Those looking above the treeline near Holt-Lamplight Road in Nikiski on Thursday may have seen a 180-foot metal tower protruding from the area near Nikiski Fire Station 3. Those looking closely may have seen the two men climbing to the top of it.
Adam Kiffmeyer and Billy Adamson, of Southcentral Communications, LLC, are among the crew working on the construction of new communications towers across the peninsula intended to help expand rural internet access.
“The wind is working in our favor today,” said Bryan Stogsdill, who works at Southcentral Communications. From the base of the tower, Stogsdill hoisted power and fiber optic cables up a pulley-system that spanned the length of the tower. A brisk breeze meant that the pulley cables curved away from the tower while Stogsdill worked.
The Nikiski tower is part of a larger project being funded by the Kenai Peninsula Borough using CARES Act money. The borough specifically allocated $1.2 to $2 million for the purpose of improving public access to the internet through tower site development and infrastructure last June, and authorized lease agreements in October.
The borough awarded a grant to SPITwSPOTS, Inc., an Alaska-based internet service provider out of Homer, in August as part of the project. SPITwSPOTS Chief Operating Officer McKenzie McCarthy was also at the base of the tower on Thursday, holding the cables steady while intermittently squinting up at Kiffmeyer and Adamson.
The Nikiski tower was approved independently by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at their Dec. 1 meeting. The assembly also approved towers in Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk, Cohoe and Bear Creek, and McCarthy said a sixth tower is planned for Tyonek.
McCarthy said that the original goal was to have the project completed in December of 2020 due to CARES Act-related deadlines, but the company faced setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, materials used to construct the towers stalled in California.
“The tower structures themselves are cold dip galvanized to prevent them from rusting and, you know, wear and tear on them, basically, and those plants were shut down on multiple occasions,” McCarthy said. “So that created, roughly, we figure about a four-week delay in our initial project.”
McCarthy said that of all the towers being constructed through the borough’s internet expansion project, the tower in Nikiski is the tallest. However, it won’t necessarily offer coverage to more people. Rather, the height and coverage radius of any one tower depends on where it is located.
Generally, the towers can offer internet service to households whose dishes are visible to it. Towers built on bluffs or mountains, for example, do not need to be as tall but may be able to service the same number of people. With Nikiski’s 180-foot tower, McCarthy said, SPITwSPOTS could easily connect households that are 20-30 miles away.
Ultimately, McCarthy said he is excited about the project because it will help bring fast and reliable internet service to more people. The elements the project was designed around, he said, included providing better service to areas that were underserviced, areas that were completely unserved or areas where service ability was unfeasible.
In choosing what land to put the towers on, McCarthy said he looked at borough-owned land in order to avoid having to deal with private property. Three of the six tower sites are also next to fire stations, which he said bring the opportunity for improved emergency communications and internet service for those stations.
Reliable internet service has been of special interest throughout the pandemic, which has seen many people having to work remotely. This is especially true for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which saw most of their schools operating 100% remotely for the entire second academic quarter. Additionally, a one-day snapshot of KPBSD enrollment on Dec. 17, 2020 showed that 1,859 of the district’s 8,573 students were enrolled in Connections, the district’s home-school program.
McCarthy said Thursday that four towers are completely done and are waiting on power to go online, including Cohoe, Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk and Nikiski. The tower in Bear Creek, he said is online and that clients can be connected to it.
Of scaling the tower itself, McCarthy said that a general rule of thumb is to stay 50% of the height of the tower’s worth of distance away from the base in order to avoid being injured should someone scaling the tower drop something. The view from the top though, is hard to beat.
“It’s very fun being up there and you get a gorgeous view,” McCarthy said. “It’s definitely exciting.”