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GCI Hits First Key Milestone In Plans To Bring Fiber Optic Broadband To The Aleutians

Courtesy of GCI

An Alaska-based telecommunications company says it's reached a major milestone in its mission to bring Unalaskans improved digital connectivity through a new fiber optic line.

GCI's AU-Aleutians Fiber Project details a plan to lay hundreds of miles of undersea cable along the seafloor from Kodiak Island, through Unimak Pass, to Unalaska. The company says it completed its first marine survey for the project this month.

The Norseman II, a fishing vessel that was repurposed for the project, surveyed about 95% of the 860-mile proposed route over the last couple months, according to GCI senior manager of community engagement and corporate communication Jenifer Nelson. 

"It's easy to kind of string something along on a map, but you don't know what's down there," she said on Friday. "So it was really taking a peek at what's underneath the water, and then we'll see the framework come through with another more detailed survey. This [initial survey] looks at what's on the [ground] surface under the water, and then we'll come through and look at what's underneath." 

The engineers and surveyors on the team didn't run into any significant delays or have to make major rerouting plans, Nelson said. That's because research into things like wildlife migration patterns and subsistence and commercial fishing grounds were done prior to the survey. 

In some places, the fiber will basically sit on the seafloor, she said. But in others — where trawlers might drag their nets on the ground or where strong tides could disrupt the fiber's path — the cable will be buried. 

The next step will include more near-shore surveying, as well as seafloor sampling to determine where, and how deep, they will need to bury the cable.

Credit Courtesy of GCI
GCI senior staff engineer Bruce Rein on board the Norseman II.

Nelson and other GCI representatives visited the island last week to meet with Unalaska officials and to get a better idea of the community that this project will serve.

"This will be the first of many visits," she said. "[This was] just to get that 'boots on the ground' experience, in terms of project and community." 

GCI's crews will likely arrive in Unalaska in October to begin actually laying fiber in the ground. Nelson said the company is working with homeowners and city planners to find the least disruptive path for the cable to connect homes and businesses to the landing site — which is located near the tip of Unalaska's spit.

The second marine survey will begin next month. In the meantime, the Norseman II crew will process data from this initial sample and plan for the upcoming one.

Unalaskans can expect to have access to the fiber network by late next year, Nelson said.

Last week, the telecommunications company partnered with Intelsat — an international satellite services provider — to expand its geosynchronous (GEO)satellite network and capacity. GCI is also looking to add low earth orbit (LEO) satellites to its service options. 

Nelson said part of the reason the company is working to include so many different connection options is because Alaska communities are often spread far apart and face unique geographic challenges. For example, she said some locations may never have access to terrestrial connections like fiber.

"Therefore, our portfolio — or our 'toolbox,' as we like to call it — has to have all of those solutions, to be able to meet the needs of those very different communities that are spread across the state," she added.

GCI's AU-Aleutians Fiber Project is estimated to cost almost $60 million. GCI is paying for more than over half of that, and the remainder is being funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ReConnect Program, which is intended to help boost connectivity in rural areas. 

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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