Operation Better, Cheaper Internet cleared another hurdle last week. The Department of Natural Resources and Alaska Power and Telephone reached an agreement over the underwater easement for a fiber-optic cable from Juneau. AP&T says the project will greatly improve internet speed and capacity in Haines and Skagway.
Faster access and looser data caps in the Upper Lynn Canal mean positive impacts to businesses, healthcare providers and schools. Not to mention, faster internet for residential users. Simply put, it’s a bigger window to the outside world – for everybody.
“I’m excited to see what this will do for learning opportunities for our students,” says Sam McPhetres, the technology teacher for the Haines Borough School District. He adds that access to greater bandwidth will have huge implications for students and teachers.
“With the idea of growing idea of having online courses and interactive websites and apps that are driven by online content, it’s very important that we have a solid internet connection for the schools.”
Among the many needs for bigger, better web access, McPhetres says, are language applications, teleconferencing and independent-learning lessons and classes, all of which require a lot of bandwidth.
DNR released a notice last week announcing the agreement and requesting public comment. The 86-mile, undersea fiber-optic cable will connect Haines and Skagway with the line that links Juneau to the outside world. AP&T will pay the state just over $35,000 yearly for the use the underwater property for the cable. According to the agreement, the DNR’s Division of Mining, Land and Water agreed on a “25-year private, non-exclusive easement for approximately 313 acres of State tidelands and submerged lands” for the cable.
Mike Garrett is the Chief Operations Officer for AP&T. He says the decision came down a couple of weeks ago after the department received the determination from the Attorney General’s office.
“The next step is to go through the public notice process and that’s probably about a 30-day window and then after that is probably another 30 days before DNR gives us a permit,” Garrett explains.
Garrett says this quest for improved internet access started in September, 2014 and has gone through two or three public comment periods, with no one voicing objection.
After the permit is issued, Garrett says the process of scheduling vessels to actually lay the cable will start. But, he says, they’re waiting to make sure the decision announced by DNR will stand before finalizing plans.
He says the hope is to have the cable resting on the seafloor of Lynn Canal by this fall, and the proverbial switch flipped by the end of the year. Besides faster, more abundant service, Garrett says customers can expect rates to fall, too. He’s says ideally more expansive internet will also connect to the cellular realm.
“We’ll be able to provide capacity to cellular carriers, so they would be able to have better through-put, and provide better cellular service and LTE service. So, not only on the wired side would we provide broadband, but we’re hoping that the other cellular carriers will be able to have better service as well. They have to ask us, and we’d sell it to them, but we provide transport for most of them at this point, it’s just now we’ll have more available.”
In Skagway, after the last cruise ship season, AP&T was approached by AT&T and asked to carry its cellular traffic. Cell service and data accessibility are often bogged down when cruise ships dock in Skagway. With up to 10,000 passengers a day posting selfies and Facebook updates, locals are often left with little or no service.
As for Skagway’s bustling tourism industry, improved internet and cell service means better business practices and happier locals and guests. Here’s tourism director Cody Jennings:
“We’re thrilled at the idea that this is going to go forward. We’ve been struggling the last few years with connectivity issues, so this little bump is really going to make a difference for our visitors as well as our community here just getting business transactions done.”
The service could also potentially reach Whitehorse and the rest of the Yukon, if providers there reach out to AP&T. Currently, though, Garrett says there no plans in making that investment.
The line will come ashore near Lutak Inlet in Haines, and in Smuggler’s Cove in Skagway. In May, the Skagway Borough Assembly voted to OK the easement in the cove.
Garrett says the new fiber-optic cable will provide “unlimited capacity.”
“We’ll have services similar to what they would find in larger urban areas. It will take a little bit of time for prices to get down as far as you might find in Seattle or Tacoma, but that’s our goal eventually.” he says.
Skagway’s AP&T manager Darren Belisle told KHNS last year that the current system used to provide internet service through AP&T, called the Southeast Alaska Microwave Network, could be maxed out in three to five years, so it would seem that the improved service will come just in time.
Public comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org before March 28.