In 1979, an Alaskan technology entrepreneur, Ron Duncan, began GCI in an apartment in the small Bootleggers Cove neighborhood of Anchorage, Alaska, with only three employees, including himself. Fresh out of business school, Duncan wanted to bring competition to the long-haul market. Fast forward over 40 years, and GCI has expanded its services significantly. Now Alaska’s largest Internet service provider with more than 1,800 employees and Duncan still at the helm, GCI has deployed more than 10,000 miles of long-haul, medium- and last-mile infrastructure in hundreds of communities across the state.
To date, GCI has invested more than $4 billion in its statewide network, including approximately $3.3 billion since 2002, leading to an exponential expansion of its network infrastructure over the past two decades.
20 years of exponential progress
“Over the past 20 years in particular, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the investments we’re making across the state to build our wireless networks,” said Heather Handyside, GCI’s Chief Communications Officer. The ISP has expanded its major projects to include fiber up to the north slope, ensuring redundant fiber services there to serve the growing resource development industry.
And in 2011, GCI launched the 3,300-mile TERRA network, which serves 84 communities and 45,000 people in remote Western Alaska. To build out the network, GCI has used more than $44 million in federal funds, but used more than $200 million of its own venture capital, and continues to invest to operate and maintain that network. Some of these communities have only 200 people. With these investments, telehealth and distance education have become a reality for many in rural Alaska, where roads are often impassable and airplanes are sometimes the only mode of transportation.
“It’s really been a compressed timeline to see telecommunications history in some of these more remote communities,” Handyside said. “Building out in rural communities, connecting rural health clinics and enabling those clinics to provide remote medical care, mental health and dentistry – these are all things we’ve been doing in rural Alaska for over a decade. what it means to rural Alaskans has been a huge game changer.”
An economic engine for Alaska
Notably, while GCI was building out the TERRA network, the capital budget was even greater than the state’s own capital budget, Handyside said. “To have these mega projects that require engineering expertise, shipping, fuel and all these services that help different sectors in the economy — that’s had ripple effects, especially in rural Alaska.”
In terms of its workforce, GCI is unique in that its employees serve their own communities. These include location agents who can stay in the communities where they grew up and continue to nurture the Alaskan culture, rather than having to relocate for a permanent job. Specially trained tower climbers are also part of GCI’s workforce, which is dispatched as soon as possible. There is also an entire human resources department dedicated solely to serving the Alaskan countryside.
“Our employees must be skilled, well-rounded, knowledgeable technicians traveling in rural Alaska because when they go to these locations they may encounter a power problem or a wiring problem, they may need to have a light on the top of the tower,” explains Handyside. “They have to be hardy people because you have to travel there by helicopter, or sometimes with a snow machine, and are willing enough to stay in GCI shelters for several nights if the work is temporarily halted due to weather conditions. It takes a special kind of person to have all those qualities.”
Capital investment and federal funding open doors
Another growth area was the exploitation of submarine fibers by GCI. By the end of 2022, GCI will have deployed more than 6,000 miles of submarine fiber, up from 2,330 in 2002. Than perhaps other companies do,” Handyside said.
Plus, having that experience is also why GCI is well positioned to: connect the Aleutian Islands† GCI plans to bring 2 gigabit services to Unalaska, home to the “Deadliest Catch,” one of the most remote communities in the nation by the end of this year. This kind of connectivity will not only support consumers, but also the maritime industry, opening up new opportunities. The $58 million project will serve about 7,000 people, but a $25 million grant from USDA’s RUS program made the project possible.
“Due to the investment in our fiber network over time, we are now on track to launch 10 gigs,” said Handyside. Today, 80% of Alaskans served by GCI’s fiber network have access to 2 gigs.
“In Alaska, more than anywhere else, it can be very difficult to create a financial model that makes sense in terms of investing in the network to deploy services to these small communities,” Handyside said, with the Aleutians as example and the federal funding that made it economically viable.
Handyside is also optimistic about the future of GCI and the limitless possibilities ahead. “As we move forward, places where we used to think it wouldn’t be feasible to provide services because of the sheer distance, huge cost, remoteness, climate or technology we would need to make it possible – it’s Now a possibility, and with the new federal funding becoming available [through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act]what this will enable us to move forward in communities with fiber, which is our primary focus, but also to provide enhanced services in some communities where fiber is not an option,” she explained. “it’s really an opportunity that we want to be strategic and take advantage of to deploy it in the best way to reach the most people and with the best technology.”