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Water bedevils GCI in Aleutian Islands

February 9th 7:17 pm | Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

Whether underseas or underground, the mixture of water and telecommunications is a continuing challenge for GCI's Terra Aleutian Program, aimed at improving internet and cellphone service in one of the most remote areas of Alaska.

The company is now proposing a different underwater fiber-optic cable route, along the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, stretching from Kodiak to Chignik and ending in Unalaska Dutch Harbor.

Bringing in Sand Point and King Cove, the new route connects more people to high speed internet, compared to the last plan offshore of the north side of the peninsula, according to GCI Vice President Dan Boyette, the general manager of the Terra Aleutian Program.

The southern route, crossing the Shelikoff Strait from Kodiak Island's Larsen Bay to the mainland, is spendier than the $40 million previously proposed for the northern path, and top corporate officials still haven't committed to laying hundreds miles of sunken cable.

Kodiak gets the internet by subsea cable from Washington state, a more reliable delivery system than the satellites up in the air over the Aleutian Islands.

Whether Terra Aleutian pencils out is still unknown, though still promising.

"We don't have the go-ahead yet," Boyette said of the plan to greatly increase bandwidth.

Already, GCI has spent $2.5 million planning the Terra Aleutian project.

Boyette said he is seeking five-year commitments from potential customers in the fishing and transportation industries. Already, the Westward and Alyeska and Unisea seafood companies in Unalaska have pledged support, he said.

Still pending are written commitments from Trident Seafoods, Peter Pan, Matson Lines, American President Lines, and the Unalaska city government, he said. If the project finds enough customers, onshore work would start this year, and offshore cable laying would follow for the next two years. The planned completion date is Sept. 30, 2020.

Meanwhile, absent the subsea cable, the faster service is coming to Unalaska, even with satellites, from new antennas and towers bringing 4GLTE service.

With 4GLTE, customers can access the internet on cellphones, a service not available locally with 2G which is limited to voice and texts. But once 4GLTE is up and running, that should take some pressure off the 2G service, leading to better voice communications, he said.

But even on land, water is still a problem. The proposed cell tower in Unalaska Valley has been delayed again. This time it's groundwater too close to a city drinking water supply. Last time it was neighborhood complaints on Stewart Road, for health concerns involving radio waves which are not grounds for denial per federal law, though impacts on nearby property values are a valid reason for local authorities to nix a cell tower, which the city council did on an appeal of the planning commission's approval last year.

The replacement site presented its own problems, with health concerns outside the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, but within the range of veto power of local authorities backed up by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

GCI had to redesign the foundation for the tower on the city pipeyard site on East Broadway, since it's within 200 feet of a city water well, according to Unalaska Public Works Director Tom Cohenour. The new foundation won't be as deep as originally proposed, when it descended 19 feet to bedrock, below the water table eight feet down from the surface.

City Engineer Robert Lund informed GCI of the city water utility's fears of contamination of the "relatively shallow" well.

"Their concern is surface water intrusion where deep or driven pile foundations could act as a preferential pathway for surface waters or drilling fluids to enter Well 1A," Lund wrote in a Nov. 22 memo.

DEC's Daniel A. Reichardt agreed, saying digging down to bedrock "presents a significant temporary risk of contamination of the aquifer." He recommended that the well not provide drinking water during construction activities. The site is located across the street from the Unalaska Department of Public Works, on land leased from the city.

Now, it's looking like the valley tower won't be up until late summer, though the other 4GLTE tower projects are going well, Boyette said. That's the new structure on Captains Bay Road near OSI, and new equipment on the existing tower on Haystack.

Unalaska's interim City Manager Nancy Peterson said the city is working with GCI as it seeks to install an underground wiring network. Boyette said GCI plans to develop a cable television service for residents, and that will mean the company will have a higher profile locally with trucks and more workers.

Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin@reportalaska.com.

 

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