109 Microwave Towers Bring the Internet to Remote Alaska Villages

A $300 million telecom project will boost speeds or provide service to many for the first time

13 min read
Photo: Amy Nordrum
The Last Link: A microwave tower stands just above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. It was one of the final towers installed as part of a six-year project to improve connectivity in the Far North. The tower, which is still awaiting its antennas, will be powered by two diesel generators.
Photo: Amy Nordrum

A hulking orange helicopter named Annie hoists a gleaming metal tower into the sky on the outskirts of Kotzebue, a small Alaskan city just north of the Arctic Circle. Engines roaring, Annie pauses to steady its load, which had begun to sway below, and veers off toward a bald mountaintop.

On the mountain, at a rocky site called Igichuk, a work crew has just finished setting up the tower’s base, dropped off earlier by Annie. Now, they’re focused on executing the most delicate delivery of the day, one of many difficult steps required to sink a single new telecommunications tower into the vast, roadless Alaskan tundra.

Unfortunately, that also means faulty software can knock out a site or disrupt multiple portions of the network. A few years ago, while technicians were trying to upgrade one stretch of towers, a software bug caused the radios to spontaneously reset and pushed GCI nine months behind schedule.

These problems notwithstanding, software is at the very heart of the TERRA network’s ability to function in the face of the Arctic’s environmental and climatic extremes. Thanks to software, GCI can remotely route all traffic through one tower if another one malfunctions. And software helps the network respond to weather, altering signals when there’s more fog or rain, in ways that minimize signal attenuation.

At GCI’s office in Anchorage, senior engineer Goodyear pulls up a photo of a microwave tower high in the Askinuk Mountains on the western coast of Alaska. The bottom half is buried in 2.5 meters of snow. “This is pretty typical for this site in the early spring,” he says. He flips to another photo [see below: "Cold Call," bottom photo] that shows the top half of the same tower completely iced over from chilly coastal winds that whip up moisture from the Bering Sea.

Snow and ice absorb and reflect radio waves, impeding an antenna’s ability to receive and transmit signals. Goodyear estimates GCI poured $2 million into combating that problem at the Askinuk Mountains site in its first two years. He points to the small triangles above each antenna in the second photo; they’re basically metal hats meant to keep snow and ice from accumulating.

Crews had also installed long metal plates to shield the tower’s waveguides from falling ice. Microwaves travel through waveguides—which are hollow metal tubes—when they are moving between amplifiers and antennas, for example. But in frigid climates, moisture can accumulate inside them and cause them to freeze up, so at particularly vulnerable TERRA sites a special dehydrator pushes air through the waveguides to keep the moisture out.

/image/Mjk4ODAwOQ.jpeg

/image/Mjk4ODAxMA.jpegCold Call: TERRA’s 109 microwave towers must withstand snow, ice, and extreme cold. In the Askinuk Mountains (bottom), a black waveguide pokes out from the right side of the tower, where an antenna had been mounted before snow and ice popped it off.Photos, top: GCI; bottom: Patrick Goodyear

Despite all of these efforts, one antenna is still missing from the tower in the photo, and the waveguide that runs to it sticks out awkwardly into the cold air. Ice had built up, warmed in the sun, slid down the tower, and popped the antenna right off.

Through software, GCI was able to remotely reroute traffic from the disabled antenna to go through two antennas placed higher up on the tower, to keep the site running. Since then, Goodyear’s team has slashed the height of that tower to limit its exposure to icy gales. So far, that fix seems to be working.

GCI engineers have also made hardware adjustments to improve signal strength across the network when a site is working but not as well as it could. For example, near a coastal town called Quinhagak (population 669), a tower sits high up on the shoulder of a mountain, with barely enough room for a helicopter to land next to it. To save space, the GCI crew initially installed a shorter tower with 1.8-⁠meter antennas.

But a reflection point on nearby Kuskokwim Bay soon began to impede service to the next tower. Occasionally, when the tide was just the right height, a few stray microwaves would bounce off the bay and right into that tower’s antenna. But they arrived later than the microwaves that traveled straight over, causing the two signals to destructively interfere with each other.

So now GCI is upgrading that site to 3-meter antennas, which will not “see” the reflection point from the same angle as the smaller antennas. If all goes well, this geometry will cut back on the reflected microwaves.

To build anything in Alaska requires a certain amount of fortitude. Looking back, GCI’s Markley says, “there have been lots of times where we were thinking, ‘Are we actually going to be able to do this?’ ”

No other company had ever thought it economically feasible to deliver terrestrial Internet to this remote part of Alaska. If TERRA had been built in the contiguous United States, it would stretch from Washington, D.C. to Seattle. But it will serve about as many customers as live in Twin Falls, a small city in Idaho.

TERRA was made possible by a patchwork of federal grants, loans, and subsidies. Heather Handyside, GCI’s communications director, acknowledges TERRA wouldn’t have been built without the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law in 2009. Through it, the federal government contributed $82 million in grants and loans to the $300 million project. GCI also secured about $35 million in federally supported loans through the New Markets Tax Credit program, and received another $6 million federal grant for the project.

On top of all that, GCI collects more federal money through the federal government’s E-Rate Program, which subsidizes telecommunications costs for schools and libraries. The company says TERRA provides a path for rural Alaskans to access distance learning, take advantage of telemedicine, and diversify their economy by telecommuting or selling handicrafts on retail sites like Etsy.

Even with all that support, the rates that TERRA customers pay remain much higher than elsewhere in the United States. The most expensive GCI plan for Kotzebue costs $300 a month for speeds that are about 8 percent those of the least expensive Anchorage plan, which is $65 a month. GCI points out that speed is only part of the picture: TERRA has reduced latency from 550 to 25 milliseconds for rural customers, making it much easier to hold video conferences. (Several Alaska Native corporations and organizations contacted for this story, including NANA Regional Corp., which serves Kotzebue, declined to comment on TERRA or GCI’s rates.)

/image/Mjk4Nzk5Mg.jpegMeasuring Up: There are dramatic differences in the cost and quality of Internet service in the United States. Shown here are average download speeds for residents in three cities as of April 2017. Through GCI, Kotzebue customers can now purchase Internet plans with download speeds of 3 to 6 megabits per second.

After years of neglect by telecommunications companies, rural Alaska is now attracting interest. GCI is facing competition in at least a small slice of TERRA’s service area. A company called Quintillion recently installed a subsea fiber-optic cable to provide broadband to villages along the northwest coast of Alaska, the first phase of a cable that will stretch from Tokyo to London.

That’s good news for Alaskan customers, and bad timing for GCI. The final repeater in the TERRA network was switched on in October, at a site coincidentally labeled on the TERRA map as Final Repeater for its proximity to Final Mountain.

Now in place, the TERRA towers have an expected life-span of 50 to 60 years. During that time, several new generations of wireless technology will come along, requiring GCI to upgrade its equipment. Already, crews have begun to replace generators at the earliest sites, which have reached the end of their five-year life-span.

With TERRA up and running, GCI’s investment has finally begun to pay off, and many Alaskans are sure to benefit from their access to it. Before long, they could start to demand even more data and faster speeds. But given TERRA’s constraints, GCI may struggle to deliver it in a timely manner and at an affordable price.

Meanwhile, Quintillion or another competitor could take on the herculean task of burying more fiber across Alaska—that is, if Facebook and Alphabet don’t figure out how to offer broadband coverage cheaply by balloon or drone.

GCI does sell capacity on TERRA to other telecom companies, which should further expand access for residents, but competitors say the price GCI charges is too high and accuse it of holding a monopoly over Internet service throughout much of rural Alaska. Several competitors, including a coalition of rural telecom providers, have complained to the FCC about GCI’s wholesale pricing.

Given all of this, there would seem to be ample room for a clever company to devise a way to bring faster, cheaper connectivity to the Far North. Developing it would certainly not be for the faint of heart, and it may always be an economically risky proposition. But it could also represent a true breakthrough, reaching the dozens of Alaskan villages that still remain without terrestrial Internet of any kind.

This article appears in the December 2017 print magazine as “Broadband or Bust.”

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