AP&T Wireless is receiving a $21.5 million federal grant toward a project to install a 214-mile fiber optic cable between the Juneau area, Petersburg and Coffman Cove — in addition to building out a high-speed broadband network to all premises in the POW communities of Coffman Cove and Kasaan.
AP&T Wireless, which is a subsidiary of Alaska Power & Telephone Co., will be contributing more than $7 million in matching funds for the approximately 5-year ”SEALink“ project that’s expected to bring “monumental” improvements to internet capacity in the affected areas, according to Jason Custer, vice president of Business Development with AP&T.
“We almost can't even imagine yet many of the ways in which people are going to be able to utilize this fiber and broadband, but Prince of Wales Island will be ready for that, thanks to this project,” he said.
The federal grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service’s ReConnect grant program was announced Tuesday in an event that included remarks from USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, Alaska’s congressional delegation, and officials from AP&T and Unicom. Unicom received a $25 million grant to expand broadband services in the Kodiak, Lanke and Peninsula and Aleutians East boroughs, in addition to the Aleutians West Census Area.
“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now, as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a prepared statement. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband.”
Custer told the Daily News on Tuesday afternoon that AP&T had been doing engineering and other technical work to develop a design ad provide a scope of the project — all the way to the individual household level — for the grant application process, a process during which AP&T was assisted by several entities.
“This is very much a team victory made possible through collaboration and shared vision,” Custer said in a prepared statement. “We say ‘Háw'aa’ and ‘Gunalchéesh’ from the bottom of our hearts to Marina Anderson and Bonnie Hammar at the Organized Village of Kasaan, and Richard Peterson with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska for their support, collaboration, and encouragement throughout the application process. We also express thanks to everyone at Kavilco, the City of Coffman Cove, and the City of Kasaan for their leadership, guidance, and assistance in documenting community support. AP&T is excited to see the ways in which tribal members, ANCSA shareholders and community members will be able to leverage high-speed broadband to achieve a diverse variety of socioeconomic objectives.”
The potential difference in existing and expected internet speeds will be stark.
At present, Coffman Cove only has satellite internet service, according to Custer. Kasaan’s wireless service is slow.
“There’s going to be a lot of people who go from a situation where, maybe like in Kasaan where they have 1 megabyte per second wireless — maybe somebody can download their email — to having, we're planning when this project is done, ... tiers up to 250 megabytes per second, with the ability to expand and go further in the future,” Custer said.
Once the SEALink service to Kasaan and Coffman Cove is installed, AP&T plans to then work to offer broadband service throughout Prince of Wales, according to AP&T information.
“Other communities on Prince of Wales Island will also benefit from this new partnership with USDA to build the communications highway of the future,” said AP&T President and CEO Mike Garrett in a prepared statement.
Now with the grant funding announced, the company will begin work on the permitting process, according to Custer.
While estimating how much time a permitting process can take is difficult, Custer said this project is helped by the fact that some portions of the project follow existing infrastructure such as roads and power poles. Some of the submarine fiber optic cable will be new permitting.
The new cable will run from the Lena Point area north of Juneau down through Stephens Passage, around the west side of Mitkof Island and along the east and south sides of Zarembo Island before crossing over to Coffman Cove on the east side of Prince of Wales.
Custer said there’s a variety of provider options in Juneau area for linking the new fiber-optic cable’s traffic to the Lower 48.
AP&T will be placing its approximately $7 million match into a USDA construction funds, and the AP&T funding will be used before the federal grant funding, according to Custer. The company is taking on the construction risk, and will have the ongoing expenses of maintaining the system and purchasing bandwidth to the Lower 48.
“It’ll be probably AP&T’s biggest project,” Custer said. “And it’s great to be able to also just have the economic development in the area — the jobs, the expenditures, and the supply chain — increased economic activity. That's all going to be very good for the region. So, we are very excited and grateful for this opportunity and look forward to making it a success.”
Custer also noted that AP&T is nearing completion of the Hiilangaay Hydroelectric Project near Hydaburg, which is expected to add to the renewable hydropower capacity on Prince of Wales.
With the two projects, “the hydro power and the fiber based broadband really make the future look bright,” he said.