High-speed connections will improve services
With ever-advancing technology, the world is moving at a pretty quick pace these days. And over the next few months, the Northwest Arctic will be right in step.
GCI is expanding its terrestrial broadband network and as of this week, it's about 800 feet from Kotzebue.
The TERRA — Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska — project is an ongoing, multi-year endeavor to put better internet, phone and television service in the hands of rural Alaskans, which have relied on spotty satellite connections until now.
But the implications for such an undertaking will be far reaching beyond seamless Netflix viewing and quicker selfie uploads.
Schools and health clinics are among the agencies in the Northwest Arctic that will really see positive change by providing better and more expansive service to those in the region.
The land-based Internet project will link Kotzebue to the high-speed fiber optic network, via microwave towers in remote areas. The task has been a time-consuming and arduous one, but the new network is slated to be running by November.
"We haven't hit any of the villages yet, but we're about 800 feet away from finishing the project (in Kotzebue) right now," said Bob Walsh, GCI's director of rural broadband development.
Bringing better Internet to Kotzebue is Phase 3 of the TERRA project. Rural communities like those in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have been reaping the benefits for a few years now. And, more recently, the communities of Shaktoolik and Unalakleet have been hooked in to the project.
GCI is now waiting for the go-ahead to connect in Kotzebue. The final stretch is across BLM land and archeological sites and thus proper permitting is required.
"It looks like there is a plan in place and it will be taken care of probably early next year but we have a plan to connect it this year, hopefully by November," Walsh said.
This summer, GCI placed four towers on four mountaintops between Shaktoolik and Kotzebue.
The towers are self-sufficient and take up less than a five-acre footprint, Walsh said, and stand anywhere from 150 feet to 240 feet tall.
The original project started in 2008-2009, with $88 million in stimulus money and loans to bring the fiber optic cable from Anchorage to Levelock in southwest Alaska. From there, microwave tours pushed the service to various, more rural areas. A $7-million grant helped facilitate the move to Grayling and Shaktoolik, and then into Nome and now Kotzebue, said Walsh.
The next step will be to connect the villages in the Northwest Arctic as well as Yukon River communities, Walsh said.
"We want to connect these two networks between Galena and Kotzebue," Walsh said. "That's another four mountaintops that are very difficult to get to and logistically it's going to be a challenge. But that's our goal; to get that ring completed which will obviously give us double capacity."
The timeline for the Northwest Arctic villages is up in the air right now as funding has yet to be secured. But, Walsh said, hopefully they will be linked in within the next two years.
Last month, GCI officials met with stakeholders in Kotzebue for an event to let people know what to expect.
"Our goal there was to just kind of say 'Hey, we're coming' and acknowledge the people that we're serving as well as the services that will be coming to them," Walsh said. "We're knocking on the door in Kotzebue."
When the proverbial switch is flipped, locals will have access to 3G cell service as well.
For agencies, the network will be faster with a wider bandwidth, which will allow for better video conferencing, remote learning and upgrades for things like electronic medical records and imaging. Rural clinics, which are often staffed with health aides, will be able to link patients to providers in larger cities via video-conferencing in trauma situations.
"For the health corporations it will be enormously beneficial," Walsh said.
For the students and teachers and in the region, the larger bandwidth and faster connection will allow for more access to information and sharing among the communities.
For the Lower Kuskokwim School District, which got hooked into the network several years ago, the benefits have been immeasurable, said superintendent Jacob Jensen on Monday.
The district has three "TV studios" that are used for in-service trainings and class sharing between the 27 school sites in the region.
A lot of classes share teachers who broadcast various lessons via the Internet, none of which would be possible without the TERRA network, Jensen said.
One unique example is a teacher in Toksook Bay on Nelson Island who broadcasts lessons from the island to the region.
"The money to get it has been high, but we couldn't do the things that we're doing without it," said Jensen. "For the school district it's been huge."