Unalaskans could see a significant boost in internet service by late 2022 if GCI completes work to lay fiber cable as planned.
The telecommunications company launched a marine survey as part of its AU-Aleutians Fiber Project last month. That work will take place into the summer, according to GCI senior manager of corporate communications and community engagement Jenifer Nelson.
“What they will do during the marine survey is really x-ray the ocean floor of our proposed route to make sure that it is the best possible route — identifying places where the fiber can be buried,” Nelson said. “So it’s really establishing the blueprint for the construction of the house.”
GCI is partnering with a Matanuska Valley-based geophysical and geotechnical surveying company, Benthic GeoScience Inc., to chart the subsea floor along the fiber’s 860-mile proposed route from Kodiak to the Aleutians.
When it eventually arrives in Unalaska, Nelson said each individual home and business will be connected to the fiber. Customers will have access to one gigabit internet speeds, which GCI says is among the highest level of internet speed available to consumers in the U.S.
That’s a major improvement for the island and for other communities along the Aleutian chain, where connectivity and bandwidth can often be unreliable or difficult to come by.
Nelson — who is from King Cove — said she understands the struggles of having poor connectivity and looks forward to bringing faster communication and more accessible internet access to the region.
“I’m just really excited for the day when somebody turns on their cable modem for the first time and can experience one gigabit speeds with unlimited data,” she said. “And you can just stream and stream and stream to your heart’s content.”
Unalaska will be the first community to come online through the project, according to Nelson. The next stop will be Akutan, then more communities along the peninsula, and eventually Larsen Bay on Kodiak Island.
John Burnett is the GCI AU-Aleutians senior program manager and has been on the island for about two months, surveying local sites and helping develop plans for where the fiber will be laid when it reaches Unalaska. He said he’s working to find the best path for the fiber to travel locally, from the sea to each Unalaska home or business.
“The first phase of this will be coming through and entrenching a mainline fiber in the ground, in the city easements and road right-of-ways,” Burnett said. “But then the next phase will be running what we call a ‘drop’ — that’s the fiber line that goes from the main trench to a home or a business.”
Before those drops are placed, Burnett said he’s working with property owners to choose the most ideal route for each individual or company.
“I spent a lot of my time talking initially with business owners to make sure that we agree on the routing of that drop,” Burnett said. “We want to minimize conflicts with things they have in their property.”
He said that includes things like landscaping and native plant life.
“I lived in Kodiak for a long time,” he said. “And we had a similar project done at our house and my wife said, ‘You know, I don’t care what you do, just don’t go through my salmon berries.’ And they did. So I’ve been there, and don’t want to do that again.”
The timeline for when exactly they will start digging is not yet set. But as the fiber is being laid in the ocean floor, Burnett said GCI plans to start laying the conduits on the island for when the fiber eventually arrives. He said the fiber distribution will begin near the airport.
While the digging process is unavoidable, Burnett said they are working to make it as seamless as possible. Part of his job is to address questions or concerns locals have, and he’s eager to keep the community informed.
According to Nelson, pricing for the internet service hasn’t yet been determined, but the goal is to offer the same plans as those in urban areas like Anchorage.
GCI’s AU-Aleutians Fiber Project is estimated to cost almost $60 million. GCI is paying for 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.