Alaska’s GCI expands 5G in Juneau

GCI recently upgraded its third 5G-capable wireless site in Juneau, Alaska, extending 5G to the city’s Lena Point, Mendenhall Valley and Lemon Creek areas.

GCI said it’s already invested about $3.3 million in its Juneau 5G deployment so far and expects to turn up more sites by the end of the year.

The investment in Juneau comes after GCI also made “substantial” 5G investments in Anchorage, Eagle River, Fairbanks, Girdwood, Palmer and Wasilla, according to a press release.

GCI said it was the first provider to launch “true 5G NR service” in Alaska when it turned up 5G service in Anchorage in 2020.  

Wireless competitors in the state include AT&T and Verizon. In 2020, T-Mobile announced a 5G roaming deal with GCI in Anchorage, giving it bragging rights to being the first to offer 5G in all 50 states.

Sticking with 5G NSA

GCI is using the same general spectrum template for all of its markets, according to Josh Lonn, VP of GCI Wireless Products. It’s using the 600 MHz, or N71, band as its 5G anchor.

The FCC excluded Alaska and Hawaii markets from the C-band reallocation process and subsequent auction because they’re so heavily dependent on the satellite services that use the 3.7-4.2 GHz band.

GCI doesn’t have any near-term plans to use millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, Lonn said via email, noting that mmWave makes sense in dense urban morphologies like mid-town Manhattan. Given that Alaska has vast areas with no roads of any kind, it makes sense that mmWave isn’t in the picture.

One also might expect that GCI is in no rush to ditch LTE for a 5G Standalone (SA) experience, and Lonn confirmed that. The Non Standalone (NSA) version of 5G uses LTE as an anchor, whereas 5G SA doesn’t use LTE.

“In the near term, we see the strongest demand for 5G NSA services and that’s where we will focus our network investment,” Lonn said. “5G SA is part of our broader modernization roadmap. We don’t have a timeline to share today, but it’s safe to say we will turn it up when we see significant customer demand matched by a robust device ecosystem.”

Although Alaska is a huge state – it’s two and half times as big as Texas – its population is only about 730,000.

Lonn said GCI covers over 97% of Alaskans with its combined network. The company kicked off its 5G upgrades in its most populated markets, starting with Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley, he said, adding that it’s premature to say exactly where GCI will be bringing 5G next. However, “it’s a safe bet that if we serve the market with GCI fiber, it will eventually be on our 5G candidate list,” he said.

RELATED: Here's how GCI is navigating fiber in Alaska’s most remote communities

John Malone’s Liberty Broadband bought GCI in 2017. GCI had 193,700 wireless lines in service as of the first quarter of 2023.