Nome works through a month of internet disruption
Since the June 11 failure of the Quintillion fiberoptic cable, Nome’s residents, businesses and government have been trying to find solutions to retain some sort of internet connectivity to keep commerce and everyday business flowing, even if it's at reduced speeds. Following the outage, Fastwyre and GCI have worked to improve their cellular and internet services.
“Part of GCI’s philosophy is to always have a backup,” said Chief Communications Officer at GCI Heather Handyside. Once the Quintillion fiber broke it took around eight hours to transfer traffic from the fiberoptic network to GCI’s TERRA network. This restored a baselevel of network service, but the TERRA network is very close to being at capacity. “It’s just a highway that is full of cars,” said Handyside. “The more people on the network, the slower the traffic,”
GCI is working to reroute the internet traffic by upgrading current equipment to improve users’ experiences until the Quintillion line is restored. Handyside also said technicians at GCI’s central management center are monitoring the digital traffic and rerouting it during the busiest times of day. All private consumer services are treated the same, said Handyside, but there are businesses that pay for backup services in case of an outage. “In those cases when we’ve committed to a certain level of service, we provide it,” said Handyside.
Following the outage, the City of Nome’s and NJUS’ internet were down for 10 days. Mayor John Handeland began working with Fastwyre because it’s the city’s internet provider. Fastwyre has organized six satellite receiver dishes that are installed near the powerplant, on top of a shipping connex. Even though the dishes are labeled OneWeb and Intellian, Handeland confirmed that they were put up on behest of Fastwyre. “The site close to our powerplant works well because Fastwyre has a remote office out there,” said Handeland. The City loaned the property and runs power to the dishes.
Mayor Handeland said Starlink isn’t an easy solution for the city because of the integrated network they’re set up on. Current connection with Fastwyre is reliable but not perfect so cloud-based services run on hours when people aren’t in the office and there’s more bandwidth for them. The Fastwyre service right now is the best it will be until the fiberoptic cable is repaired. “We need to be mindful of backup opportunities if something like this were to occur again so we can get back to business more quickly than it’s taking now,” said Mayor Handeland. He went on to praise the communications companies, especially employees on the local level, for working to restore connection.
One of the impacts of slow internet service is that the newly instated, cloud-based sales and bed tax platform Localgov is not working at slow upload speeds. City Manager Glenn Steckman said if businesses can get access to the cloud they can pay their sales and bed tax online but if businesses can’t connect, they can pay taxes in person at City Hall. “We are working with folks if they don’t file a timely tax return, we are looking at discounting any late fee, but they are looked at on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Nome Police Department Administrative Sergeant and IT Wade Harrison said that it took almost a month before the police department was able to use the internet again. Operations at NPD haven’t changed much day-to-day, dispatch officers and fire or ambulance services use radios which weren’t impacted. The police department’s local carrier is Fastwyre for the dispatch center and their long-distance carrier is GCI, both have been working for communication. Difficulties arose when the officers tried to file charging documents with the Nome Court, which has switched to the cloud-based Truefiling online system. To get around this, NPD went back to using fax machines. Harrison said other than the first week of the outage, incoming calls were coming through, once GCI allowed AT&T to get on their tower there were no problems “But there’s no way of knowing if anyone was affected form that week,” Harrison said.
The biggest challenge currently is connecting to software for gathering evidence for a case. “Bodycams, pictures, videos, downloading phone calls getting all that compiled and virtually sent to where they need to go is hard with the limited internet,” said Harrison. “It gets done, it just takes hours.” For the most part everything else is business as usual said Harrison.
Nome Public Schools uses a 150 MB connection plan with the internet provider SCS, but currently the system is operating at 25 MB. NPS currently is connected to the internet via a backup satellite provided through their service. “It’s very challenging right now,” said Superintendent Jamie Burgess. “We may be starting the school year with very low tech.” This would mean no streaming in the curriculum with the biggest concern being the impact on the testing schedule because assessments are conducted using online software. To stay in compliance with the Alaska Reads Act there is an online literacy screening for elementary schoolers that could be delayed due to the internet outage. “The good news for us is school is starting after Labor Day this year for the first time ever,” said Burgess. This will give the schools more time to prepare if the fiberoptic cable is repaired during the set timeframe.
Some places felt no affects from the outage. “It didn’t impact us at all, we had other systems in place,” said Mike McNally Store Manager at Alaska Commercial Company.
Alaska Airlines also quickly re-established their internet through GCI, and have maintained operations since, according to Nome Station Manager Crystal Andersen Booth.
For a short time, Hansons could only take cash before the store was able to take card payments again.
Other businesses have had to adapt like Builders Industrial Supply which was cash only for over a month before they reincorporated a credit card machine. “We’re kinda back to normal, still fighting the credit machine, it never works straight out of the box,” said Builders co-owner Keith Reddaway. He has a call set up to get it fully working. Reddaway went on to say, much of their customer base are agencies and contractors who are on open charge, this kept business going and meant smaller transactions were the biggest “pain.”
Bering Tea and Coffee has struggled with connectivity and is considering making a switch to Starlink to find a consistent network. “We count on the internet for the point of sale and for our customers to have a place to be,” said owner Kristine McRae.
Shawn Williams is the VP of Governmental Affairs & Strategy with Pacific Dataport a company that provides satellite devices, including Starlink, throughout rural Alaska. Williams wrote to The Nugget, Pacific Dataport has been encouraging the implementation of a back-up system for traditional networks for a while. Williams said that satellite systems are “cheaper faster and more reliable.”
“There’s no disrupting sacred grounds or tons of permitting, and installation happens quickly,” he wrote. Williams said this is something that is used in the Lower 48 effectively. Starlink is a Low Earth Orbit, LEO for short, satellite system which means it’s located closer to Earth than Geostationary, or GEO, satellites. GEO satellites orbit the Earth at a speed matching the Earth’s rotation, allowing it to hover in one location above the Earth.
Quintillion President Mac McHale stated in an update on the repairs that permits have been filed to complete the offshore repairs. The repair vessel is currently undergoing maintenance on Vancouver Island. Quintillion has contacted the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in Fairbanks to inform them of the planned repairs. Based on sea ice forecasts, repairs are still set to begin August 9 and continue through August 22.