GCI plans to continue expansion project on Kenai Peninsula

One of the largest telecommunications providers in Alaska is planning to continue an expansion project on the Kenai Peninsula this year.

GCI, which provides phone, internet and cable services around Alaska, is entering the second year of a two-year project to update its infrastructure on the Kenai Peninsula to improve service. That includes updates on about 39 towers in the area, installing new hardware and changing frequencies, said Heather Handyside, GCI’s director of corporate communications.

The place Kenai Peninsula customers will probably notice it most is in Cooper Landing and the eastern peninsula area, including Seward and Bear Creek, though customers in the Kenai/Soldotna area should notice an improvement in calls from inside buildings, where reception can be spotty, she said at a joint luncheon of the Soldotna and Kenai chambers of commerce Wednesday.

“That means when you’re inside some of the big box stores, some other facilities — concrete I know is often a real problem,” she said. “Some of the upgrades are going to help make sure that you have better voice service, especially, and also data. I think the place that’s really most dramatically going to see the change is the Cooper Landing area.”

Over the 40 years since its founding, the company has invested about $3 billion in network expansion statewide, including about $121 million in the Kenai Peninsula, she said. The current project is estimated to cost about $6.3 million.

GCI maintains networks in both rural and urban Alaska, expanding its “TERRA” network across western Alaska to serve small rural communities and building towers and cable networking to serve the Arctic. The company serves both residential and business customers, with about half of its revenue coming from the business side, Handyside said.

Expanding networks in Alaska is expensive and presents challenges, with the vast geographic distances and difficult terrain, but the company has been willing to make the investments, she said. Though people may not always notice it, telecommunications companies are a major driver for the economy — the company employs about 2,000 people and makes significant investments every year, she said.

“We can really look at communications as another driver of Alaska’s economy,” she said. “…We are always to make improvements and expand services.”

The company was recently purchased by Liberty Ventures Group’s, an Englewood, Colorado-based capital investment firm, and merged with Liberty Interactive, one of the group’s subsidiaries. All of GCI’s senior leadership is still with the company and still resides in Alaska, Handyside said.

GCI is not the only company making expansion plans on the Kenai Peninsula. ACS, the primary telephone service provider in the state and an internet service provider, announced plans to use a federal grant to expand its fiber optic internet network in underserved areas of the peninsula, primarily targeted at more rural settings outside areas that already have access to high-speed broadband. The company plans to use the grant funds from the Federal Communications Commission, which come to $19.7 million per year for the next 10 years, to primarily expand access for residential and small business customers. A Homer-based small wireless internet service provider, Spit Spots, is also planning to expand availability up to the central peninsula for both single-family residential and commercial uses.

Internet service providers have also been in the spotlights recently because of the ongoing debate about net neutrality. After the FCC narrowly voted to repeal regulations from former president Barack Obama’s administration prohibiting providers from prioritizing internet traffic or charging extra for certain types of browsing, multiple states and members of Congress have moved to reinstate net neutrality as a requirement. The Alaska Legislature is currently considering a resolution, SJR 12, that would request the U.S. Congress to reinstate net neutrality rules. Another bill, Senate Bill 160, would have required internet providers in the state to practice net neutrality, but was heard and held in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on Feb. 13.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) recently wrote in an opinion piece in multiple Alaska papers that she supports the principle of net neutrality and that Congress should regulate internet protections but was concerned that mandating net neutrality could hamper companies from expanding broadband access to communities with limited connection currently.

“A ban on an internet service provider prioritizing one website’s traffic over another may make sense in Anchorage and the lower 48,” she wrote. “But it makes no sense to slow down the connections for a behavioral health specialists doing a consultation or classroom skyping in a teacher when the bandwidth in a community is limited because all traffic ahas to be treated equally.”

Handyside said GCI has always practiced the principles of net neutrality since before it became a hotbutton issue and promises to continue to do so. Providers are concerned about the splitting of regulation among agencies, though, she said.

“We think it makes it difficult for us to do business when the jurisdiction is split between different agencies,” she said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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