Telecom companies expand on central Kenai

Three of the Kenai Peninsula’s major telecommunications providers have been busy expanding and improving their networks this summer.

GCI and Alaska Communications, two of the larger phone and internet service providers in the state, are both working on multi-year expansion projects in the central Kenai Peninsula. A third, Homer-based wireless internet provider SPITwSPOTS, is making a move out of the southern peninsula into the Soldotna area with service beginning this summer.

Much of the work GCI has done this year is focused on improving wireless cell coverage and increasing wireless data speeds, said spokesperson Heather Handyside in an email.

“Recent upgrades in Cooper Landing mean GCI customers are getting LTE data speeds and expanded coverage from around the Sunrise Inn to the just past the (Russian River Ferry),” she said. “GCI is in the process of completing upgrades to wireless sites near Seward including Tern Lake, Stoney Creek and in Moose Pass. The improved voice and date coverage along these busy corridors will be important to residents and visitors alike during silver salmon season.”

The $6.3 million project, spread over two years, is set to improve about 30 of GCI’s sites across the peninsula. The company is also working on improving coverage in Homer with upgrades to the Homer Spit tower later this year, she said.

GCI also launched its 1GIG residential internet service on the peninsula this year, a faster speed with unlimited data that was already available to Anchorage-area residents. It’s available in Kenai, Soldotna and Seward now, and set to be available in Homer this fall, Handyside said. The price for the 1GIG service listed on GCI’s website is $174.99 per month.

Alaska Communications is working on expanding its internet options as well. The company is now two years into a network improvement project funded by the Federal Communications Commission expected to last until 2025. Last year,a few residents of Ninilchik got faster internet when the company opened its new connection. This year, the company is launching the fully expanded service in Ninilchik, Funny River and Sterling, said Alaska Communications External Affairs Manager Heather Cavanaugh in an email.

“Speeds will be a minimum of 10Mbps download/1Mbps upload and the price is $79.99/month for unlimited use,” she said.

Alaska Communications’ expansion project is primarily targeted at outlying, underserved areas, per the parameters of its FCC grant. Areas that already have access to broadband of at least 25 megabits per second download with 3 megabits per second upload — like the urban centers of Soldotna and Kenai — don’t qualify. Infrastructure to provide that service is expensive, though, and Alaska is behind many areas of the Lower 48, particularly in rural areas. On the Kenai Peninsula, residents of the urban areas in general have access to internet of that speed — only about 1.5 percent don’t, according to a 2016 update from the FCC. However, about 61.9 percent of the rural population doesn’t have access to internet at that speed, according to the FCC.

SPITwSPOTS is jumping into the competition in the central peninsula as well. Founded in Homer in 2005, the company provides residential, business and enterprise internet service and has been working on establishing its network on towers in the Soldotna area this summer, said CEO Aaron Larson.

“(Expanding to Soldotna) has been a goal of ours for six or seven years,” he said. “We were growing so fast in Homer … we were always catching up with organization. Now we’re trying to be ahead of that curve. We’ve spent the last couple of years really working on becoming a well-run company.”

The company began with the idea of providing WiFi hotspots on the Homer Spit for the tourist season and expanded into offering residential WiFi in the Homer area, growing to include the south side of Kachemak Bay, Anchor Point and more. Beyond providing service, Larson says the company also tries to give back — in Homer, that’s taken the form of providing limited free WiFi service in public spaces.

Beyond the internet packages — which begin at $89 per month, according to SPITwSPOTS’ website — the company also offers a service called whole-home WiFi, with which the company sets up the technology for consistent wireless signal throughout a home. That was previously a consistent issue and source of support calls for the company, Larson said.

He said the company is working on revising its coverage map in the Soldotna area and hope to use what they learn to expand to other communities in the future.

“Right now, anyone the (coverage map) says we were going to get service to we’re going to, and … if we can’t, then when we can we’ll do a free install and a free month of service,” he said. “We pride ourselves on our customer service.”

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