High-speed broadband service comes to Barrow
On the day of the 4G rollout in Barrow, phone company employees wore brand new 4G-logo shirts, the store stayed open longer than normal, and social media went crazy.
"It is new technology. As technology advances, our company has to keep up with it and that includes new servers, new systems, whatever it takes to make broadband work faster on a wireless network," said Jodi Forslund, the chief services officer for Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative.
Between the heavy advertising campaign in the weeks leading up to the transition and the anticipation of faster connectivity on the ground, it seemed to be a mix of relief and excitement from local residents.
For some, the predominant feeling was 'finally,' the North Slope's largest community had caught up with contemporary technology.
"I think it's part of closing the broadband gap. We realize that we have had a big disparity in speed and service in the villages. Nobody has denied that," Forslund said.
For others, it was 'wow,' think of how much faster everything will be from here on out.
"I have heard nothing but great things. They're excited to be seeing things on their phone in a fast manner that they hadn't seen before," said Paula Kangis, ASTAC's marketing and customer service manager.
The shift from 2G, or second generation mobile service, to 3G/4G is a long time coming for the Arctic Slope.
The first generation network, or 1G, was a system through which radio signals were transmitted in analogue form. It was marked by box phones that could only make calls or send text messages.
The shift to 2G meant a move to digital networks. Finally, 3G and 4G brought with them much faster data transmission.
According to Director of Operations Jens Laipenieks, the most noticeable difference for wireless customers on the new network will be this increased speed of data service, meaning loading and buffering of video clips, for example, will be much faster and more reliable.
"Since February 2015, ASTAC signed a strategic alliance with AT&T Wireless, so that sort of started the process of us allowing them to expand their coverage area as well as us to expand our service offerings to a 3G/4G service," explained Forslund. "We started in Prudhoe Bay and Nuiqsut. Our build-out began there and was completed at the end of 2015 and we converted customers in both [villages]."
To make the switch from 2G to 4G, some users will have to change the type of phone they have as certain older models are no longer compatible.
"[Some] also have to get a new SIM card because we are now using an AT&T network," she said. "It's a little bit of work on both of our parts to get this to happen."
The process from start to finish if done in-store is about 35 to 45 minutes, she said.
While better connectivity has been in demand on the North Slope for years, there have been some challenges to bringing the technology to this, and other, remote parts of the state.
"Each village only has 250 to 450 customers, so dividing that into what it costs to upgrade is a lot of money," Forslund explained. "Our network relies on a backbone that's satellite which causes its own challenges as well. The satellite network causes delays and latency, so we've had to overcome a lot of those problems through this conversion."
However, with the upgrades, the hope is that more residents now have reliable access to technology that is not just a luxury, but a necessity, in the modern world.
"There are opportunities that come with having broadband that our customers have not been able to take advantage of from an economic standpoint, from education to healthcare to developing a remote business from their villages," she said. "That's kind of where I think the traction is for a lot of the village Native corporations is seeing that they can keep people in the village, find work for them, and people can make a living and be part of a network. They rely on the internet for a lot of things but to make a living off of it would be a game-changer."
The next step is bringing 3G/4G to each of the Slope villages. The goal is to complete the transition in 2016.
"We don't have any specific timelines for those but it is something that will take place by the end of the year," said Kangis.
With the Quintillion fiber-optic network on the horizon, this change is just the first of many steps forward for mobile technology in the Arctic.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.