Communications at the top of the world: Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. has been providing services to the North Slope Borough of Alaska for more than 20 years. (Alaska Native Business News).
When ASTAC first applied for a certificate in the late '70s, all the oil companies wanted to stick with their current provider, RCA. All filed petitions opposing this little cooperative start-up how could it possibly serve the big oil companies? But when everyone saw the benefit of low costs in ASTAC's proposed tariff for services, they withdrew their opposition.
"If we didn't provide good service, the oil companies would have a choice. They have the capability of running their own telecommunications business. They would drop us in a minute," says Dave Fauske, general manager for ASTAC. "The major oil industry companies have more complex systems than ASTAC. The benefit is, when we do it right, they have a very reasonable cost for a very good telecommunications service.
"At the local level we can do anything you could get in Seattle or New York City," he continues. The technically limiting and costly part is the satellite path and thus the high cost between villages. There are no terrestrial (land) lines from village to village.
To make service universal, all telephone subscribers contribute to a pool. The pool is distributed in areas where costs are higher than average. Most people in America have basic phone service at a roughly equivalent cost, although it varies from state to state. If your operating costs are 115 percent or higher than the national average, you receive the universal fund benefit. For example, the actual cost for phone service for residents in Kaktovik on Barter Island (located in the Beaufort Sea about 100 miles west of the Alaska/Canada border) is approximately $100 a month, but the subscribers only pay a basic residential rate of $15.30 a month. The Universal Service Fund makes up the difference.
Fauske has been with the not-for-profit cooperative since its inception. Prior to working with ASTAC, Fauske lived in Barrow, where he was a school principal and a teacher, and he worked for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the North Slope Borough. He was involved in the initial formation, incorporation and certification process of ASTAC, and became assistant general manager of ASTAC in 1989. He has served as its general manager since 1992.
ASTAC's story is one about reciprocity of partnership between individuals and the community--the unique situation of the traditional Inupiat in the villages keeping up with the front edge of technology. Every subscriber is a member-owner of the co-op. Members include individuals in the eight communities of the North Slope Borough, BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., Conoco/Phillips Alaska Inc., Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., VECO, Schlumberger, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the FAA and various state and federal agencies. All members, whether they are individuals or companies, have an equal standing in the co-op. Because of the high technological demands of the oil companies at Prudhoe Bay, and of the rapidly changing villages, there is constant pressure to stay in front of technology.
"We'd be history if our work was not acceptable," says Fauske. "We are fortunate in that we are forced to do it right"
General Electric had the first telephones in Barrow before ASTAC took over. ASTAC began its telecommunications system development in 1977 and was certified by the Alaska Public Utilities Commission in 1980. The Rural Electrification Act of 1930 for rural America provided funding for ASTAC's beginning operations in 1980. The Distant Early Warning (DEWline) radar network and the White Alice tropo-scatter radio communication systems had originally brought the first modern global access to some of the communities in the area. Now celebrating more than 20 years of service to the North Slope area, ASTAC continues to develop and implement services for the unique environment of the North Slope in Alaska.
ASTAC's nine board members represent the co-op's nine districts: Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainwright, Atqasuk, Nuiqsut, Kaktovik, Anaktuvuk Pass, Prudhoe Bay and Barrow.
Board members meet quarterly and attend some of the annual national telecommunications training conferences for telecommunications cooperatives.
Board members are elected for three-year terms. President Maggie Hopson represents Nuiqsut; Patrick Mekiana, director, resides in Anaktuvuk Pass. Other members are: Elizabeth Hollingsworth, director, Atqasuk; Marietta Aiken, director, Barrow; Debbie Bernard, director, Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay; Loren Ahlers, director and vice president, Kaktovik; Ella Kowunna, director and secretary/treasurer, Point Hope; Marie Tracey, director, Point Lay; and June Childress, newly elected director, Wainwright.
Board members establish overall policy. The general manager of ASTAC is responsible for day-to-day operations and for compliance with bylaws, Rural Utilities Service and the state and federal regulatory agencies. All subscribers become members of the co-op and have a direct voice, a right to vote.
Maggie Hopson, president of the board and a retired health aide, was born in Barrow but now lives in Nuiqsut. Previously a board member for years, Hopson is proud of the board's accomplishments. Grateful for the technology they now have, she remembers how difficult it was to get in touch with doctors with only one phone in the village. It was not until 1982 that individual homes in the villages other than Barrow had telephone service; even then they had party lines until private lines were established. Hopson also finds that cell phones today are a great asset for the villages.
Hopson says it was scary when an emergency happened and they had no phones. "What do you do? How do you get ahold of someone?" was the only thought. At that time they had to rely on the communication radios of the school or on public safety officers.
There are 51 full-time employees within ASTAC. Twenty-eight are based or work out of Anchorage and eight are residents in and work out of Barrow. There are seven part-time village representatives currently employed and eight rotating Prudhoe Bay technicians. When ASTAC was originally formed, the organization ran on a staff of less than a dozen-four rotating on-site technicians in Deadhorse, six or seven people on staff in the Anchorage office, and one technician for the west side villages.
Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative's goal is to expand opportunities to the North Slope region of Alaska with the provision, improvement and expansion of quality, competitively priced, and reliable state-of-the-art telecommunications through professional integrity, dedication and customer service. One of ASTAC's original goals was to acquire the GTE/Alaska Barrow local telephone system. On Aug. 31, 2000, the cooperative closed on the purchase of the GTE-Alaska Barrow exchange. This acquisition more than doubled the size of ASTAC's service utility.
ASTAC's mission is to provide reliable low-cost, high-quality telephone service. As a rural co-op, ASTAC qualifies for federal high-cost loop support to help offset the high costs of extending and maintaining local distribution facilities to its widely dispersed rural membership. Some low-income families may also qualify for the "Lifeline and Linkup" $1-a-month plan for service and reduced installation charges.
ASTAC's annual growth rate has been 5 percent per year. Service now includes wireless and local dial-up Internet access. ASTAC services more than 80 percent of the households and businesses in its area. Its goal is to achieve 100 percent service in all villages. Currently 39 percent of ASTAC's lines serve residential members while 61 percent serve business needs.
ASTAC's assets exceed $17.3 million. The annual operating budget exceeds $8.4 million.
ASTAC's Web site provides 24-hour technical support, the latest information on new Internet services, changes in service, equipment maintenance work and important customer announcements in the ASTAC updates' section. It lists local weather conditions, travel information on road conditions, local businesses, search engines, entertainment for kids, airlines, travel and vacation guides.
A FAR REACH
The North Slope region of Alaska covers 92,000 square miles. There are just more than 6,000 access lines served by nine central offices located in eight of the region's traditional villages and at the petroleum industry exploration and production complex at Deadhorse-Prudhoe Bay.
A typical long-distance phone call can travel up to 90,000 miles to the satellite, back to the switch, back up to the satellite, and down to its destination, thus involving a double hop. However recent upgrades to satellite switching have reduced in-region calls to a single hop in many cases.
Remote villages in Alaska are not your conventional remote towns in the United States. And servicing these villages is not a typical technician's day. When Jeff Anderson travels to the northern Arctic Slope region, the size of Minnesota and a chunk of Wisconsin, he carries survival gear. He must have a broad array of skills and play many roles-he may do aerial wire installation, marketing and planning as some of his many tasks.
He must be able to maintain and upgrade the digital central office switch, to take care of the central office backup generator, provide installation and tech support of public safety, business, telehealth and distance learning equipment for local government, the village corporation, the school and clinic.
He departs for three or more weeks at a time, traveling on Bush flights from village to village, spending two to three days in each village. He starts his day with an 800-mile flight to Barrow, the northernmost community. A chartered Bush flight takes him 100 miles to Wain-wright. There are no roads between the nine served communities. All technicians who travel in these remote areas must be self-reliant. Job sharing and teamwork are part of the staffs daily activities at ASTAC in terms of maintenance, order control, management, accounting, billing and data record keeping.
In a video documentary produced by ASTAC several years ago, many local residents recalled when there was only one telephone in their village. Herman Kignak of Atqasuk remarks there is more communications now than they ever had before. One of ASTAC's original incorporators, Herman Rexford of Kaktovik, talked enthusiastically about the ability to call each other in the villages--before that visiting and communication were strictly dependent upon weather.
Amos Agnasagga, a former ASTAC board member and resident of Point Lay, expresses his gratefulness for the ability to be able to send pictures from the clinic directly to the hospital in Anchorage and for the ability to dial 800 numbers.
Management says it is phenomenal what ASTAC has accomplished in terms of telecommunications today for the North Slope Borough. Remember--this is an area in remote, rural Alaska where there were no village telephones 25 years ago. Now sophisticated subscribers expect and demand the latest developments in telecommunications service. Other rural areas in the United States--like parts of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota--have had service for decades.
In the ASTAC video, Roosevelt Paneak of Anatuvak Pass talks of the state-of-the-art equipment they have. There is no lack of imagination. They want to implement the best. The goal is to have electronic communications and commerce for business, education and government. There may be economic limitations, but the people in the villages are not backward. The new challenge is to bring subscribers and communities as much of the new digital, broadband and bandwidth-on-demand service as possible.
In terms of performance standard, ASTAC staff and village subscribers are ready to update to the latest equipment and methods whenever necessary. ASTAC now offers, subject to the satellite network limitations, every enhanced calling feature available.
ASTAC now offers many enhanced calling features in all of its local exchanges, such as caller ID, call waiting and equal access to those areas supported by the rural satellite network.
Is this normal, usual telephone service? No, this is not your basic phone service; it includes satellites, telehealth technology, local dial-up Internet access, compressed video, wireless telephony, computer-assisted instruction and video conferencing. What will the future hold for the North Slope Borough and ASTAC? Only more growth, says leaders.
Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. (ASTAC)
4300 B Street, Suite 501
Anchorage, Alaska 99503
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|Publication:||Alaska Business Monthly|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2002|
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