Over a month of severe GCI outages causing headaches for city workers

Extreme ice encasing a GCI communications tower near Scammon Bay has disrupted phone and internet services throughout the area since March. (Image courtesy of GCI)

City workers along the mid-Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta coast are frustrated. The extreme ice pack encasing a GCI tower has been slowing down, or simply cutting off their work for more than a month.

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Lori Hill is worried. She’s the bookkeeper for the City of Hooper Bay, and her deadline for submitting a quarterly grant report is coming up.

“The internet has been going on and off, and it’s ruining our paperwork,” Hill said.

If that paperwork isn’t submitted on time, that could hurt Hooper Bay’s ability to get funding in the future.

Chevak has a similar headache. The internet sometimes connects for only 15 minutes out of the work day. City Administrator Dennis Jones says these constant internet outages are threatening the mayor’s ability to submit a grant application on time. The funding would convert their old health clinic into a hotel.

“What should have taken him less than three or four hours,” Jones said, “went on for, like, I don’t know how many days.”

Interruptions to phone and internet services started in mid-March. Thick ice began building up on the nearest GCI tower, causing services to go on and off for landlines, cell phones, data and internet. The outages have grown more frequent, and when the internet and data are working, they’re slower than usual.

Last Wednesday, the tower completely shut down communication in and out of Chevak and Hooper Bay. Scammon Bay City Administrator Larson Hunter said that weird effects continued throughout the week when people called the city office.

“We’d get dead air and on their end it’d be, like, a screeching,” Hunter said.

Cell phones could only connect with cell phones and landlines with landlines, which caused problems.

“The majority of the businesses are landline based,” Hunter explained. “And most of the customers or residents are cell phone based.”

The Scammon Bay clinic and school have been improvising by using VHF radio to announce cell phone numbers for people to call.

Lori Hill in Hooper Bay is concerned about people’s ability to call for help in an emergency. She says that for the last couple of days, her cell phone has been able to text, but not make or receive calls or use data.

“The only way we can call for help is through a VHF,” Hill said. “Or we just run to wherever the closest landline phone is.”

But few people have these reliable communication methods in their homes, and being dependent on only one provider increases their vulnerability.

GCI says that they’re working to fix the problems by installing a satellite dish as a temporary fix until technicians can approach the iced-over tower.