Bethel’s courthouse goes to ‘analog methods’ after internet cable cut

the Bethel courthouse
The Nora Guinn Justice Complex in Bethel (File/KYUK)

Staff at Bethel’s courthouse are among many internet users across rural Alaska trying to make do with slow or nonexistent wireless and internet service, after ice cut a subsea fiber optic cable serving much of Northwest Alaska.

This week, officials in the Northwest Arctic Borough and the City of Kotzebue have reported operations issues as a result of the cable cut. In Bethel, Alaska Court System employees at the Nora Guinn Justice Complex have been trying to find workarounds to keep their systems functioning.

“So we’ve moved back to some analog methods to keep things going,” said spokesperson Rebecca Koford. “Court hearings are still happening. If you have the ability to file online, you can do so. If you can’t, you can still file in person; our phone lines are up and running. If you are supposed to attend a hearing remotely, the Zoom phone lines still work and you can still attend the hearing through those lines.”

One thing that has changed, Koford said, is that they can’t take payments with anything other than a check or money order because they can’t give anyone receipts.

Koford said that the court system was in the process of switching from GCI to Starlink service provided by low Earth orbit satellites before the current outages. She said that Starlink would be implemented in Bethel as well as Kotzebue, Nome, and Utqiagvik.

So we’re trying a few different things. First, we’re seeing if we can get onto Starlink more quickly than we were already planning. And second, we’re trying some workarounds with GCI so we can get everything working normally as quickly as possible, just like everyone else is in town. But we do understand that the outage might last a while,” Koford said.

The connectivity issues seen in Western Alaska are likely due to shifts in network traffic following the cable cut, which occurred off Point Oliktok near Prudhoe Bay.

“When that happened, we began to migrate those customers over onto other parts of the network to ensure that they could still have connectivity during that time,” said GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside.

One entity that has not reported being negatively affected by the network outages is the City of Bethel, which has officially switched to the OneWeb satellite network.

Bo Foley, who has served as IT director for the City of Bethel for the past seven years, said that he had been underwhelmed with GCI before making the switch to OneWeb. At the same time, he noted the benefits of GCI’s planned fiber optic network expansion in rural Alaska.

“If Starlink and OneWeb would get a little better, I’d probably stay on them because I’ve already worked very hard to establish those things and I had to do a lot of things to make it all work together,” Foley said. “But, you know, fiber is the ultimate way to go. And if it’s cost-effective you’ve got to do what’s best, cost-wise and budget-wise, with the people’s money.”

On Monday, Quintillion President Mike McHale, who heads the company handling repairs to the damaged cable, said that the outage could require a “six to eight week turnaround” to repair.

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