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Alaskas GCI Grows the Hard Way

Serving an Alaskan market that includes the North Pole and Arctic villages in one of the most remote and unforgiving regions on Earth requires a whole different set of operational and technical efficiencies-and a different mind-set.

Winter temperatures hover at minus-30 degrees and annual snowfall can reach 500 inches. Roads are scarce and distances so great that flying to villages in the vast interior and coastal regions is as routine as car travel.

Unprotected coaxial cable snaps like dried twigs in the cold, and fiber can be choked instantly if inadvertently housed in steel: a major no-no in the chilly world of Alaskan cable operations and maintenance.

Routine construction, service, installation and maintenance issues are redefined in the Alaskan interior, especially since access by land is rare-if possible at all-and the elements can change quickly and radically.

"Clearly, working in those temperatures can be a real trial," said Richard Dowling, senior vice president of corporate development for General Communications Inc. (GCI), Alaska's largest integrated-communications provider. "Exposure time is limited and the winter darkness compounds that, with just four hours of sun above the horizon in winter."

GCI, which began operations in 1979, offers local and long-distance phone service along with Internet, wireless and cable services. Its market share ranges from 45 percent of long-distance business to 65 percent of cable homes passed. It also provides digital cable to 80 percent of its subscribers and owns 30 percent of Alaska's competitive local-exchange carrier market.

Its newly launched cable-modem service has already reached 20 percent penetration.

Yet reaching those subscribers and maintaining a quality communications service in the tough Alaskan environment is a formidable task.

"From 100 degrees to minus 70 is the criteria," said Dowling. "That's real, and it stresses things."

In coastal Anchorage, where Japanese currents and warmer waters keep the weather relatively mild, temperatures can drop 100 degrees in less than two days.

"Thermal cycling issues are extreme because the ground isn't solid and is very wet and frozen, with permafrost in some areas," said Dowling. "But we've done module replacements in the winter."

To operate in Alaska's often brutal winters, GCI adopted the concept of an April-to-October season for all major construction and reconstruction drops.

"We try to schedule outside construction in that time frame, and when we brought on cable modems, we had to adopt a culture that focused on when to bring down a system to replace amps," Downling said. "Now, we have amp cascades of three to five, and it affects fewer people.

"We're also splitting nodes and reducing sensitivity of plant. You just learn to live with the elements and never allow yourself out without the ability to communicate."

Living and working in Alaska-with its huge, diverse land mass, majestic mountain peaks, pristine sounds and inlets-is a labor of love for most of GCI's 1,000 employees.

"We serve five regions and they all present different challenges," said Gary Haynes, vice president of operations for cable and entertainment at GCI.

Fairbanks, for instance, is extremely frigid. Kodiak Island is isolated and full of big bears and the North Pole is, well, nearly off the radar screen.

"Fairbanks has very hard weather and sucks up coax cable quite a bit," Haynes said. "At the North Pole, we use ladder trucks instead of booms because mechanics can get very sluggish at minus 30 degrees. There's limited time outside."

In Fairbanks, "you either leave trucks running or shut them in and cold soak them at 20 degrees or above," he added.

On Kodiak Island, which can only be accessed via local air service, technicians are trained to be wary of its famous bears-which are not only huge, but at times can be ornery. Maintaining the equipment needed for the variety of services GCI offers demands a different training mentality as well, and finding and retaining employees in Alaska's tight labor market is especially tough.

Sending technicians and engineers to trade shows in the lower 48 states is too costly, so GCI must depend on vendor visits, the Internet and a newly created Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers Alaska chapter for updated technical information and guidance.

As a result, training and other expenses can be extremely high.

"Maintenance costs and the number of people needed are probably higher here because of fewer hours of daylight," Hayes said. "We have more installers because it's too expensive to bring them here on a consultant basis. There's lots of activity, so we've had to grow our own."

Growing a technician or installer to adapt to Alaska's unique physical environment requires a different approach than at your typical cable system.

"In bad winters you can almost walk up to the aerial plant," Haynes said, only half-facetiously. "We're experimenting with different coatings on dishes and have to deal with issues like ice wedging, which are cracks in the ice near the silty rivers where many of our systems reside.

"There's also lots of training to identify hypothermia and frostbite," he said. Consequently, the University of Alaska offers classes in "arctic engineering" which all professional engineers in the state must complete.

"Critter safety" is part of GCI's training, too. Said Haynes: "We tried to spray paint coating onto dishes, but the moose licked off the paint. They really liked it."

Bears and fast-moving storms that whistle across ice caps at more than 70 miles per hour aren't the only things that keep GCI's field techs on the move. Erupting volcanoes play a part as well.

"A technician was on a pole and noticed his assistant jumping up and down signaling to him. Across the small inlet on Kenai Peninsula," Haynes related. "Mt. Reboubt was erupting and spewing volcanic ash everywhere.

"They just made it back, but the truck had sucked in ashes through its defroster."

Powering the system presents another challenge. With GCI's addition of cable telephony, it becomes even more critical.

"We'll have to upgrade our power system to better than eight hours of battery life. It's a concern when temperatures drop to 40 below. So, we're looking at several different options, including fuel cells, standby generators or a hybrid system," Dowling said.

Despite Alaska's unnerving environment and its constant operational and technical challenges, GCI's business is booming. It recently brought in SeaChange International Inc. to deliver interactive- television service to 1,000

hotel rooms in Anchorage, increased its Internet connection capacity by 50 percent to 135 megabits per second and is signing up 400 new Internet customers a day.

It also recently signed a $12 million agreement to provide "tele-health" links to 15 communities in the Bering Strait region, Nome and Anchorage.