GCI plans to begin Alaska middle mile construction this year

GCI had a busy year preparing its Airraq (eye-huk) Network, a more than 900-mile fiber optic network that will provide high-speed internet to 13 remote Alaskan communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.

It’s looking to kick off construction in 2024 and will complete the project in partnership with Bethel Native Corporation (BNC). Thus far, GCI is “currently working through kind of the last part of the permitting phase,” said Jenifer Nelson, GCI’s director of rural affairs.

GCI spent the past year conducting surveys on the fiber route, covering “a lot of miles on and over through different types of terrain, on the tundra, the river and the ocean,” Nelson told Fierce Telecom.

Not only did GCI’s team gather information to figure out “the best route” for the cable, the operator also engaged with communities and “tapp[ed] into that local and indigenous knowledge.”

For instance, communities can tell GCI, “this is a snowmachine route” or where “subsistence activity happened.” The company also undertook tasks like scanning the seafloor for obstructions, identifying ice scours, researching local fishing grounds – anything that could impact the subsea fiber route.

So, the surveys provided GCI with a “thorough, desktop map kind of view,” while allowing the operator to understand the activity that happens in the region, Nelson noted.

The Airraq Network will provide 2.5-gig residential internet speeds to the following communities: Bethel, Platinum, Eek, Napaskiak, Oscarville, Atmautluak, Kasigluk, Nunapitchuk, Quinhagak, Tuntutuliak, Tununak, Toksook Bay and Emmonak.

The project will start on a mostly sub-sea route from Dillingham to the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. From there it will go over land the rest of the way to Bethel.

The 13 communities in the Y-K Delta region have a growing population with more than 20,000 residents, said BNC President and CEO Ana Hoffman.

“We’re an area that you can only reach by plane from Anchorage [in the winter] and then by barge in the summer,” she told Fierce. “The Airraq project has unique logistics that you wouldn’t experience elsewhere.”

Hoffman explained when BNC was conducting community outreach in the Y-K Delta, they had to travel on ice roads to get to villages in the tundra. In one case, they had to navigate through a blizzard.

“All the more reason why we need this connectivity is that there were parts of that ice road [where there was no] cell connection. So [the communities] were trying to reach us to tell us to halt our plans to be traveling and those messages didn’t get through until we got back into Bethel,” she said.

Hoffman added the residents in the Y-K Delta “consume the most poundage of subsistence food than any other part of Alaska,” which GCI considered when mapping out its fiber route.

“Going to the store is really supplementary to the primary food source, which is gathered through snowmachining, four-wheeling, boating and flying,” she said. “So there is a lot of movement on the tundra that we have to take into consideration and have done that through the survey process.”

The construction season in Alaska is shorter than in other states, given the climate. But some parts of construction require work in the winter, Nelson noted.

“There are parts of the network that we’re designing to what we’re calling a tundra lay or lay over the tundra. That work needs to be done when the ground is frozen, as opposed to the summer when we need to get the materials on the barge,” she said.

Many of the tundra villages are “low lying wetlands” during the summer, Hoffman explained, consisting of boardwalk networks or “board roads” as the primary form of transportation – for both pedestrians and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

“If you step off of the boardwalk, you’re going to get soaked. That’s why we need to do the fiber lay in the winter,” she said, otherwise “[we’re] not going to be able to move forward in the summer.”

The Airraq Network isn’t the only fiber project on GCI’s plate. The operator is also tackling the AU-Aleutians project, which aims to bring multi-gig speeds to a dozen Aleutian, Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island communities. Construction on the AU-Aleutians project is already underway.