AT&T says Skagway network upgrades are planned before next summer

The Ruby Princess cruise ship blocked AT&T’s microwave signal and shut down cell service multiple days during the summer in Skagway. (Raging Wire/Flickr Creative Commons)
The Ruby Princess cruise ship blocked AT&T’s microwave signal and shut down cell service multiple days during the summer in Skagway. (Raging Wire/Flickr Creative Commons)

After a slew of service problems this summer, AT&T is planning upgrades to Skagway’s phone service in time for the next cruise ship season.

There was a lot of phone frustration in Skagway this summer, particularly among AT&T customers.

“The one common denominator is when there are a bunch of cruise ships in port, it doesn’t work properly,” said AT&T customer and Skagway resident Andrew Cremata.

“Certainly after last summer we did find that there wasn’t enough capacity to have served in a way we would have like to serve,” said Chris Brown, Alaska Director of Network Services for AT&T.

He says the company is planning to install a 4G LTE network that will allow for increased call and data capacity for customers in Skagway. Brown says it’s a ‘significant capacity upgrade’ that’s been planned for some time as AT&T deploys the new technology around the state.

Over the summer, AT&T was using a microwave radio system that was occasionally blocked by an especially tall cruise ship. With the updated service, they’ll potentially use the microwave link in addition to fiber-optics from Alaska Power and Telephone. He says the detailed engineering isn’t put together yet, but the goal is this:

“The combination of allowing more simultaneous conversations as well as more simultaneous data connections, people using data to get to the internet, whatever application they choose.”

Even though there were already plans to upgrade Skagway’s technology, Brown says complaints from customers played a role in spurring the project to happen before next summer.

He says for Skagway and other Southeast communities, AT&T has to factor in not just the year-round population, but the influx of service users that come in on cruise ships.

“The design for capacity in Skagway is not just to support the local residents, but recognizing in Skagway the almost 10 times increase in the number of folks who may be there at any time,” Brown said.

Brown says even with the upgrades, cruise ship passengers may still slow down service. But he says hopefully there wouldn’t be a high level of blocked calls or other major service interruptions.

“So we’re looking forward to providing good service next summer but also providing year-round residents of Skagway superb service going forward.”

Brown says they haven’t chosen a date to install the upgrades, but it’s planned before May 2016. AT&T won’t be the only phone service provider with a 4G LTE network in Skagway. Verizon installed theirs in July.

Currently, AT&T does not have plans to install a 4G LTE network in Haines, according to Brown.