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GCI president travels to Bethel to deliver update on regional fiber internet project

GCI president Greg Chapados and Bethel Native Corporation CEO Ana Hoffman deliver an update on the AIRRAQ network fiber optic project at the Long House Hotel in Bethel on April 16, 2024.
Gabby Hiestand Salgado
GCI president Greg Chapados and Bethel Native Corporation CEO Ana Hoffman deliver an update on the AIRRAQ network fiber optic project at the Long House Hotel in Bethel on April 16, 2024.

As early as this fall, Bethel internet users will be among the first with the chance to to tap into a new fiber optic network that promises urban speeds and pricing for customers in a vast swath of Western Alaska.

Technicians recently found a late winter window to lay the first 45 miles of fiber optic cable on the frozen tundra near Bethel. It’s just a fraction of the cable that will comprise AIRRAQ, a network that promises to stretch more than 1,000 miles across Western Alaska once completed.

The network is a partnership between Alaska telecommunications company GCI and Bethel Native Corporation. Since its conception two years ago, it has managed to secure more than $100 million in federal grants.

Earlier this month, the figures heading the project met in Bethel to provide an update.

GCI president Greg Chapados and Bethel Native Corporation CEO Ana Hoffman spoke to KYUK about the roots of the project before the April 16 event at the Long House Hotel.

“Sometimes, business deals come together because you have a shared sense of purpose and a shared sense of the nature of the opportunity. And I think that was the case here,” Chapados said.

Chapados joined GCI in 2006 and has been at the helm since 2012. He has played a key role in the company’s expansion into rural Alaska, including the 2008 buyout of existing infrastructure that later served as the basis for the company’s current network in the region, a hybrid of fiber and microwave internet known as the TERRA network.

Since 2011, TERRA has served as the only land-based broadband link for communities in Western Alaska. It has also faced criticism for being a far cry from the level of connectivity enjoyed by GCI customers in Alaska’s urban markets.

“That was a big step in and of itself, but you know, this business is one where the things you do Day One, in four or five years or even shorter, sometimes they're just outstripped by events,” Chapados said.

While Chapados said the current network has proven beneficial for rural Alaska school districts and healthcare providers, he admits GCI hasn’t always been able to meet the needs of individual customers off the road system.

“What we weren't able to do was provide enough bandwidth to support what the real desires were of our residential customers, our consumer customers. And so that brings us right to this point now with AIRRAQ,” Chapados said.

AIRRAQ is one of dozens of projects across the nation benefiting from grants that allow tribal entities to partner with existing service providers – part of the Biden administration’s push to close the digital divide on tribal lands.

Chapados said it took serious effort to lay the groundwork for Bethel Native Corporation to capture $42 million in the first round of grants under the federal Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program in 2022.

“When Ana and I got together, I remember this very well, it was like in the August timeframe, and we were just in total scramble mode,” Chapados said. “We were trying to figure out ‘How do we put this all together in an extremely short period of time?’ We have to get tribal consents from five communities. We also need to put together this enormous engineering and design effort to get ready to build.”

Hoffman said that in-person meetings in future AIRRAQ communities have helped allay people’s concerns about the cables crossing their tribal lands, whether it be travelers becoming entangled in them, or the forces of nature ripping them apart.

“We went out to all of our AIRRAQ communities and presented, and met with the communities and had them feel the fiber and hold it,” Hoffman said. “And once you get familiar with what it is that we're talking about, a lot of those concerns went away.”

Since 2022, the scope of the AIRRAQ network has expanded to include 13 communities, with an application pending to add a handful of lower Yukon River communities as well.

The approved parts of the network are scheduled for completion by the end of 2027. But as early as this fall, residents of Bethel could see AIRRAQ go live, tapping into speeds up to 2.5 gigabits per second.

Hoffman acknowledges that many Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta residents have switched to low-earth-orbit satellite internet provider Starlink for their broadband needs, but urges people to not put all their eggs in one basket. In Bethel, she expects teams to start knocking on doors this fall to get the permission necessary to extend fiber access points directly to homes.

“It doesn't mean that residents have to sign up for it,” Hoffman said. “I would say to the Bethel resident that's happy with their Starlink, I would sign up for that consent and allow us to at least get the infrastructure there. When they do decide that they want to sign up for it, the infrastructure is in place in their residence and ready to go.”

In the future, AIRRAQ’s fiber internet network could stretch even further. But before long, customers in Bethel will be among the first to see if the project really does live up to its promise of bridging the digital divide.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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