GCI Turns 3G On In Bethel, Faces Lawsuit

The same week that GCI turned 3G on in Bethel, attorneys served the company with a lawsuit. It alleges that GCI over-promised and under-delivered on its wireless, smart phone and data-plans.

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GCI spokesperson David Morris confirms the company activated 3G service in Bethel on Wednesday, April 30th at around 5am. Morris says GCI customers in Bethel should now see data service on their phones.

The GCI cell tower in Bethel. (Photo courtesy GCI)
The GCI cell tower in Bethel. (Photo courtesy GCI)

“You would have seen a dramatic increase in speed. 3G is generally data, faster emails and things like that. The texting doesn’t change. The voice really doesn’t change. Like I said, there might be a slight improvement but the biggest improvement is on the data side.”

3G is a system that delivers data somewhere between 10 and 20 times faster than the previous 2G network that was available in Bethel, says Morris.

GCI has been working on getting 3G service since it was awarded a federal grant from the FCC in late 2012. GCI was hoping to have service available by late 2013 but problems with towers delayed service until April 30th. The next phase of 3G rollout will be getting service to 9 villages surrounding Bethel.

“This Summer we will deploy in additional villages around the Bethel area. And that will be 3G services. And right now we’ve been notified that we are eligible to receive an approximately 44 million dollar grant to deploy 3G and 4G services in 48 additional rural communities over the next two or three years.”

These improvement come after years of what customers say is unsatisfactory service, saying it’s often unreliable or does not work at all. David Henderson, a Bethel attorney filed a lawsuit against GCI on April 22nd.

“They’ve failed to live up to what they promised in their contracts, which is reliable data plans and reliable cell service. And that’s violated unfair trade practices and laws in Alaska and basically committed fraud.”

The lawsuit on behalf of four plaintiffs seeks past damages and goes back two years. Henderson says GCI has been requiring people in Bethel to have data plans that work intermittently or not at all since they took over cell service in 2008.

“All the people in this community have been paying for something they have not been able to get. GCI knows that. If somebody calls up GCI and says I’m not getting any data. My data plan doesn’t work they’ll give them a credit. But people shouldn’t have to call up and ask for a credit when GCI is charging for something they knowingly can’t provide, and they’re advertising to people that they can provide it and they’re not telling people when they sign up for it that they can’t provide it and that’s the issue.”

The lawsuit asks that a minimum of $500 dollars be paid to each GCI cellular customer in the Y-K Delta region. Damages may be larger for smart phone customers who Henderson says were forced to pay for data. The lawsuit also calls for damages for those with basic cell services, on the grounds that calls are repeatedly dropped.

GCI has spent more than 50 million dollars in federal grant money and about 150 million dollars of their own capital to build the infrastructure for cellular and other telecommunications services for Bethel and 69 other rural Alaska communities.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.