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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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Disgusted
Disgusted
10 years ago

I am so disgusted with your site, you are so misleading. You know so little about what you are talking about it amazing. Anyone who has worked in the industry knows that you are only presenting the stories and bits to serve your agenda. Not once do i see where you have gone back and corrected things you got wrong, or updated things when companies changed policy. Everyone of your posts about GCI is misleading and leaves out info. I am guessing it is true for all. Your like a politician. Why use lies, half truths , and smoke &… Read more »

Scott
Scott
10 years ago
Reply to  Disgusted

I believe if Phillip does a lookup on Disgusted’s IP address they’ll find it’s a GCI employee. As an resident of Alaska that has had GCI service over 15 yrs ago and recently with their elimination of unlimited plans, while also working locally for years in the industry I find your comments laughable. Everything posted about GCI on this site has been accurate at the time it was made, GCI has changed service plans and pricing at times but nothing ever to benefit their customers. ACS offers UNLIMITED internet service without the $100-600/mo+ overage fee’s for customers they go over… Read more »

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

I agree with everything that Scott said. I am a life long Alaskan working in the Telecom field but for a utility company not GCI or ACS. I have tried both ACS and GCI services. GCI internet services work well during certain times of the day if you live near the cable head end, if you are the last customer connected you probably won’t get near the advertised rates. ACS may have lower data rates but it is dedicated back to their central office, unlimited download, and you know exactly what you are paying for monthly bills with no surprises.… Read more »

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