In Remote Alaska, High-Speed Internet Comes By Land – Not Satellite

A plan to bring land-based high speed internet to the western Interior is moving forward this summer. GCI’s TerraNet uses hilltop repeater sites to pass microwave signals along the ground, rather than sending the signals to satellites in space.

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The system is already in operation in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, and around Bristol Bay. But GCI is eager to get TerraNet up and running in the western Interior because it’s the final phase in a process the company calls “closing the ring.”

GCI Spokesperson David Morris explains that, once all TerraNet sites are connected in a loop and linked up with GCI’s high speed fiber optic lines around Anchorage and Fairbanks, internet services gets faster and fixing problems becomes simpler.

“Because once you have the ring, you have effectively doubled the capacity on the Terra network. Right now, because it is single thread, we have to have satellite backup for it. The amount of capacity that you can put on a hybrid microwave / fiber system is just significantly more than what you will find on satellites. Once you get the ring, that creates the ability to switch traffic in either direction in the event that there is a break, so that the traffic remains in service.”

The TerraNet repeater sites are located about 50 miles apart down the Yukon River corridor, where GCI has to connect its existing system around Kotzebue to fiber optic lines near Nenana.

Six sites are planned for construction in the next phase of the TerraNet build-out, including the last crucial backbone sites between Galena and Buckland, which will close the TerraNet ring. In addition to the backbone sites, TerraNet has spur lines that would extend the network to outlying villages.

The seed money for TerraNet came through an 88 million dollar stimulus program grant and loan package. But Morris says that federal funding has come and gone and now the company is financing the project out of its own pockets.

“That was a one-and-done. That is what allowed the initial part of TerraNet to get distributed from Anchorage to the Bethel region. There has been a little bit of extra money from the federal government to extend it to Unalakleet, but everything beyond that is just at-risk capital – in other words, just money from the company. ”

Morris says that TerraNet has been so popular in western Alaska that GCI is already having to upgrade its equipment to handle the demand and improve service.