One of the most ambitious telecommunications projects in the rural United States was completed this year, after US $300 million of investment and six years of construction. TERRA, General Communication Inc.’s new hybrid fiber-microwave network, uses a combination of repeater data links and fiber optics to form a giant, 5,000-kilometer ring around southwest Alaska. If the network had been built in the contiguous United States, it would stretch from Washington, D.C. to Seattle. But it will only serve about as many customers as live in Twin Falls, a small city in Idaho.
TERRA relies primarily on 109 microwave towers, a classic technology that can still be deployed faster and more cheaply than fiber-optic cables in most of rural Alaska. But the project nevertheless took GCI a very long time and a lot of money to complete. It shows what a challenge it can be to build and maintain a communications network in one of the most remote areas in the world—even when you are using the most tried-and-true technology available.
Because there is no road system throughout much of Alaska, each of those microwave towers had to be flown or barged in. Some were installed in villages, and 23 were hoisted to mountaintop sites by a small fleet of helicopters. These towers, all 109 of them, poke up every 15 to 65 km in the Alaskan bush.
Ultimately, one of TERRA’s greatest strengths comes from its shape. Circles or rings create extra resiliency within a network: If one site does go down, all the traffic can be immediately routed in the opposite direction, taking the long way around the ring but ultimately getting where it needs to go.