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GCI Wants To Bring Fiber Internet To Bethel. Its Speeds Could Beat Out The Satellite Competition.

Harout S. Hedeshian

On May 18, GCI announced that it is exploring bringing faster internet to Bethel. How fast? One-hundred times faster than the highest internet speed currently available in town.  


GCI wants to connect Bethel to high speed internet using fiber optic cable, but it’ll take a while to arrive. Company spokesperson Heather Handyside said that GCI is looking at a timeline of three to five years to complete the project, and there’s a lot yet to plan. First they have to figure out how to connect the fiber cable from Bethel to Anchorage.


“We're considering the design, the route, the cost,” said Handyside. 


Internet costs are a lot higher for Bethel residents than in much of the country. The most expensive monthly GCI plan for Bethel residents costs nearly $300 per month and, acccording to the company, comes with 10 GB of high speed usage, and 200 GB of data. The average American’s internet bill runs $60 a month for unlimited high speed data, according to a four year global study from a UK cable company.


Handyside said that she didn’t yet know what the price of Bethel’s faster fiber internet would be for customers, but that trends bode well.

“When we bring fiber to a community, the fiber tends to deliver more speed, more data at a better value,” said Handyside. 


But for both timing and price, GCI has some big competition in the form of two satellite internet companies vying for Y-K Delta customers. 


One company, Starlink, is an offshoot of Elon Musk’s rocket and space exploration company SpaceX. Starlink is currently taking pre-orders for their unlimited $99 per month high speed internet plan. And although they don’t have a set date for the internet rollout yet, the company has begun launching satellites. It has said that its service should be broadly available later this year, though the company also said that it will have no capacity for new users in the Y-K Delta until 2023. It promises speeds that are five to 15 times faster than what Bethel currently has. 


Another satellite-based internet company says that it can provide high speed internet in the Y-K Delta as well. OneWeb has also launched satellites and said that its service will be available next year, but prices are not yet listed. It offers 40 times the speed of Bethel’s current internet. Both satellite internet services would be slower than GCI’s proposed fiber cable internet, but both would be available to all who live in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta; GCI’s wouldn’t. 


Handyside said that GCI doesn’t yet have plans in place to extend the fiber internet outside Bethel to villages. She said that the motivations for bringing faster fiber internet to Bethel are not borne from competition, but are rather a natural next step for the company. 


“I do think this is just recognizing that the needs of our network are growing, the demands from customers are growing. And this is just our next step to help bridge the digital divide and better connect one of the most important hub communities in the state,” said Handyside. 


GCI has not said how the project will be funded.