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Three Wireless Competitors in Alaska is ‘Too Many’; Who Will Buyout ACS?

With Verizon Wireless poised to launch 4G LTE service in Alaska for the first time, Alaska Communications (ACS) and AT&T are hurrying wireless broadband expansions to protect their market turf. But Wall Street investors are unhappy, especially with ACS’ investments in its landline network and the recently announced suspension of its dividend payout. Some are now asking whether ACS’ lucrative wireless business should be up for sale, primed for a buyout by AT&T or Verizon Wireless.

Alaska Communications has soft launched its LTE 4G service in 10 cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Homer, Juneau, Kenai, Palmer, Seward, Soldotna, Wasilla and Whittier.

AT&T operates a mix of LTE and slower HSPA+ networks in Alaska and is expanding 4G service to Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse for the benefit of short-term oil company employees working on the North Slope. But the company is also still expanding its existing 3G network along more remote Alaskan highways.

They are coming.

The investment frenzy is seen by many as a defensive maneuver to keep existing customers happy before Verizon Wireless arrives in Alaska sometime next year.

ACS and GCI, Alaska’s homegrown phone and cable companies now jointly operate their wireless operation together. AT&T is their principle competitor. But Verizon Wireless’ impending arrival in Alaska has shown it is no shrinking violet. There are persistent rumors Verizon is trying to acquire ACS’ wireless operations. Verizon has also announced partnerships with Copper Valley Telecom and Matanuska Telephone Association to potentially expand LTE service in those communities as well.

Investors hope ACS considers any Verizon offer carefully. Wireless is a revenue center for the landline phone company, which continues to see declines in home phone and business customers.

Since June, ACS lost just shy of 2,000 residential landlines and 753 business lines. The company still has 57,000 residential customers and 81,000 business customers.

ACS faces the same problems other phone companies do: network upgrades require significant investments, and investors question whether it will ultimately pay off. Many are also unhappy ACS suspended its dividend payout, refocusing $8 million on debt payments.

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Alaska Communications Pounds GCI Cable Over Usage Caps, Overlimit Fees

Alaska Communications has found a marketing angle to combat Alaska’s dominant cable operator — GCI, which has slapped arbitrary usage caps and overlimit fees (up to $30/GB) on its customers. ACS has made cap-free Internet browsing a hallmark of their marketing campaign:

Alaska Communications vs. the Cable Company

Why Alaska Communications Home Internet is the best choice.

No Nasty Surprises on Your Bill

Tired of nasty surprises on your cable company’s Internet bill from the cable company? With Home Internet Service from Alaska Communications, there are no overage charges. Surf, stream, download, watch, and play – all without worry of “extra fees” for going over your bill. With Alaska Communications Home Internet Service, you won’t go over – it’s unlimited!

No Data Limits

Say you hopped online just a bit more this month – surfing, watching your favorite streaming movies, or maybe the kids were trying to win the online tournament of their favorite game while you were posting to your favorite social media site. We don’t think your Internet should be capped or “throttled.” That means, if you get close to your data limit, the cable company will slow down your Internet to limit your connection. With our Home Internet Service, you’ll get to use the Internet the way you want to – at the speeds you deserve!

ACS recognizes the truth for most broadband customers: They loathe usage caps and throttled broadband speeds, overlimit fees and bill shock. Nobody should have to learn what a gigabyte is and be forced to watch a usage gauge before deciding whether or not to use the Internet as they wish. We congratulate ACS for delivering consumers a better choice in broadband and a worry-free Internet experience. We hope this will send a message to GCI  that Internet Overcharging is unacceptable.

Stop the Cap! recommends our Alaskan readers patronize the state’s largest cap-free ISP: ACS.

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Alaskan Wireless Competitors Join Forces to Fend Off Verizon Wireless and AT&T

Ordinarily, General Communication Inc., or GCI, and Alaska Communications Systems Group Inc. (ACS) compete with one-another for a share of Alaska’s television, broadband, phone, and wireless marketplace. But when Verizon Wireless unveiled plans to build and operate its own network in the state, GCI and ACS set aside some of that rivalry to pool resources for construction of what they claim will be Alaska’s fastest wireless network.

The two companies have agreed to form The Alaska Wireless Network LLC, a jointly-funded statewide wireless network to be used by customers of both companies. GCI will own two-thirds of the network and manage its daily operations, while ACS maintains a one-third interest.  The companies claim they needed to join forces because of the enormous construction costs required to build next generation wireless technology across Alaska.

Both companies will continue to market their own cell phone plans, but since both companies will share the same cell towers, coverage will be identical while accessing the new wireless network.

“By combining our respective wireless assets, GCI and Alaska Communications can provide a state-of-the-art Alaska wireless network owned and operated by Alaskans for Alaskans,” said Alaska Communications president and CEO Anand Vadapalli and GCI president and CEO Ron Duncan.  ”We believe that The Alaska Wireless Network will provide the fastest, most geographically extensive, and most reasonably priced wireless services for Alaska subscribers, allowing us each to compete more effectively in the retail market.”

Verizon Wireless believes otherwise. Demian Voiles, vice president for Verizon Wireless Alaska, took a minor shot at the combined network stating Verizon planned to construct an Alaskan network that would rival the kind of coverage Verizon Wireless is recognized for in the lower 48 states.  Voiles said Verizon’s arrival in 2013 will provide Alaskans “the choice they need” in wireless phone companies.

The deal between GCS and ACS requires federal regulatory approval before it can proceed.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTUU Anchorage Alaska Wireless Network 6-5-12.mp4

KTUU in Anchorage investigates how GCI is teaming up with its biggest rival — Alaska Communications — to jointly construct a new statewide wireless network to compete with Verizon and AT&T.  (2 minutes)

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Verizon Wireless Heads to Alaska, Providers on the Ground Expect AT&T to Suffer the Most

Verizon Wireless is expected to enter the Alaskan mobile market sometime in 2013-2014, according to incumbent competitors, who expect Verizon’s largest impact will be to bleed AT&T of customers.

Alaska’s two primary local providers — Alaska Communications, Inc. (ACS) and General Communications, Inc. (GCI), are telling shareholders to relax because they don’t expect to see Big Red in the Alaskan market for at least 2-3 years.  Both companies reported net losses for the quarter, and GCI lost 2,400 subscribers recently when more than 4,000 soldiers at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks were deployed to Afghanistan.

Both ACS and GCI have been using the current poor economic climate and their respective stockpiles of cash-on-hand to retire debt or reissue long-term-debt at more favorable low interest rates.  Both companies are also hurrying to outdo each other’s 4G wireless network deployments before Verizon Wireless shows up, making use of spectrum it acquired last August to enter the Alaskan market.  Government rules require Verizon to sign-on its new network by June 13, 2013.  But Verizon admits it will take up to five years after that to completely build a new network from scratch.

Right now, Verizon Wireless customers taking their phones to Alaska roam on ACS’ network, for which the company is compensated with an increasing amount of extra revenue.  ACS boosted earnings in part on that roaming revenue, even as it lost more of its own customers.  When Verizon switches on its own network, that roaming revenue will rapidly decline, but ACS executives reassured shareholders their knowledge and experience of construction seasons in Alaska guarantee Verizon won’t be able to get its network together until 2013 at the earliest.

But when Verizon opens their doors, Ron Duncan, CEO of GCI expects a hard fight on his hands.

“We recognize ultimately they’ll be a significant competitor, although I see AT&T share more at risk because Verizon’s main claim to fame when they get to Alaska is going to be devices. We’ll still outpace them on coverage. We’ll continue to be the only ones with statewide coverage,” Duncan said. “People who want to buy the coverage buy from us today; people who want devices buy from AT&T because AT&T gets much better devices than we do.”

Just months after Verizon announced they were headed north, both ACS and GCI accelerated plans to roll out respective “4G” networks for wireless customers, although each company is deploying different standards.

GCI

GCI’s cell phone network is a combination of some of its own infrastructure, the acquisition of Alaska Digitel, and a resale agreement to use parts of AT&T Wireless’ coverage it acquired from Dobson Communications Systems.  In and around Fairbanks, Anchorage, Glennallen, Valdez, Prudhoe Bay, Wasilla, and Kenai, GCI offers CDMA service.  In those communities and many other rural regions in western Alaska, GCI relies on AT&T Alascom GSM networks.  GCI pitches its CDMA network’s 3G wireless data capabilities, which offer faster wireless data speeds, if you can get coverage.  For wider coverage in Alaska’s smaller communities, GCI markets GSM phones, which currently only offer 2G EDGE/GPRS data speeds.  If you use a cell phone mostly for voice calls, the wider coverage afforded by GCI’s GSM network is a popular choice.  But if you want faster data, CDMA 3G data speeds are required.

Eventually, GCI’s 4G network may help deliver coverage and faster speeds in both urban and rural areas, particularly as GCI plans to invest up to $100 million to construct more of its own network, instead of relying on resale agreements and acquisitions.

GCI has chosen HSPA+ for 4G service on the GSM network, and will introduce the service in Anchorage later this month.  That’s the same standard used by AT&T and T-Mobile in some areas.  It’s not as fast as LTE service from Verizon Wireless, but is much cheaper to deploy because cell sites need not be linked with fiber optic cables — an expensive proposition.

ACS

Alaska Communications has a large 3G CDMA network in Alaska all its own.  Its coverage is primarily in eastern Alaska adjacent to major cities like Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks, and where it does provide 3G data coverage, the company claims it extends further out than GCI.  ACS doesn’t offer much coverage in small villages and communities in western Alaska, however.

ACS expects to skip incremental upgrades and launch its own 4G LTE service in the future.  It may help the company regain its second place standing, lost to GCI last year, and protect it from Verizon Wireless poaching its customers.

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