MTA: Broadband in Alaska is a whole different ballgame

It’s no secret that operators face a number of challenges when deploying fiber and other broadband technologies. But Wanda Tankersley, COO of Alaskan operator MTA, told Fierce providing internet service in the state comes with a unique set of hurdles.

Founded in 1953, MTA is a co-operative, which means its customers are member-owners of the company. It has around 35,000 internet subscribers and a service area of roughly 10,000 square miles.

Tankersley told Fierce the operator is working to push fiber across its entire network and gradually expand its footprint. But progress is slow for myriad reasons. It’s not just about working out the “business case to bring that work to them, it’s also the challenge of the terrain itself,” she explained.

Like operators in the lower 48 states, Tankersley said MTA has to be mindful of supply chain and labor constraints, noting the latter is something Alaska always struggles with. She added it also has to contend with a “really short construction season because we’re frozen solid the majority of the year.”

“Typically the way we build our networks is we follow the electric companies, so wherever they’re in a ditch we’re following them,” she said, adding “we’ve been working with them to try to cover our entire area” with fiber.

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But Tankersley explained there are some communities across the state that are not on the commercial electrical grid and use alternate sources of power. Still others, including some in MTA’s service area, are not on the road system and can only be accessed by boat or plane.

“We actually use the term remote because rural doesn’t quite do it justification,” she said.

She said MTA is looking at satellite services, such as those OneWeb is working to deploy, as a potential option for such areas. “Our focus is to get them wired connections with fiber, copper plant where we have it…[but] we still have areas of our service jurisdiction where it’s going to be really expensive to reach where satellite may make sense,” she said, noting such areas comprise “probably less than 10%” of MTA’s footprint.

Funding is another challenge. MTA is very active in pursuing state and federal grants to help fuel its work. But Tankersley said if MTA kept up its current pace of investment, spending roughly $24 million to $25 million annually on capex, it would take about 20 years to finish covering its area with fiber.

An influx of federal funding from an infrastructure bill being contemplated by Congress could drastically change the game, she said, allowing MTA to “get there a lot faster.”

“Alaska really is quite different. One of the things we really try to do when we’re working with federal agencies is to bring them up here so they can literally see the challenges of getting into those communities,” she said. “It is definitely a different experience.”