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GCI Applies To Bring Fiber Optic To Aleutian Communities

Hope McKenney/KUCB

GCI has applied to bring broadband communications to communities along the Aleutian chain.

The proposed project would bring fiber optic cable from Kodiak to Unalaska, spanning approximately 860 miles.

Dan Boyette, Vice President of GCI, said getting the financing arranged and support from the business community for this project has proved to be a challenge. 

"We've been working on the business case to bring fiber optic services to Unalaska along with all the communities on the southern side of the Alaska Peninsula and the Eastern Aleutians for a couple years," said Boyette. "So that cable would originate in Kodiak and terminate in Unalaska and make stops in a total of 11 communities."

The fiber optic cable would be loaded onto a ship that's specifically constructed to do undersea fiber optic installations, and would be laid over 860 discontiguous miles, approximately 428 of which are on state-owned, Division of Mining, Land, and Water-managed tide and submerged lands.

"And that ship starts in Kodiak and works its way out of Kodiak through Whale Pass through Shelikof Strait and so on and makes all the stops along the way," said Boyette. "So [the ship] is specially designed to essentially roll the cable out the stern of the ship and plow it into the undersea floor."

Boyette said the company has been working its way through rural Alaska trying to build better communications facilities, and that it's really time for communities throughout the Aleutian chain to get better connectivity.

"If you look at a map of Alaska with the terrestrial broadband facilities that people can rely on, the one blaring gap on that map is the Aleutian chain," said Boyette. "It's the biggest part of Alaska that's still on satellite services."

City Manager Erin Reinders said improved internet services and fiber optic has long beena federal and state lobbying priority for the City of Unalaska. She said more and more operational programs are internet-based, which poses a challenge to the city as well as local organizations and businesses.

"I think it impacts every aspect of our life in the community," said Reinders. "So with the clinic, [fiber optic] would definitely help connect us to medical professionals off the island. Being able to do some of that remotely would be a wonderful benefit to our community members. The fact that lots of testing requirements for our public schools is internet-based poses a challenge with our current internet at times. Public safety and the fire department right now can't fully utilize all the internet systems that Lower 48 folks are using for connectivity and communications while responding to critical incidents...In order to keep progressing, we are going to need improved internet."

Boyette said the business case has not yet been approved, but that GCI is committed to this project. The company has gone ahead with the permitting process through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently pending.

"We have also already received a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as well as Department of Homeland Security, and have gotten the go-ahead from the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service and so on," said Boyette. "So really the last in the permitting process is this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit."

But this doesn't necessarily mean the project will move forward. According to Boyette, it will cost about $70,000 per mile to install the fiber optic cable, and this project spans over 800 miles.

He also said some uncertainties with the FCC in regards to rural health care and school services right now, make it difficult to invest that much money. But GCI is pursuing a grant from the Rural Utilities Service ?— part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture ?— that works to expand broadband throughout rural America, that could help them move forward with the project.  

Right now, the company is waiting for permit approval from the Corps of Engineers. Then, they would need to get the business case approved by GCI leadership.

If everything is approved, there is about a two-year process to establish and initiate broadband services in Aleutian communities.

The deadline for public comment on this project is 5 p.m. on Dec. 31.

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong distance from Kodiak to Unalaska. It is 860 miles, not 428 miles.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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