GCI crews travel throughout Alaska’s Y-K Delta to fine-tune route for high-speed AIRRAQ fiber network

Crews visit communities; lean on local knowledge to chart the path.

Highly-detailed fiber route surveys are underway for the AIRRAQ Network, a project that launched earlier this year and is poised to close the digital divide for more than 10,000 Alaskans in the coming years. The surveys are a key milestone for the joint Bethel Native Corporation-GCI project, which will deliver 2.5 gig residential internet speeds to 10 communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

In June, 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, constructed originally for the Alaska State Troopers and built specifically for plying the frigid waters off Alaska’s west coast.

The vessel is a suitable platform for carefully and methodically gathering data and samples for analysis along the AIRRAQ Network’s subsea fiber route. The route extends from Dillingham to the mouth of the Kuskokwim River until it reaches a landfall location within the Eek River and begins the overland route from Eek to Bethel and onto other Y-K Delta communities.

“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.”

Now that crews have completed the shipboard portion of the network’s subsea fiber survey, they are launching the riverine survey, which is slated to wrap up in the coming weeks. The riverine survey will begin near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River and proceed to Tuntutuliak and into smaller waterways, like the Eek River, that are part of the AIRRAQ Network’s inland route.

Crews will gather a variety of data, including everything from currents and water depth to riverbed composition, barge anchoring sites and traditional fishing grounds. It’s designed to identify any obstacles and risks along the route to ensure the safety and longevity of the new infrastructure and limit future environmental and human impacts to the fiber during its decades-long lifespan.

“Since part of this network will be deployed in the shallower riverways, we’re using 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 will also work 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, which could include deploying conduit or trenching to better protect the fiber or just running it on top of the riverbed.”

Rein, who has more than 35 years of experience in the industry, has built fiber systems worldwide and across all types of Alaska terrain including across tundra and mountain ranges and along the bottom of rivers, lakes and the ocean floor.

“The work underway this summer is laying 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.”

The AIRRAQ Network is a 405-mile fiber-optic network that will deliver affordable 2.5 gig residential internet speeds and unlimited data plans to more than 10,000 people in 10 Western Alaska communities, including: Bethel, Platinum, Eek, Napaskiak, Oscarville, Atmautluak, Kasigluk, Nunapitchuk, Quinhagak, and Tuntutuliak. The project is funded by more than $73 million in broadband grants awarded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) and the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service ReConnect program.