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OptimERA brings third option for cell service to Unalaskans in LTE network launch

Courtesy of OptimERA

A local internet provider that has previously only offered WiFi to Unalaskans announced last month that it's launching a new LTE service. The island now has three options for cell service, and OptimERA is one of them.

“It’s the culmination of almost four and a half years of blood, sweat and tears to get to this point,” said OptimERA CEO Emmett Fitch.

Fitch said as a small provider, it's been an extremely heavy lift trying to add the new service.

He said about 30 people – including local emergency responders – have been testing the service for a couple of years. When other networks went down following a fatal plane crash on the island in fall of 2019, Fitch said the company gave local firefighters OptimERA phones to communicate throughout the emergency response.

But, Fitch said, this launch will be the real assessment.

“I'm sure that there's going to be things that we need to address,” he said. “That's why it's an alpha launch, that's why we're putting this out here. But you're going to have to work with us a little bit. If there are problems, we need to know about them so that we can do something about it.”

GCI and TelAlaska also offer local service. Fitch said OptimERA’s packages will likely be slightly more expensive than the other carriers’ options for now.

“But I encourage people to go look at the prices because we are extremely competitive, and we did launch an unlimited package,” he said.

There will likely be some kinks to work out as people sign on, according to Fitch. But, he said, OptimERA will have service pretty much everywhere on the island, including some dead zones like the S-curves near UniSea.

“Why [sign on with] us?” Fitch asked. “Because we're the local boys. Because we're going to answer the call when something happens. For us, it's completely different. This is not just a business decision. This is a community thing. We need reliable phone service so that when people dial 911, it actually rings, it actually goes through. And if it doesn't, somebody needs to be watching.”

The March launch has brought up a lot of mixed emotions, he said.

“It's complex,” he said. “I’m happy because we accomplished this. I’m nervous about whether people are going to sign up. Are they going to like it? Are we going to live up to our reputation? I'm optimistic about the future.”

Fitch said he wants to eventually provide service in other rural Alaska communities.

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