Alaska-based telecoms are planning to be ready when their national competitors roll out wireless 4G services in the state.
Alaska Communications Systems Group Inc. and General Communications Inc., both statewide wireless providers based in Anchorage, will spend a combined $46 million in 2011 to upgrade their infrastructure to 4G capability while also bulking up their 3G footprint.
Verizon Communications Inc. confirmed March 17 it will enter the state market to compete with GCI, ACS and AT&T Alaska. Verizon Wireless West Region spokesman Scott Charleston couldn't provide any details on timing other than the company being in the early planning phase.
ACS, which carries roaming traffic for Verizon Wireless customers in Alaska, is spending $12 million in 2011 to upgrade its cell towers to support demand from other wireless carriers and to position itself for an early rollout of 4G service.
GCI is spending $34 million this year on expansion and to upgrade 144 cell towers around the state. Spokesman David Morris said GCI will roll out 4G service in Anchorage this summer and expand outward. GCI is also upgrading more than 20 communities around the state to 3G service.
According to Morris, areas set to receive upgrades to 3G service are areas outside of Anchorage from Eklutna to Potter, Palmer, Wasilla, Girdwood, Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Fairbanks, North Pole, the North Slope oil patch, Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Kodiak.
While unable to provide timing for the ACS rollout of 4G, director of corporate communications Heather Cavanaugh said ACS "plans to be a leader in 4G."
Cavanaugh noted that ACS was the first to bring 3G service to Alaska in 2004, making Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau the third, fourth and fifth cities in the U.S. to receive 3G. She said while ACS will continue to expand on its 3G footprint, which covers about 75 percent of the state, the focus for the next two years is staying ahead of data demand.
Verizon Wireless is bringing its 4G LTE service to Alaska. LTE stands for "long term evolution" and refers to the eventual connecting of all electronic devices to enable integration of home, car and smartphone platforms.
Colleen Smith of AT&T corporate communications could not give details on specific markets for 4G. However, Smith said by the end of 2011 AT&T expects to have nearly two-thirds of its mobile broadband traffic to enable 4G speeds.
Using expanded backhaul, which refers to the routing of voice and data traffic, AT&T has already enabled 4G speeds in some key markets. Smith said AT&T is accelerating its LTE build-out and plans to have it completed by the end of 2013.
AT&T, which does not release specific numbers for the state, has the most customers in Alaska with an estimated 250,000. GCI became the No. 2 wireless carrier in 2010 and finished the year with 138,700 customers.
ACS slipped to third in 2010, finishing the year with 120,413 wireless customers.
Verizon purchased 700 MHz C-block spectrum for Alaska last November, the first step toward an eventual offering of 4G service.
"We're definitely out there and looking to do all the things that need to be done before we launch," Charleston said. "It's not just around the corner."
According to GCI vice president of finance Bruce Broquet, GCI has plenty of spectrum to provide 4G service in Alaska but could require the purchase of more if it upgraded to LTE depending on the type of handset utilized.
Customers wishing to experience 4G service will need to upgrade their mobile devices. Those using 3G compatible devices in a 4G market could see some marginal performance improvement from less "bottle-necking" as voice and data traffic is transmitted more efficiently on a 4G network.
Asked whether Verizon would need to construct its own infrastructure in Alaska or partner with an existing provider, Charleston said, "yes and no."
"There's an awful lot of work to be done between now and when we launch," he said.
For now, ACS will continue to carry Verizon's roaming traffic in the state.
"We've had a strong partnership with Verizon for many years and expect that to continue into the foreseeable future," Cavanaugh said.
In wireless parlance, 3G and 4G stand for third and fourth generation, respectively, with 4G offering faster download and upload speeds. Formally, 4G is defined by industry standards for download speeds of 100 megabits per second to a mobile device. Informally, industry players are branding faster networks as 4G although they do not yet meet the 100 Mb/s standard.
The 4G networks use "packet switching," a common technology used by computer networks to bundle and move data more efficiently. A 3G network uses a combination of packet switching and "circuit switching," which traces its name back to the old switchboards formally used to connect telephone calls.
While 4G, or 3.9G as some call the faster but not yet compliant networks, is not backward-compatible to 3G, one reason companies have justified using 4G branding is because the packet switching networks are forward-compatible and will be able to eventually meet the 4G standard.
Jargon aside, Alaska consumers have demonstrated a voracious demand for data across mobile networks in the past few years.
At GCI, wireless data revenue increased 21.9 percent during 2010 to $61.4 million. For the first time, GCI, also the state's largest cable provider, is seeing more data revenue than video revenue.
At ACS, data use on its network has increased by more than 300 percent since 2009. Boosted by the introduction of the Android-based handsets in early 2010, ACS saw monthly average revenue per user, or ARPU, jump by 53 percent.
"We expect that rate to continue or even accelerate," Cavanaugh said, "which is where 4G comes in. We are now adding more capacity to existing sites so that our customers can continue to surf the internet, play games and listen to music on the go and in more places."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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