2023 a year of progress for the AIRRAQ Network Project
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It has been a busy year for the joint BNC-GCI AIRRAQ Network fiber project, which will bring transformational speeds, unlimited data, and urban pricing to effectively close the digital divide for 13 communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska. The first segments of the AIRRAQ Network’s middle-mile fiber arrived in Alaska in preparation for next year’s construction and hundreds of miles more are in production. Survey crews took to the field throughout the year gathering information on the fiber route and local infrastructure. A new grant award enabled the project’s expansion into three more Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities. Last, but certainly not least, the First Lady of the United States visited Bethel to host a community event highlighting the project and the Biden-Harris Administration’s historic investments in broadband connectivity!
Laying the groundwork
It was the year of the survey for the AIRRAQ Network fiber project. Crews traveled throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in 2023, gathering information for the fiber project to bolster planning and logistics efforts for construction, which is expected to begin next year. The AIRRAQ Network will deliver 2.5 gig residential internet speeds, unlimited data and urban pricing to 13 Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities in the coming years.
Kicking off the summer’s surveys, a team led by GCI Principal Engineer of Telecommunications Delivery Bruce Rein and members of the Benthic GeoScience team spent approximately two weeks in Bristol Bay aboard the R/V Wolstad, a 121-foot research vessel, carefully and methodically gathering data and samples for analysis along the AIRRAQ Network’s subsea fiber route for phases one and two of the project.
“The Benthic GeoScience team, with help from the Wolstad’s crew, used specialized equipment to measure the proposed route point by point and finalize the GPS track,” said Rein. “We also used the opportunity for a lot of other analysis and information gathering, like scanning the seafloor for obstructions, collecting samples, identifying ice scours, mapping sediment waves and verifying preparatory research on local fishing grounds, vessel anchoring areas, historic sites and anything else that could impact the subsea fiber route.
Crews also completed a riverine survey of the fiber route, which began near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River and proceeded to Tuntutuliak and into smaller waterways, like the Eek River, that are part of the AIRRAQ Network’s inland route.
“Since part of this network will be deployed in the shallower riverways, we used smaller vessels and portable survey equipment that’s more suitable to the Kuskokwim River and surrounding area,” said Rein. “In addition to gathering information similar to the subsea portion of the survey, the crew worked with communities and their wealth of local knowledge to fine tune the route and help determine the best method for deploying fiber along the river.”
Throughout this fall and winter, survey crews continued their efforts, visiting AIRRAQ communities, assessing local infrastructure, and conducting aerial surveys for the new fiber network.
Teams from IT Telecom Marine, STG, and AMSS, which have been awarded contracts for the installation of the marine cable, installation of equipment shelters, and construction of equipment shelters, respectively, visited each site to further develop construction and installation plans for the coming years. Project contractor UTI has bought and delivered two specialized tracked vehicles, which will enable the safe and efficient installation of the tundra cable portion of the system once final permits are granted.
“This is a massive lift, and it’s one that’s crucial to the project,” said GCI Principal Program Manager Rebecca Markley. “Our teams have covered a lot of miles on, over and through all types of terrain. From the sea and rivers to tundra and local communities, we’re gathering all the information necessary to ensure this project can be built efficiently while having as little environmental impact as possible.”
“The work completed this year lays the foundation for closing the digital divide in the Bethel region,” said BNC President & CEO Ana Hoffman. “We’re excited to see boats in the water and crews on the ground, preparing our region for fiber-optic connectivity. The people of the Y-K Delta are looking forward to having more affordable, reliable connectivity in Western Alaska.”
More communities join the AIRRAQ system
As survey crews plied the waterways, skies and roads of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, it was announced the AIRRAQ Network would reach even deeper into Western Alaska. With the award of a $35 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development’s ReConnect program, GCI will extend the project’s fiber-optic backbone an additional 455 miles to reach Toksook Bay, Emmonak and Tununak.
“GCI is excited for the opportunity to close the digital divide in even more Western Alaska communities,” said GCI Senior Vice President of Corporate Development Billy Wailand. “Fiber is the high-capacity, low-latency, future-proof technology that the region needs. Once connected, residents of Toksook Bay, Emmonak, Tununak and the 10 other AIRRAQ Network communities, including Bethel, will have access to the same internet speeds, plans and pricing as our customers in Anchorage and other urban communities.”
“We’re going to see a dramatic improvement to the reliability and speed, unlimited data options, and significantly more affordable plans in the region. Faster speeds will better accommodate growing needs in the region including online learning and telehealth,” said Bethel Native Corporation President and CEO Ana Hoffman. “We value the partnership between BNC and GCI and our collective commitment to deliver this service together.”
Phase three of the AIRRAQ Network will bring ultra-high-speed connectivity to 1,800 more Alaskans and will be a foundation for future fiber projects in the region.
Setting the standard for closing the digital divide
The project has drawn the attention of federal officials, most notably First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who traveled with Rep. Mary Peltola to Bethel in May, visiting Rep. Peltola’s home region and hosting an event highlighting the Biden-Harris Administration’s historic investments in broadband connectivity through the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). IIJA programs and funding are closing the digital divide in Alaska and throughout the nation.
"The funding is going directly to Bethel Native Corporation because you know what your communities need, and I love the name that you’ve chosen for it," said Dr. Biden at the May 18 event. "An Airraq isn’t the story itself. It’s a tool that helps us tell it. A simple string that becomes a thing of beauty with the creativity and joy and hope we bring to it. The connections of this community are already deep. But with Airraq, you will be able to bring them to life in new ways."
BNC’s Ana Hoffman joined the First Lady on stage at the event held at Bethel High School.
“Investments made through IIJA and the Biden-Harris Administration will have a profound impact on the Y-K Delta and communities throughout the nation,” said Hoffman. “The Yup’ik people have lived and thrived here, in one of the most-challenging climates on earth, for generations, maintaining a vibrant culture, strong traditions and enduring values. There are many other communities Dr. Biden could have visited. We are honored she chose ours to demonstrate the importance of investment in connectivity to close the digital divide. I appreciate the way the community came together to address all of the unique logistics needed to accommodate this visit.”
The AIRRAQ Network is a more than 900-mile fiber-optic network that will deliver affordable 2.5 gig residential internet speeds and unlimited data plans to 13 Western Alaska communities, including: Bethel, Platinum, Eek, Napaskiak, Oscarville, Atmautluak, Kasigluk, Nunapitchuk, Quinhagak, Tuntutuliak, Tununak, Toksook Bay and Emmonak. The overall project is supported by more than $100 million in broadband grants awarded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) and the USDA Rural Development’s ReConnect program, and by private investment by GCI.
Headquartered in Alaska, GCI provides data, mobile, video, voice and managed services to consumer, business, government, and carrier customers throughout Alaska, serving more than 200 communities. The company has invested more than $4 billion in its Alaska network and facilities over the past 40 years and recently launched true standards-based 5G NR service in Anchorage, now the nation’s northernmost 5G service area. Learn more about GCI at www.gci.com. GCI is a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberty Broadband Corporation (Nasdaq: LBRDA, LBRDK, LBRDP). Learn more about Liberty Broadband at http://www.libertybroadband.com.
Bethel Native Corporation is respected as a business leader with offices in Bethel, Anchorage and the Lower 48. Bethel’s companies engage in many diverse lines of business including government contracting, construction, logistical support, environmental remediation and commercial real estate. Learn more about BNC at https://bethelnativecorp.org/.