Alaska telecom company GCI is pushing ahead with an ambitious plan to build an 800-mile undersea fiber optic cable that will link six southwest coastal communities to extend high-speed broadband service from Kodiak to Larson Bay, Chignik, Sand Point, Cold Bay and terminating at Unalaska, a major fisheries port in the Aleutians.

The company will invest $33 of its own funds to match a recently-announced $25 million federal grant to build the $58 million project, said Greg Chapados, president and CEO for the company. GCI hopes to have the new service operating in two years.

It’s a significant commitment for GCI that signals the company’s confidence in Alaska, which has been buffeted by declines in state revenues and, this year, the COVID-19 pandemic, Chapados said. GCI was purchased by Colorado-based Liberty Interactive in 2017 for $1.2 billion.

Over the last nine years GCI has led development of terrestrial broadband networks in rural Alaska communities, focusing first on Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay and Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and then expanding into Northwest Alaska, including Norton Sound and Kotzebue. TERRA stands for “Terrestrial for Every Rural Region” and today provides broadband service to 84 villages with more than 45,000 residents.

The planned subsea cable along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians would connect to Kodiak, which is already served by subsea fiber-optic cables from the Kenai Peninsula, and those connect with existing subsea cables from southcentral Alaska to the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

GCI will build the subsea cable as well as local fiber network in the communities to be served and will be able to offer the same broadband and internet speeds the company now offers in Anchorage and at similar prices, Chapados said.

Internet service is already provided by satellite to the five communities west of Kodiak but fiber optic allows faster, high-quality service. The lack of broadband is a particular problem at Unalaska, where major seafood processing plants and shipping companies operate, he said.

Not having broadband is a barrier to further development because many companies, along with government agencies, need to transmit large quantities of data at high speeds, and the inability to do so is a barrier to growth.

Seafood companies need access to broadband to efficiently process payrolls, and major shipping companies calling at Unalaska’s port of Dutch Harbor need it to transmit shipping information, including manifests. Unalaska has aspirations of being home port for U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker to support security and research in the Arctic, Chapados said, but without broadband access it is doubtful the Coast Guard would select the community for the role.

Lack of broadband also hinders distance education and on-line learning in schools not only in Unalaska but the smaller communities also. a network connecting 7,441 people, 310 businesses, ten educational facilities, seven post offices, four fire stations and a city hall across Southwest Alaska and the Aleutians.

The federal grant that GCI subsidiary Unicom, Inc. will receive is one of two USDA grants being made this year under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Broadband ReConnect,” a two-year-old program to help build out broadband and high-speed internet service in smaller U.S. communities.

A second grant is being awarded this year to Alaska Power & Telephone Wireless Company, which was awarded $21.5 million to deploy a network in Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island region in southern Southeast Alaska. AP&T mainly serves Southeast Alaska.

AP&T will be able to connect 225 individuals, 32 businesses, an educational facility, a post office, and a fire station on Prince of Wales Island. Last year a $19 million ReConnect grant was awarded to Cordova Telephone Cooperative to provide connectivity to 270 households in Yakutat, on the Gulf of Alaska coast east of Corodova. The project is expected to be completed by the fall of 2021.

In making the award announcements, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said “The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now, as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency.”

“Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband. We need (this) more than ever during these trying times, and expanding access to this critical infrastructure will help ensure rural America prosper,” Perdue said in a statement.

Alaska faces unique challenges to deploying rural broadband infrastructure. Alaska is America’s last and greatest frontier. Our state has vast expanses—areas larger than most other states—devoid of interconnected roads, an electric grid, or water and sewage systems.

Despite the lack of basic infrastructure other states take for granted, the people who live and work in rural Alaska need broadband to succeed. Our rural health clinics need broadband to power telemedicine services, our rural village schools need broadband to connect their students to critical education resources, and the businesses in our rural villages need broadband to compete in a global economy.

It is critical that the second round of the ReConnect program do as much as possible to help Alaska close the digital divide. Despite a significant amount of progress in recent years, entire regions of our state still lack access to any terrestrial broadband service. We need to close those gaps so Alaska can keep pace with the information needs of the 21st Century economy.

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