By Kelly Hill
Alaskan operator GCI turned up its first 5G network sites on Friday, which the company said makes it the northernmost 5G wireless carrier in the US and the first operator in Alaska to offer 5G.
GCI made good on a 2019 promise to launch 5G service in the spring of 2020, noted GCI CEO and co-founder Ron Duncan, in an effort that it has named “Hometown 5G”.
“We have upgraded our wireless core, and we intend to upgrade the vast majority of cell sites in Anchorage, Eagle River and Girdwood to our 5-band 5G [New Radio] solution by the end of the year,” Duncan added. “At that point, we will have created essentially a brand-new wireless network in Anchorage, comparable in quality and performance to GCI’s industry-leading cable modem network.”
The operator said that it is selling handsets that will be able to utilize 5G after a software update that will be released “in the coming weeks,” and it will have additional 5G handsets available to customers later this year.
GCI, which serves around 200 communities across Alaska, said that its 5G network will be five times faster than its existing wireless network and that Hometown 5G “represents an investment of tens of millions of dollars in Anchorage’s economy” which will inform GCI’s wireless and wireline network upgrades in other Alaskan cities.
“Every sector of every cell site will be outfitted with five radios to utilize GCI’s low-band and mid-band radio spectrum, driving massive improvements in speed and coverage, particularly in-building coverage,” the carrier said. GCI’s existing metro fiber network will deliver the network backhaul for its 5G service. GCI said that it is working with Ericsson, a longtime partner, to complete its site upgrade plans in Anchorage for 2020.
“This increase in wireless speeds and coverage comes at a time when data connectivity is more important than ever,” said Duncan. “I want to emphasize that this increase will also benefit our LTE customers, not just users of 5G handsets. This is a win for all GCI wireless customers and for all of Anchorage.” He added that GCI is “working to reinvent wireless service in Alaska by integrating its wireless and wireline networks to support microcells, managed Wi-Fi, and other technologies to provide a superior data connectivity experience to Alaskans.”
“Anchorage has always aspired to be on the cutting edge of communication and the extension of 5G service in our community helps us get there,” said Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic brings home how critical high-quality, high-speed communication is for our businesses and our families.”
GCI has reported “substantial increases” in usage and the number of connected devices as a result of the pandemic, but said that its network is “holding strong.” The carrier said on April 2 that it has added capacity on its redundant fiber-optic network connecting Alaska to the Lower 48 states, to make sure its customers have sufficient bandwidth, and that internet usage in Alaska had grown 20 per cent since March 1. The network operator is one of the companices reporting network usage data to NCTA—The Internet and Television Association’s COVID-19 network dashboard.
In related company news, GCI parent company GCI Liberty will report first-quarter results on May 7.