Rural communities to get broadband

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2011

ANCHORAGE — With the first phase of construction on General Communication Inc.’s TERRA-Southwest project set to start this month, the telecom company announced in December that contractor Marsh Creek LLC was selected to construct 11 microwave towers as part of the broadband Internet build out.

The TERRA-Southwest Project will connect 65 rural communities to fiber-optic and microwave broadband networks, significantly speeding up internet connections previously reliant on satellite connectivity.

And for those with existing microwave infrastructure, the telecommunications equipment will be upgraded and connected to GCI’s existing network.

Marsh Creek has worked on a variety of rural projects, said Krag Johnsen, director of rural broadband development with GCI.

“They just know how to do projects right in rural Alaska. They know how take into account local economic development, stay on schedule and on budget,” he said.

Marsh Creek is certified with the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) federal contracting program. The 8(a) program allows certain economically disadvantaged businesses access to federal contracts without competition from other companies.

According to its website, Marsh Creek is jointly owned by Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. and SolstenXP, a project management and contracting service company for the petroleum and natural resource industries.

COO Jonathan Ealy said the company’s revenue stream is about $55 million. The company has done work on many similar projects, he said, including previous efforts for GCI and remote towers for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The company will be responsible for constructing four mountaintop towers, including sites on Cone Mountain, Caribou Ridge, Kulukak and Muklung. Subcontractors will construct seven others in Southwest villages.

The mountaintop sites may change, Johnsen said, depending on whether permits are granted for those four sites.

Each tower will be accompanied by a power building and a small communications shelter. The power buildings will each house a generator, and fuel storage containers will sit right outside the buildings.

Ealy said subcontractors would handle the village site construction, and that Marsh Creek would handle the mountain sites. The subcontractors will also handle logistics work and material transport, he said.

GCI would not disclose the contract amount, but Johnsen said it was significant, and that Marsh Creek and its subcontractors would be performing “by far the largest portion of the project.”

United Utilities Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of GCI, received an $88 million loan and grant combination for the project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service as part of the Broadband Initiatives Program in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

From Anchorage to Levelock, 279 miles southwest of Anchorage, the network will utilize fiber-optic technology, in which data encoded in various hues of light is transmitted over a glass or plastic fiber line.

From Levelock to Emmonak, about 361 miles northwest, the network will transition into a microwave network, in which microwave towers send signals wirelessly to receivers in the various communities.

GCI will “try to build as much as we can” this year, Johnsen said. Starting this month, the carrier plans to construct the fiber wire piece from Igiugig to Levelock. The connection from Homer to Igiugig will be completed later, in the summer, because it involves submerging the line underneath Cook Inlet and Iliamna Lake.

The mountaintop towers will require right-of-way permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Additionally, the project will require permits from the state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies.

Johnsen is hopeful that permitting for the leg from Igiugig to Levelock will be completed in January. And he believes the overall environmental assessment, as well as permitting for the mountaintop towers, will be completed within the first quarter of 2011.

GCI has until 2013 to finish the whole project, in accordance with the funding agreement with the USDA.

He estimates that the project will create between 150 and 200 construction jobs, but the “real job creation number for this network is after we’ve constructed it,” he said, as increased Internet connectivity brings about its own economic benefits.

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