First miles of AIRRAQ fiber laid on frozen tundra near Napaskiak

a cable crew
Fiber-optic cable is deployed from a sled pulled by a PistenBully tracked vehicle on the tundra between Napaskiak and Eek in March 2024. (Courtesy GCI)

Technicians have laid the first stretch of fiber-optic cable for the massive AIRRAQ broadband internet network in Western Alaska. It’s a partnership between telecommunications provider GCI and Bethel Native Corporation.

In a press release, GCI said that crews took advantage of a late winter construction window to lay 45 miles of cable over the frozen tundra, beginning in Napaskiak and ending just south of Eek. Crews will complete the remaining miles of the tundra route segment in the spring, crossing the Kuskokwim River and other smaller waterways on the way to Eek, according to the release.

The first miles of cable are just a fraction of the more than 900-mile network planned for completion by the end of 2027, which will connect Bethel and a dozen other communities to the new network.

RELATED: With massive federal funding, Western Alaska fiber optic projects prepare for rollout

In addition to stringing cables over the tundra and through the Kuskokwim River, the AIRRAQ Network has received federal funding to deploy hundreds of miles of sub-sea cables tracing the Bering Sea coast to Emmonak near the mouth of the Yukon River. This would bring the network within around 120 miles of an existing fiber network serving Nome, operated by Quintillion.

The network is anticipated to deliver 2.5 gigabit-per-second speeds at urban speeds and urban pricing to the far-flung communities of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Both GCI and Bethel Native Corporation have touted the AIRRAQ Network as the key to closing the digital divide in Western Alaska.

According to GCI program manager Rebecca Markley, AIRRAQ has a very busy summer ahead, with plans to deploy both sub-sea and river cable. The project is also planning to deploy the landing stations and fiber shelters that will ultimately deliver broadband directly into homes across the region, some as early as fall 2025.

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