GCI Gasses Up Broadband Towers as Annual TERRA Refueling Initiative Begins

GCI will bring some 100,000 gallons of fuel to its remote tower sites throughout Alaska. (Image credit: GCI)

While the rest of the country complains about the inconvenience associated with finding cheap fuel, Alaskan cable and telecom company GCI has got them all beat. Earlier last week the frontier cable operator began what has been an annual tradition — bringing more than 100,000 gallons of fuel to some of the harshest, most remote mountaintops in North America to help power nearly two dozen tower sites connected to its 3,300-mile Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska (TERRA) network.

The sites are far from commercial power grids and are reachable only by special helicopter and need to stay running and self-sufficient for months at a time. According to GCI, the 22 towers are some of the most remotely located in all of North America.

GCI said its crews will make more than 200 round trips this summer to deliver 106,000 gallons of diesel fuel to the tower sites. Through the TERRA network, the towers connect 45,000 Alaskans in 84 rural communities to the internet and other communications services. 

“Working closely with local partners like Bering Air is vital to keeping GCI’s TERRA network running smoothly,” senior manager of GCI Rural Network Operations & Maintenance Earl Merchant said in a press release. “Local pilots with years of flying experience in the region and a long history of working with GCI ensures both the safety of our crews and of the pristine wilderness in which we work.”

Also: Cable’s Last Frontier 

The TERRA initiative is just one of the programs GCI has started to bring faster, more reliable broadband service to Alaskans. Last May, the company committed to making 2 Gigabit per second service available to 77% of its footprint this year and increasing that to 10 Gbps in five years. 

As of February, more than 80% of its footprint had access to 2 Gbps. 

GCI said it takes special precautions to ensure that the impact on the environment is minimal during the refueling efforts. Flights are planned for certain times of year to avoid interfering with things like caribou migrations and subsistence hunting. During the TERRA refuel, helicopters fly at least 1,500 feet above the ground, weather permitting, to minimize disturbances to wildlife. And if there are caribou or other animals visible near the site, crews will adjust flight routes to avoid contact.

“Serving a state as big as Alaska with so many rural and remote communities is a challenge, but our dedicated rural-based technicians are more than up for the task,” senior director of GCI Facilities & Rural Network Operations JD Schultz said in a press release. “We have technicians and site agents in nearly every community we serve. We’re your neighbors. Our family and friends live here, too. That’s why we work so hard to make sure our techs are well-prepared to keep our network running and ready to serve all our customers.”

Each mountaintop repeater site has one or two 4,500-gallon tanks. Arctic diesel fuel is transported between 410 gallons and 440 gallons per load by helicopter and refueling each site can take as many as 16 different trips up the mountain, according to GCI.

GCI purchases the fuel from Alaska companies and works with local businesses throughout the process. The company expects the annual refueling project to be complete by mid-October. ■  

Mike Farrell

Mike Farrell is senior content producer, finance for Multichannel News/B+C, covering finance, operations and M&A at cable operators and networks across the industry. He joined Multichannel News in September 1998 and has written about major deals and top players in the business ever since. He also writes the On The Money blog, offering deeper dives into a wide variety of topics including, retransmission consent, regional sports networks,and streaming video. In 2015 he won the Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile, an in-depth look at the Syfy Network’s Sharknado franchise and its impact on the industry.