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GCI Refuels Mountaintop Towers — Using Only Helicopters

A GCI telecommunications tower in rural Alaska, silhouetted by a fiery sunset
An example of GCI's infrastructure buildout in rural Alaska. Photo: GCI.

GCI is refueling 22 mountaintop repeater towers throughout Western Alaska this summer — using only helicopters.

Heather Handyside is a spokeswoman for the telecommunications company. She says because of vast distances and land claims, putting lines in the ground was never feasible. So towers had to be built, often in highly remote locations, like Cape Nome, Blueberry Point outside Unalakleet, and the Igichuk Hills north of Kotzebue.

“We have to set up a repeater system, or a microwave system, that relies on, essentially, point-of-sight microwave signals. So, these 22 sites are critical to the system to ensure that we continue to have this ring of connectivity serving Western Alaska.”

That ring is part of GCI’s TERRA network, or Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska, which provides high-speed broadband service to 84 Western-Alaska communities from the Northwest Arctic Borough to Bristol Bay.

According to a press release, the towers are each kept running by a diesel generator with one or two 4,500-gallon tanks.

Handyside says GCI contracts with Bering Air and Yukon Helicopters to deliver around 93,000 gallons of fuel to these tanks, to power them through the winter.

“We have a team of 30 rural technicians that are based in Bethel, who help maintain and operate the system. So, really, whenever we do any of these local maintenance efforts or refueling projects, these are Alaskans who are doing these jobs.”

Handyside estimates the total cost of the projects this summer is $1.5 million.

And since they’re relying on remote air transportation, she says they watch the weather — and wildlife — very carefully.

“We definitely ensure that we are mindful of any wildlife situations. We have changed our flights due to caribou migration. But this year, it’s been fairly smooth sailing.”

According to the press release, the Arctic diesel fuel is flown in batches of between 410 and 440 gallons at a time, taking as many as 16 trips to the mountain sites.

Handyside calls it a “very unique” system.

“When we embarked upon building this network, a lot of people said it couldn’t be done. And having to refuel your repeaters by helicopter, and using a diesel generator, is not something that’s normal practice. But we really found creative solutions to ensure that the system is up and operational.”

This summer’s refueling projects are expected to be completed in September.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that the featured image was of a GCI tower in Noorvik. The tower is located at Dime Creek. This story has been updated.

Image at top: The Dime Creek TERRA tower, north of Koyuk (Photo: GCI).

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