How GCI built a connected Alaska

In 1979, an Alaskan technology entrepreneur, Ron Duncan, started it GCI extension in an apartment located in the small neighborhood of Bootleggers Cove in Anchorage, Alaska, with only three employees including himself. Fresh out of business school, Duncan wanted to bring competition to the long-distance market. Fast forward over 40 years and GCI has greatly expanded its services. Now Alaska’s largest Internet service provider with over 1,800 employees with Duncan still at the helm, GCI has deployed more than 10,000 miles of long-haul, medium-haul and last-mile infrastructure in hundreds of communities across the state.

To date, GCI has invested more than $4 billion in its statewide network, of which approximately $3.3 billion has been realized since 2002, resulting in exponential expansion of its network infrastructure over the past two decades.

20 years of exponential progress

“The last 20 years in particular have seen a boom in the investment we’re making across the state to build our wireless networks,” said Heather Handyside, communications manager at GCI. The ISP expanded its major projects with fiber up to the North Slope and ensured that there were redundant fiber services there to serve the growing resource development sector.

And in 2011, GCI launched the 3,300-mile long EARTH network, serving 84 communities and 45,000 people in remote western Alaska. To build the network, GCI leveraged more than $44 million in federal funds, but has used more than $200 million of its own venture capital and continues to make investments to operate and maintain that network. Some of these communities have as few as 200 people. These investments have made telehealth and distance education a reality for many in rural Alaska, where roads are often impassable and airplanes are sometimes the only mode of transportation.

“It was really a compressed timeline to be able to see the history of telecommunications in some of these more remote communities,” Handyside said. “Building in rural communities, connecting rural health clinics and enabling those clinics to provide remote services for medical care, mental health services, dental services – these are all things we in rural Alaska have been doing for more than a decade. Having that access and what it means for rural Alaskans has been a huge game-changer.”

GCI LAND Alaska

An economical engine for Alaska

Specifically, while GCI was building the file EARTH network, its capital budget was even larger than the state’s capital budget, Handyside said. “Having these mega projects that require technical expertise, shipping, fuel, and all these services that help different sectors of the economy, it’s had knock-on effects, especially in rural Alaska.”

In terms of workforce, GCI is unique in that employees serve their own communities. These include site agents who can stay in the communities they grew up in and continue promoting Alaskan culture, instead of having to relocate for solid work. Specially trained tower climbers are also part of GCI’s workforce, and are dispatched at a moment’s notice. There is also an entire division of the workforce dedicated solely to serving rural Alaska.

“Our employees need to be knowledgeable, well-rounded, experienced technicians traveling to rural Alaska because when they travel to these sites they may experience a power issue, a wiring issue, they may need to change a light at the top of the tower,” Handyside explained. “They have to be hardy people because you have to travel there by helicopter, or sometimes by snow machine, and willing enough to stay several nights in GCI shelters if weather incidents cause work to be temporarily halted. It takes a special kind of person to have all these qualities”.

Capital investment and federal funding open the doors

Another growth point was GCI’s submarine fiber operation. By the end of 2022, GCI will have deployed more than 6,000 miles of submarine fiber, up from 2,330 in 2002. Than perhaps other companies do,” Handyside said.

Plus, having that experience is also why GCI is well positioned connect the Aleutian Islands. GCI plans to bring 2 gigabit services to Unalaska, home to the “Deadliest Catch,” one of the nation’s most remote communities, by the end of this year. This type of connectivity will not only support consumers, but also the maritime industry, opening up further opportunities. The $58 million project will serve about 7,000 people, but a $25 million grant from the USDA’s RUS program made the project possible.

GCI connects the Aleutian Islands

“Thanks to the continued investment in our fiber network, we are now on track to roll out 10 gigabytes,” said Handyside. Today, 80% of Alaskans served by GCI’s fiber network have access to 2 gigabytes.

“In Alaska more than anywhere else, it could be really difficult to create a financial model that makes sense in terms of investing in the network to deliver services to these small communities,” Handyside said, using the Aleutians as an example and the federal funding that made it economically doable.

Handyside is also optimistic about the future of GCI and the endless opportunities ahead. “As we move forward, places where we thought it would not be possible to provide services due to great distance, enormous cost, remote nature, climate or the technology we would need to do it, is now a possibility. And with the new federal funding that will become available [through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act]what this will allow us to do is push further into communities with fiber, which is our main focus, but also provide up-to-date services in some communities where fiber is not an option,” he explained. “It’s really an opportunity that we want to be strategic and leverage to implement in the best way to reach the greatest number of people and with the best technology”.