More than 3.7 million pounds of telecommunications fiber enroute from Germany to Unalaska for GCI Aleutian Fiber project
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Almost 2,000 tons of specially-built subsea fiber has begun the journey from Europe to Alaska and its eventual home on the ocean floor along the Aleutian Chain. The fiber, the foundation of GCI’s 800-mile Aleutian Fiber project, will close the digital divide and bring transformative 2 gigabit residential internet speeds to some of the most remote communities in the nation, including Unalaska, known to many reality-television fans as home to the popular show “Deadliest Catch.”
The construction and delivery of the specialized fiber is a major project milestone amid production and supply-chain issues that have impacted the global economy in recent years.
“Subsea fiber, like what will be used in GCI's AU-Aleutians Fiber Project, isn't something that's just sitting in a warehouse, waiting to be loaded onto a plane for its next deployment, and it’s not something you can buy from your local electronics store,” said GCI Principal Portfolio Program Manager Rebecca Markley. “It takes a highly specialized facility to build hundreds of miles of armored, sealed fiber specifically designed and made to order for large-scale infrastructure projects. There aren’t many companies in the world capable of meeting the material needs of a project like AU-Aleutians – and even if they can, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Because there are so few companies that can build the hundreds of miles of armored, subsea fiber needed for its AU-Aleutians Fiber Project, GCI had to go all the way to Europe to find the right supplier. The production process began in fall 2021, after route surveys and analysis were complete, at NSW Cable facilities in Nordenham, Germany. While the cable production itself only took a couple months, it took considerably longer to gather the necessary materials.
“Once we submitted our order for the fiber, NSW Cable began sourcing materials – and for 800+ miles of subsea fiber, that’s a process that takes several months,” said GCI Senior Staff Engineer Bruce Rein. “After they acquired the necessary materials – like fiber optics, steel wire for armoring, and copper for the buffer tube – they were able to build the fiber segments, including one single length segment that will be the longest non-repeatered fiber span in Alaska, once installed.”
Non-repeatered fiber spans use higher-powered optical amplifiers at each end to transmit the signal, rather than a system of lower powered amplifiers placed at regular intervals along the fiber’s length. This approach reduces the hands-on work required to maintain and upgrade the fiber and limits the risk of equipment failure, both of which are especially important in the remote areas served by the AU-Aleutians Fiber Project.
Once the fiber was built, GCI then tackled the challenge of transporting it from Nordenham, located at the mouth of the Weser River on the coast of the North Sea, more than 12,000 miles to the remote Aleutian community of Unalaska.
“Altogether, the subsea fiber needed for the AU-Aleutians Project weighs in at more than 3.7 million pounds with segments up to nearly 230 miles long – that’s not just something you can load onto a plane,” said Rein. “The only feasible way to get our fiber to Unalaska is by cargo ship. In addition to being able to handle the sheer size, it also allows us to avoid cutting the cable into shorter segments, which would increase the number of splices needed before we could deploy it underwater and cost us a lot of time.”
The fiber is currently aboard the 330-foot-long M/V Vertom Thea, as it makes its way through the English Channel, across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal, and up the Pacific coast to British Columbia where it will be loaded onto two cable installation vessels and complete its journey across the Gulf of Alaska to Unalaska.
The AU-Aleutians Fiber Project will run approximately 800 miles from Kodiak along the south side of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians to Unalaska. The project is scheduled to deliver urban-level speed, service and reliability for the first time to the communities of Unalaska and Akutan by the end of 2022, Sand Point and King Cove by the end of 2023, and Chignik Bay and Larsen Bay in late 2024.
“While some GCI projects have required us to practically move mountains, the AU-Aleutians Fiber Project has practically required us to part the proverbial seas,” said GCI Rural Affairs Director Jen Nelson. “The logistics of making a project like this possible are complex, but the end result of delivering transformational levels of connectivity to the Aleutians makes every foot of fiber and years of work worth it.”
The project is expected to cost $58 million. GCI was awarded a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program in support of the project. The company will invest $33 million of its own capital to pay for project costs not covered by the ReConnect grant. More information about the project can be found at www.gci.com/aleutians.
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.