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Closing the Digital Divide

GCI crews wrap up annual TERRA refuel project, prepare for winter operations

Crews deliver more than 107,700 gallons of fuel to 22 mountaintop sites

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – As early-winter snow fell in Northwest Alaska, GCI crews wrapped up the annual refueling effort for its Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska (TERRA) network. Twenty-two towers atop remote mountaintops are connectivity keystones for the 3,300-mile-long hybrid fiber-microwave TERRA network. Due to the rugged, remote locations of these towers, each must remain operational and self-sufficient for months at a time.

The annual project, which began in early May, required crews to take 255 round trips in specialized helicopters to ferry more than 107,700 gallons of fuel to power the generators that keep these mountaintop towers online 24/7/365.

"To complete this project each year is a massive undertaking, and one you're likely to only find in Alaska," said GCI Senior Manager of Rural Network Operations & Maintenance Earl Merchant. "But despite the mountain of logistics, and the literal mountains themselves, our crews worked throughout the summer and fall to make sure each of the 45,000 Alaskans and 84 communities served by TERRA remain connected."

Each mountaintop repeater site has one or two 4,500-gallon tanks. Arctic diesel fuel is hauled in between 410 and 440 gallons at a time by helicopter. Refueling each site takes as many as 16 different trips up the mountain. GCI purchases the fuel from Alaska companies and works with local businesses throughout the process.

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GCI’s Earl Merchant checks in on a GCI TERRA tower.

GCI technicians and staff from Unalakleet, Kotzebue, Nome, Fairbanks, Wasilla, Palmer and Anchorage supported the effort. The company also works closely with local aviation contractor Bering Air. The annual refueling effort for the 2022 season was completed October 28.

“I’m incredibly proud and grateful for all the hard work our crews put in to complete another successful year of refueling,” said Merchant. “It’s a tough job that requires long hours and weekends throughout the summer and fall months, yet they continue to make this annual refueling effort look easy.”

Even with the generators topped off and the remote towers ready for another Alaska winter, the work doesn’t stop here. Throughout the cold and dark winter months ahead, GCI crews will keep a close eye on these remote towers and the rest of the TERRA network infrastructure, poised to jump on the next plane, helicopter, or snowmachine to quell any issues that may arise.

“It’s hard to explain the reality of the challenges we face to maintain this critical connection to rural villages, but no matter if it’s troubleshooting, refueling, or maintenance, we jump on helicopters and head right out when there’s work to be done,” said Merchant, a 25-year GCI employee. “I’ve lived in Nome my whole life, and it wasn’t until I started traveling for work that I realized how difficult it can be to get to some of the communities due to weather. I take things personally when there are problems or things go wrong and spend a lot of hours out here trying to make it right and people happy.”

A team of 225 GCI employees, including local site agents, technicians, and specially trained tower climbers are dedicated to the operations and maintenance of GCI’s rural infrastructure, ranging from TERRA and local access networks to satellite earth stations and wireless towers.

About 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.