Alaska Communications plans broadband expansion on peninsula

This map, taken from Alaska Communications’ presentation to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, shows the areas eligible for broadband expansion with the funding Alaska Communications received from the Federal Communications Commission. The company plans to expand its broadband internet services on the Kenai Peninsula in stages from 2018–2025. (Courtesy Alaska Communications)

Residents in the most rural areas of the western peninsula may get access to much better internet connections in the next few years.

 

Alaska Communications, the statewide telephone and internet service provider, is looking at a wireless broadband expansion project on the Kenai Peninsula over the course of the next eight years, building out connections in the unserved and underserved areas on the peninsula. Using federal funding through the Federal Communications Commission, the company aims to provide much faster connections for lower costs than are currently available.

With its vast tracts of undeveloped land connected by a single main highway and offshooting roads, many of which are unpaved and not borough or state maintained, accessing broadband internet on the Kenai Peninsula can be both difficult and cost-prohibitive for many rural residents. Currently, outside the major cities, satellite connections are the main service, and speeds are limited. Within cities, there are more connections available, but they can be more expensive than providers in the Lower 48 and often have data caps per month.

The FCC has set a goal of residential broadband services of 25 megabits per second download with three megabits per second upload across the country. Infrastructure to provide that service is expensive, though, and Alaska is behind many areas of the Lower 48, particularly in rural areas. On the Kenai Peninsula, residents of the urban areas in general have access to internet of that speed — only about 1.5 percent don’t, according to a 2016 update from the FCC. However, about 61.9 percent of the rural population doesn’t have access to internet at that speed, according to the FCC.

Alaska Communications applied for and received about $19.7 million per year for the next 10 years through the FCC’s Connect America Fund to expand its network in the rural areas that don’t currently have that access along the road system. The company is in the initial phases of designing and planning, said external affairs and corporate communications director Heather Cavanaugh.

The company chose to expand the service on the Kenai Peninsula first, in part because many customers on the peninsula have said how much they want it, she said. It’s important for communities to have good connections across the board for economic development and education and, increasingly, for health care, she said.”

“The school district is well served, as are most of the clinics and the hospitals, but the students who go to the schools may not have it at home,” she said. “And there’s a lot more happening with telehealth … I think that it’s going to benefit residents in many ways.”

The expansion is primarily targeted at residential and small business service. Alaska Communications, the primary telephone connection provider in the state, currently provides some residential internet services but primarily works with large business clients, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and Central Peninsula Hospital.

There’s already a fiber optic cable running through the peninsula, which provide high-speed internet connections all along the highway corridor to Homer. As part of the project, Alaska Communications plans to run additional cable other towers, where broadband signal will be transmitted wirelessly to receivers in homes and small businesses.

It’s still up in the air whether Alaska Communications will have to build those towers or can lease existing ones, Cavanaugh said. The company estimates about 20,000 additional households who didn’t have access before will be added under the new network expansion, she said.

“They’ve never had the connection or they may be getting really, really slow speeds, like one (megabit per second),” she said.

The company plans to pilot one site in Ninilchik this summer and expand it in pieces over the next eight years, from 2018–2025. The beginning speed will be 10 megabits per second download with 1 megabit per second upload, but that’s a starting place and the company hopes to improve the speeds in the future, said Stan Masneri, the senior operations manager for the Southwest District.

The technology has the capacity to expand speeds in the future, he said. The speeds available will depend how far individual homes and businesses are from the transmission towers, he said.

“We’re using 10 (megabits per second upload) as a minimum — that’s the standard we’re required to hit, but we’re aiming higher than that for most of these people,” he said. “…The technology is certainly able to allow for that. It’s much higher than that that the technology will support.”

The company aims to offer the packages, which are tiered based on speed rather than on data caps, for urban rates, starting at about $79 per month, Cavanaugh said during a presentation to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at its Tuesday meeting.

Masneri said the company will definitely need to expand its workforce on the peninsula for the project, but it’s not clear yet how many people they will need.

Internet infrastructure has often been identified as a factor holding back economic development in Alaska. A major project to bring faster internet to the coastal Arctic is underway with a partnership between Alaska Communications and Anchorage-based submarine cable provider Quintillion, laying fiber optic cable off the Arctic coast and providing faster internet to communities including Nome and Deadhorse. In Southeast Alaska, Alaska Power and Telephone completed the installation of a fiber optic cable between Juneau and Haines to improve internet availability in Juneau, Haines and Skagway.

Improved broadband was identified as a key economic development point, both for businesses and for schools, in the 2016–2021 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the Kenai Peninsula, developed by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.

One of the caveats of the FCC funding is that the company has to meet the federal government’s schedule, and if it doesn’t, the funding will be pulled, Cavanaugh said. Alaska Communications will look for support from the borough and the public on its efforts to obtain permits and lease land for its buildouts, she said.

“Our goal is that within the next three years, people will start to see faster speeds,” she said. “So again, this is a long-term project.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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