Alaskans, like so many others around the world, need reliable high-speed internet for critical access to work, education, health care, and more. But the varied geography and harsh weather conditions in Alaska make it challenging to get high-speed internet into homes and businesses.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Alaskans online for work, school, and many other aspects of their daily lives, the digital divide became even more pronounced. “In the environment that we’re in today where we’re working more from home and streaming from home more than ever before, we need that higher bandwidth to live our lives,” says Beth Barnes, a VP of marketing at Alaska Communications.
To address this gap, Alaska Communications announced it would begin deploying equipment from Cambium Networks enabled by Terragraph, a gigabit wireless technology developed and licensed by Facebook Connectivity. Terragraph operates in the unlicensed 60GHz spectrum and deploys multi-gigabit data rates faster and at a fraction of the cost of trenched fiber.
Many internet service providers have found that running trenched fiber for the final distance to homes and businesses is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming in Alaska’s harsh terrain. “If you have a break in the fiber connection, the idea of having to identify where that break is and to splice it becomes a lot more challenging and expensive when the ground is frozen,” says Derek Underwood, a regional VP of North America for Cambium Networks. For many years, Cambium Networks has been deploying wireless solutions in challenging conditions in order to connect people in places ranging from Penang, Malaysia, to Puerto Rico.
Facebook Connectivity developed Terragraph technology as part of its efforts to help expand affordable, reliable high-speed internet access, particularly in underconnected regions. “Facebook’s mission is to bring the world closer together, and that relies on people getting access to a better internet,” says Praveen Sampath, a Product Marketing Manager for Terragraph at Facebook.
Facebook Connectivity licenses Terragraph for free to various partners around the world, including Cambium Networks, so service providers and equipment manufacturers can focus their energies on deploying this technology rather than doing the R&D themselves. “With Terragraph, we deliver fiber-like speeds without the fiber. We don’t operate or deploy networks, so we work with the ecosystem, especially with service providers, system integrators, and equipment manufacturers, to effectively bring Terragraph to market across the world,” says Sampath.
In the first phase of the rollout in Alaska, Alaska Communications plans to deploy Cambium Networks’ 60GHz cnWave fixed wireless equipment to deliver internet speeds up to 1 Gbps to 6,500 homes and businesses in Alaska, reaching locations that previously had limited access to high-speed internet.
Instead of using a point-to-point solution like fiber, Terragraph uses a mesh network topology in which Terragraph nodes — roughly the size of a book — are placed on existing structures, such as rooftops and telephone poles. These nodes not only provide connectivity to specific homes but also repeat the signal to other nodes to connect multiple homes. Mesh network designs use redundancy such that there are multiple alternate paths between nodes, thus allowing the network to remain resilient to interruptions. In contrast, a break in last-mile fiber lines typically constitutes a single point of failure, and the break has to be fixed in order for that customer to come back online.
Alaska residents, like filmmaker Tom Pillifant, are already experiencing the benefits of the Terragraph deployment. Pillifant, a lifelong resident of Anchorage, creates films about the diverse Alaskan landscape for clients who often require projects on a tight deadline. Pillifant frequently has to send out large, high-resolution files for clients to approve.
“Up until recently, it has been a relative source of frustration because it takes a long time to get a big file — say, a gig or larger — like that out,” says Pillifant. “I used to plan my day around launching a file upload, knowing it was going to take several hours to complete.”
He recently signed up for Alaska Communications’ new service featuring Cambium Networks’ Terragraph solution. The hardware that was installed was quite minimal — a mesh Wi-Fi device plugged into the ethernet port, and a receiver mounted on the roof of his building.
Now with internet speeds close to 100 times faster than what he had previously experienced, Pillifant is a lot more productive and can keep his workflow moving much more quickly. For instance, for much of the COVID-19 lockdown, Pillifant had been shooting a project featuring a variety of sled dog racers and their kennels training for a 1,000-mile Alaskan sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, for a show being produced out of Norway. Now, if the need arises, he can share files with his colleagues across the world multiple times per day.
“When I had to send a 12-gig file to Oslo, I was astonished when the upload [only] took 11 minutes,” says Pillifant. “I did not think that this would be possible in this lifetime. It has meant virtually real-time collaboration with a production company 10 time zones away. It’s awesome.”
Alaska’s dispersed population makes connectivity all the more important. While Alaska is about two and half times the size of Texas, or about 77 times the size of New Jersey, the state averages approximately one resident per square mile. While it’s hard to get high-speed internet into people’s homes in places like Anchorage, it’s even trickier to get internet to people who live outside Alaska’s metropolitan areas. And getting online and staying connected proved to be crucial during the pandemic and beyond.
“Once the pandemic hit, we had to find different ways to find joy,” says Andrew Weaver of the Yup’ik tribe who works as a Program Coordinator for the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Weaver would go on the internet to play video games with friends and access old videos of Yup’ik storytellers and the Yup’ik style of dancing on YouTube. During the pandemic, he also used Facebook to livestream Yup’ik songs and dances for his friends and family. His friends would request songs, and he would either sing or drum them via Facebook Live.
“When I think of connectivity, I think of how fast you can say hi to someone, or how fast you can have a real conversation and learn something,” says Peter Griggs, a student who lives in Anchorage and whose family is from the Yup’ik tribe. Griggs plays Minecraft with his friends online and sees better connectivity as a way to educate the world about Alaskans.
“It’s super hard to find things online right now about Alaska Native people in general — not just our lifestyle, but even modern Alaska Native people,” he says. “If we could really show who we really are, then that would unlock so much more knowledge and love that we have hidden right now.”
“My hope for Alaska’s future is staying connected with one another and keeping our culture alive, whether that’s virtual or in person,” adds Weaver.
Terragraph will be deployed to 6,500 locations in Alaska by the end of this year, and Alaska Communications plans to offer it more broadly soon. In the next few years, Alaska Communications plans to bring this service to additional Anchorage neighborhoods, as well as to Fairbanks, Juneau, and the Kenai Peninsula. “Affordable, reliable high-speed internet does not exist today across the market in Alaska,” said Barnes. “That’s why we’re here —to connect Alaskans with what matters most to them.”
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