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Millions of pounds of fiber cable en route to Unalaska to bring high speed internet to the region

Crews carefully coiled more than 800 miles of subsea fiber into two tanks that were built on the M/V Vertom Thea in Germany.
Josh Edge
Crews carefully coiled more than 800 miles of subsea fiber into two tanks that were built on the M/V Vertom Thea in Germany.

Nearly 2,000 tons of subsea fiber has begun the journey from Europe to Alaska and its eventual home on the ocean floor along the Aleutian Chain.

The fiber — which is the foundation of GCI’s 800-mile Aleutians Fiber Project — would close the digital divide and bring high speed internet to homes in some of the most remote communities in the nation, including Unalaska.

In a statement, GCI said the construction and delivery of the specialized fiber is a major project milestone amid global production and supply chain issues.

“Subsea fiber, like what will be used in GCI's AU-Aleutians Fiber Project, isn't something that's just sitting in a warehouse, waiting to be loaded onto a plane for its next deployment, and it’s not something you can buy from your local electronics store,” said Rebecca Markley, GCI’s principal portfolio program manager.

“It takes a highly specialized facility to build hundreds of miles of armored, sealed fiber specifically designed and made to order for large-scale infrastructure projects,” Markley added. “There aren’t many companies in the world capable of meeting the material needs of a project like AU-Aleutians — and even if they can, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Because there are so few companies that can build the fiber needed for the project, GCI contracted with a cable producer in Germany late last year.

More than 3.7 million pounds of subsea fiber – with segments up to 230 miles long – has now been loaded onto a cargo ship and is traveling the 12,000 miles to Unalaska, according to the company.

It will make its way through the English Channel, across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal, and up the Pacific coast to British Columbia where it will then be loaded onto two cable installation vessels and complete its journey across the Gulf of Alaska to Unalaska.

The Aleutians Fiber Project will run from Kodiak along the south side of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians.

The project is scheduled to deliver service to the communities of Unalaska and Akutan by the end of this year, Sand Point and King Cove by the end of 2023, and Chignik Bay and Larsen Bay in late 2024.

“While some GCI projects have required us to practically move mountains, the AU-Aleutians Fiber Project has practically required us to part the proverbial seas,” said GCI Rural Affairs Director Jen Nelson. “The logistics of making a project like this possible are complex, but the end result of delivering transformational levels of connectivity to the Aleutians makes every foot of fiber and years of work worth it.”

The project is expected to cost $58 million. GCI was awarded a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in support of the project in late 2020.

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