On the west coast of Alaska a satellite-based T-1 line can cost as much as $15,000 per month. And during April when solar flare activity affects the Arctic Circle, communication service will be spotty at best. With its remote location and sky-high connection costs, it could be argued that the area is "unserved" by broadband or certainly "underserved."
An Alaskan-based middle-mile fiber provider, Kodiak Kenai Cable Co., is arguing just that and has filed applications for government broadband stimulus funds to expand its undersea fiber optic cable to serve the area.
"We’re a carrier’s carrier," said Walt Ebell, CEO of Kodiak Kenai. The extended subsea cable, known as Northern Fiber Optic Link (NFOL) would "be a backbone for the entire region," he said. It would have 10 landing points at existing communities where last-mile providers could then build and/or extend their connections.
The NFOL would extend the existing Kodiak Kenai Fiber Link system via submarine fiber optic cable from Narrow Cape on Kodiak Island to the Aleutian Islands and Western Alaska with landing points at King Cove, Unalaska (Dutch Harbor), Naknek (King Salmon), Dillingham, Platinum, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse). (For NFLO’s website map, click here.)
Although the year-round population of the area in question is only 50,000, in the summer it swells to 80,000 because of the fishing industry, according to a Kodiak Kenai spokesman. Thousands of people come to the area to pack millions of pounds of salmon. "They all show up with their cell phones," he said.
To lay the 3,500 miles of new fiber, Kodiak Kenai has submitted an application to the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) for a $173 million loan and a $172 million grant, with the company offering to bring $84 million to the table. Additionally, Kodiak Kenai has submitted an application to National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for a $215 million grant, with the company offering to match $215 million.
One of the requirements for stimulus funds is that the broadband project must be "shovel-ready."
Since Kodiak Kenai had its NFOL plans already on the drawing board before there was a national broadband stimulus plan, the company is ready to begin its project.
"Over the last six months people have been trying to create their projects and put their applications together," said Ebell. "We think that’s going to be pretty challenging for most people. We started our permitting at the beginning of the year. From a technical and legal perspective there might not be a lot of qualified projects."
To provide wireless broadband coverage across vast, remote areas of Canada, the country’s two major communications providers—Bell Canada and Rogers Communications—partnered to create a separate entity known as Inukshuk Wireless. (For more, click here.) Inukshuk used a hodge-podge of cell towers, microwave and existing last mile infrastructure to create a WiMAX network.
Are land-based technologies feasible for Alaska’s west coast? Yes, according to a separate application for government funds filed by United Utilities Inc. (UUI) that cautioned against going undersea.
Outlining the TERRA-SW (Terrestrial Broadband in Southwestern Alaska) project, UUI stated that a hybrid fiber-optic and microwave broadband middle mile network “would maximize use of terrestrial routes to minimize the possibility of lengthy, expensive-to-repair service outages caused by breaks in submarine fiber optic cable.”
Such cable can remain locked under sea ice for up to half of a year, the application noted.
As part of the application, UUI’s parent company GCI—Alaska’s largest telecom and cable services provider—pledged to guarantee any loan granted by RUS and to purchase middle-mile capacity from UUI.
In April, GCI’s counsel had filed comments to the NTIA and RUS arguing for flexible and inclusive grant criteria.
On behalf of the submarine option, Kodiak Kenai’s spokesman argues that the geography of the region they seek to serve, with areas separated by ocean and two large mountain range, and the presence of protected lands where roads aren’t allowed all make it impossible to construct towers.
"The subsea route really is the only technically feasible and cost effective way to do it," said Ebell.