Telecoms keep Seward and vicinity connected
Leon Youngblood | The Seward Phoenix LOG
GCI contractors place conduit in a trench along the west side of the Seward Highway this summer. Fiberoptic cable is due to be pulled into and through the buried conduit in the next few weeks.
Seward residents and visitors haven’t been left behind in the race for telecommunications superiority as established players like General Communications, Inc. (GCI), Alaska Communications Systems (ACS), TelAlaska and newcomer Verizon fight for market share and bragging rights throughout the state. While Verizon hasn’t made specific plans for the Seward area known as of yet, few doubt that the second tier of their cell phone system build-out will include smaller road and railbelt communities between Fairbanks and Seward.
This summer saw two major projects in the area by the local telecom player with the largest profile, GCI. The first began during mid-summer as contractors began extending conduit for GCI’s local fiber cable system. Along the west shoulder of the Seward Highway from Safeway to Nash Road, workers completed the cableway by late August. A City of Seward water main complicated the engineering for the underground installation and ended up requiring a short interval of above ground routing of the cable. That overhead length will be attached to existing power poles and will run between the food bank and Safeway.
The final phase of this project is due to begin within the next two weeks and will involve pulling the new cable into place and connecting it with the existing GCI fiber system. According to Von Terry of GCI’s Seward Office, customers will see immediate benefits when the fiber connection is dialed in at the other end near Nash Road. Significantly, greater data speeds and capacity will be available to each of the legs of branching from that point. The segments for Exit Glacier, Nash Road and north up the Seward Highway will also have better isolation and stability so that problems in one area won’t affect another.
Terry was also enthused about the second of the two GCI construction projects: a new cell tower on Merlin Drive in Camelot Subdivision. The local office is looking forward to a little celebrating when GCI’s first local 4G service is offered via that tower. Also, because of the new facility’s advantageous siting, GCI customers will no longer experience dropped calls as they travel between Lowell Point, downtown Seward, and northward beyond Grouse Creek.
The foundation for the new tower was laid by GCI contractor New Horizons Telecom during the September rainstorms and the tower and equipment installation completed Oct. 24. Some final equipment for networking the cell-site with GCI’s rail-side head-end facility needs to be installed and configured. The site should be up and serving calls and high speed data to GCI customers soon.
AT&T recently completed two wireless tower projects in Seward. One in upper Forest Acres and another across the bay at the Seward Marine Industrial Center. This brought the telecom giant’s complement of local cell towers to three. The third is located at Stoney Creek and also hosts ACS equipment as well as providing roaming for GCI customers. AT&T did briefly operate a retail store in the Small Boat Harbor however, according to the former manager, costs of operation including winter fuel charges for her residence made the facility uneconomic. AT&T also suffered delays in getting their new tower facilities online during that period.
TelAlaska has diversified its products by aligning with ACS to offer wireless and Dish Networks to provide an alternative to GCI’s cable programming. These backstop its wireline delivery of telephone and DSL internet and data services. ACS operates two cellphone facilities in the Seward area including one downtown at the TelAlaska offices and one landmark monopole tower across Resurrection Bay on Nash Road,
When it comes to the backbone of internet, data and voice networks, GCI and AT&T-Alascom have regional fiber capacity to accommodate their respective conceivable needs for the future. ACS and TelAlaska purchase critical access from GCI and AT&T-Alascom to bridge the gaps in their own smaller networks for the area.
On the eastern Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound, GCI has two separate fiber optic cables from the Lower 48 making landfall at Seward and Whittier while ACS-Alaska Fiberstar has a single transoceanic cable into Whittier. The Whittier cables continue on to Anchorage. AT&T-Alascom owns the only contiguous fiber line between Seward and Anchorage. There is developing interest in adding additional fiber cable through Seward with four additional parties investigating potential interest and opportunities as well as the expense involved.
AT&T-Alascom, with fiber interconnects in Seward and Moose Pass provides access to the larger Internet for TelAlaska as well as connecting TelAlaska’s two area fiber networks. According to Travis Stubblefield, Seward area supervisor for TelAlaska, there are two TelAlaska fiber segments for the eastern Kenai Peninsula, largely completed in 2008. One runs from downtown Seward to mile 8 of the Seward Highway and the other parallels the highway system between Victor Creek and Cooper Landing.
At the time of installation this provided a major upgrade to TelAlaska’s ability to distribute reliable voice and DSL data services. TelAlaska’s Internet connectivity is routed from the lower 48 through Anchorage.
AT&T uses its fiber cable to network its cell sites in Seward, Moose Pass and Portage co-located with its fiber repeater equipment. The Seward to Portage cable is connected on through to Anchorage on leased fiber. AT&T also leases capacity on all of the available transoceanic fiber cables.
GCI makes contingent use of the AT&T-Alascom fiber cable and can route its data and voice traffic through the Lower 48 from Seward and then back up to its Anchorage area facilities through Whittier. In Seward, GCI has been fleshing out its local fiber network which presently serves a hand full of local organizations, agencies and businesses. Early adopter, the Alaska SeaLife Center, substantially served as the financial incentive for kickstarting a high speed fiber network when it was required for a remote education initiative. Since that initial government funded project, Providence Seward Medical & Care Center, the U.S. Forest Service, First American Title and the Petro Plaza have become GCI fiber connected customers.
According to GCI’s Terry there are about 27 targets and requests for fiber cable hookups. Of those, Seaview Plaza, the Orca Building, and UAF’s Seward Marine Center are to be connected to GCI’s fiber network by the end of November and should up and running shortly thereafter. At least one major business along Port Avenue has requested high speed data service but extending the network to businesses and organizations located in that area via fiber or otherwise is problematic because of various physical and cost barriers and zones of control.
Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG
TJ Rutherford and Jim Toney of New Horizons Telecom wrangle a 20 foot section of Valmont tower into place. Another three sections were stacked to take the new GCI cell tower on Merlin Drive in Camelot Subdivision to its final height of 120 feet.
GCI offers local wired telephone and internet solely over it’s own coax cable and expanding fiber infrastructure. Terry also expects to roll out some additional Wi-Fi services including an expanded number of high speed hot spots around the Small Boat Harbor as well as downtown. Another feature coming down the line is 100 megabit per second cable modem speeds for internet access, around a five-fold increase in data rate for GCI cable internet subscribers.
Terry also elaborated on the unfolding joint venture between ACS and GCI dubbed the Alaska Wireless Network. The two companies are partnering and combining their cellular networks and licensed frequencies under one roof. The unified network will offer coverage of over 95 percent of Alaska’s population and will give both ACS and GCI additional traction in the face of the market strength of AT&T and new competition from Verizon. As the two systems are integrated, the former ACS network will drop CDMA signalling in favor of SIM card based GSM phones. The proposed combined cellular system is subject to regulatory approval.