more time to return to earth the higher it has to go,” Vadapalli said. “A closer-earth satellite brings higher speed and with it, latency will improve.”

Along with current satellite, fiber optic is a good complement for ensuring connectivity in Alaska. Frequent inclement weather and multiple hops to get access at times cause satellite interference.

That won’t impact fiber optics, Woolston and Vadapalli each noted. The environmental difficulties and maintenance issues are overcome with the newer fiber optics that have a 25-year design life, Woolston said.

It can be more expensive on the front end, but in the long run it requires much less maintenance and that lowers costs.

In their work, Quintillion — an Alaska company founded by telecom veteran Elizabeth Pierce — documented village needs. Lag time meant it took a day and a half for a Wainwright resident to download a new version of Microsoft Word.

The much-touted virtual classroom as a solution for sharing teachers in the face of dire Alaska budget cuts doesn’t have much chance for success if class time shuts down while a teacher tries to access an online connection, teachers told Quintillion in the company’s series of interviews.

Worse, medical facilities rack up devastating human costs when telemedicine isn’t available and instead an airlift hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away is required to reach a physician, Quintillion found.

The new high-speed, low latency broadband service will be available to every Alaska home, school, business, and community center in about two years, Vadapalli said. He declined to specify pricing since, he said, many variables are factored into an up-and-running system that is not yet in place.

“Fiber is really expensive and there are many geographic obstacles. New technology is going to be very significant for our state,” Vadapalli said. “That said, given the vast geography of the state, fiber optics is also a necessary component.”

Last season, Quintillion focused on bringing the fiber optic cable ashore to the five communities from Nome to Barrow, as well as Prudhoe Bay. The cable is buried on the continental shelf in various depths to protect against damage from ice scouring the ocean floor. Alcatel Submarine Networks, based in France, fabricated and is laying the fiber.

From the five communities now connected by Quintillion’s fiber optics, OneWeb will pick up communities that aren’t served by Quintillion, Alaska Communications spokesperson Heather Cavanaugh explained.

The system is in test mode and won’t be “live” until Dec. 1.

This summer, Woolston said there isn’t a lot left to be done to meet the December “live” schedule. The main portion is a segment between Prudhoe and the trunk line about 40 miles out to sea.

The French ship, C/V Ile de Batz, is due in Dutch Harbor from Calais in late June to prepare for its trip north. In July it will “trench” and then bury, the last section of cable on the sea floor.

In the coming year, Phase 2-Asia is the part of project to build out the backbone cable from Nome west to Asia. Phase 3-Canada-United Kingdom is intended to extend the subsea system east of Prudhoe to Northern Canadian communities and will provide a secure low latency route from Europe to Asia.

First responder network

AT&T also is speeding its wireless build-out plans. The telecom invested $150 million in Alaska wireless and wired networks from 2014-16. Part of those investments added 450 miles of new fiber from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay in partnership with Quintillion.

Shawn Uschmann, AT&T’s Director of External Affairs for Alaska, said the company is focusing both on its customer access and a new effort to provide nationwide public safety broadband network.

AT&T was chosen by the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, to build a nationwide public safety broadband network. It will be dedicated to police, firefighters and EMS personnel. So far, it’s unknown whether the State of Alaska or individual boroughs or cities will decide to opt-in to FirstNet.

If so, “we will build on our current and planned investments,” he said, “with a dedicated focus on the state’s first responders.”

What this means, in specific terms of the coverage for responders, is that they will have a network all their own, Uschmann said.

“The public safety community’s communications challenges have impeded response efforts for far too long. The FirstNet network is a much-needed investment in America’s communications infrastructure,” he said.

It will allow first responders to communicate with other responders in different agencies or jurisdictions across the country — which they currently have difficulty doing — so they can better coordinate when jointly responding to situations like man-made and natural disasters.

The connection will be a highly secure, reliable and fast broadband built to meet the communications needs of first responders, Uschmann said.

A big problem the new designated line will solve is security. Currently, first responders use the same networks that consumers and businesses use.

“When a significant public safety crisis occurs, these networks can get congested, making it difficult for first responders to communicate, coordinate and do their jobs,” Uschmann said.

With FirstNet network as the public safety’s network, their needs will come before non-public safety users.

Other devices connect to the network — such as “wearables” like an Apple watch, drones and vehicles — will relay near real-time information to improve situational awareness and ultimately, to help save lives both for first responders on the front lines and the communities they protect, Uschmann added.

He estimates about 90 percent of the Alaska population is now covered by AT&T.

©2017 the Alaska Journal of Commerce (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.