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Internet Service Providers Keep Alaska Wired.

Whether you live in Bush Alaska or one of Alaska's largest cities, there's technology available to help you connect to the World Wide Web.

Alaskans embrace the Web with the fervor of sourdoughs seeking midwinter sun in Kauai. Like the allure of the islands, the Internet relieves isolation through bomber surf sites and unfettered opportunity.

Whether running a business, ordering dry goods or keeping in touch with family, Alaskans quickly bound to the front of the pack in terms of per capita online use. As a result, urban centers like Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks have plentiful bandwidth and Internet service choices.

The cost of bandwidth keeps many rural areas out of the loop, but most Internet service providers hope to incorporate those areas through new technologies that improve the breadth and depth of service.

Generally, providers offer everything from basic Internet service to Web page design and hosting. When providing access, ISPs rely mainly on dial-up, digital subscriber line (DSL) and/or cable modem technologies.

Dial-up service relies on phone lines for data transmission and uses modems to translate analog transmissions to digital form. DSL technology also uses phone lines, but it transmits data in digital form, which allows for a much wider bandwidth. Not only does it work faster, but it can also transfer digital and analog data concurrently, which allows telephone and Internet use at the same time.

Cable modem service avoids telephone lines altogether by tapping into local cable TV lines. Using it does not affect cable television service.

Major providers like GCI.net, ACS Internet, Chugach.net and MTA Solutions battle for the bulk of market share by using a mix of these products, but smaller ISPs fill the gap.

Take nome.net as a case in point. One of two ISPs in Northwestern Alaska, nome.net offers 56k dialup service for $30 a month. It also provides limited digital subscriber line services to businesses and other entities.

"I am strongly looking forward to low-price satellite technology that would allow me to resell cheap, but reliable bandwidth," said I. Cameron, nome.net's system administrator. "Most customers are looking for a reliable connection to the Internet at a low price. Communications are a real luxury in the Bush."

Despite financial and technological limitations, many rural residents use small ISPs like nome.net or major providers like GCI, which provides Internet services to dozens of rural areas like Pilot Point and Deadhorse. The GCI 700 Rural Internet Access plan costs $19.99 a month for customers with GCI long-distance phone service and $24.99 for those without long-distance service. Since the plan charges 10 cents a minute for online time, the total bill depends on Web use.

Chances are, many people in areas around Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau pay far less for the company's flagship high-end cable modem product, which costs $39.99 when customers sign up for GCI's long-distance calling plan at $5.99 a month. This service operates at a download speed of 256Kbps and an upload speed of 64Kbps, but customers can double the speed to 512/128Kbps for about $50 a month. Diehard surf-hounds can boost the speed even higher to 1.5Mbps/256Kbps for about $100 a month.

Since GCI rolled out its cable service in November of 1998, the cost has dropped in half and the speed has doubled, said David Morris, GCI's company spokesperson.

"You can have the fastest computer in the world, but if you're not connected to the Internet through a fast pipe, all you've got is a very expensive calculator," he said.

With coaxial cable and fiber optic links to the Lower 48 and various parts of the state, GCI can keep increasing the size of the pipe to meet demand, he said.

Despite the bells and whistles of high-speed access, plenty of people can make due with FreeNet, said Morris, a plan that essentially gives free Internet access with one e-mail account and 5MB disk space to anyone who joins GCI's long distance calling plan. To add live technical support 7 days a week, 24-hours a day, tack on another $5.99.

Other GCI dial-up options range from $10.99 to $25, but Morris urges people to contact GCI to find out what service works best rather than fixating on the list of plans. Though GCI emphasizes cable modem, it also has a DSL product and even uses satellite delivery at over 150 rural schools.

"What we want is for people to come tell us what they need," he said, "then we'll workout the rightpackage for them."

ACS has the same attitude toward bundling products, but it promotes DSL as its premier product, which is called The Pipe. The company spent considerable money on the DSL technology when it upgraded wiring in its tech center and plans to continue adding improvements to allow the system to reach areas further away from the wiring site.

The Pipe can provide up to 1.2MB download speed for just over $100 a month, but a more affordable 320K/240K plan with two email accounts, 5MB of space, 5MB of e-mail storage and unlimited data transfer costs $54.95. A few other options range somewhere in the middle.

Though only people in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Soldotna, Homer and Sitka can use The Pipe right now, ACS intends to expand into other communities as soon as it makes economic sense, said Jeff Tyson, vice president and general manager of ACS Internet.

ACS also offers standard dial-up services through its acquisitions, Internet Alaska and PTI NET Internet Services. With the coveted "alaska.net" domain name, ACS Internet offers an account with two e-mail addresses and 5MB Web space for $19.50 per month. Tech support hours run from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

For $25, customers can add features like a host account on a Unix server and a Netscape Commerce Server to help publish pages on the Net. For all of that plus 20MB Web space, the monthly charge is $37.50.

ACS Internet also offers IDSL service that transmits 128Kbps for $49.95 to $150, based on the customer's choice of minimum speed per second. Still another product dedicates a path between a company and the Internet or other remote location through a private virtual circuit.

In more rural areas of the state, ACS uses the PTI NET network, which provides dial-up accounts to 26 communities including Angoon, Big Lake, Homer, Pelican, Tok, Yakutat, Seward and Wasilla. In time, the company will provide DSL to many of these areas.

Clearly, both ACS and GCI reach far and wide with their services, but other ISPs like MTAonline and Chugach.net also sell competitive dialup products.

MTAonline got underway in 1998 and now has about 25 percent of the market in the Mat-Su Borough, based on the number of access lines, according to Melanie Hoff, vice president of network services for MTA Solutions Inc. She estimates that the company has just under that percentage of the market in the Anchorage area.

Like the others, MTA plans to implement other technology soon, but Hoff did not want to elaborate. The current price of Internet service is $19.95 for 10MB of space, four e-mail addresses and 24-hour technical support Prices go up from there as customers add features, but they can also get discounts by prepaying.

Another utility, Chugach.net, will undergo a period of reorganization and strategic planning in the immediate future, said Dave Smith, director of information services. He declined to answer questions, but noted that the Web site has accurate information on the company's Internet services and prices.

Another lesser known provider, TelAlaska Network Services, offers dialup service to Anchorage, Sand Point, Galena, Unalaska, Cooper Landing and King Cove.

"We'd like to get into other areas of the state, but the cost of bandwidth is high," said Donna Rhyner, vice president for information technology.

Rhyner and Marnie Brennan, the vice president of marketing and corporate communications, like to call TelAlaska the "secret Internet service company," despite its customer base of 15,000.

In addition to providing Internet access with the "arctic.net" domain name, TelAlaska also sells retail Internet roducts, provides DSL and dedicated service, and serves as a wholesale Internet company for other providers.

Soon, the company will also introduce DSL services in Sand Point and cable modem access in Unalaska. Rhyner didn't project the cost of these products, but said that dial-up service with 5MB of space and two e-mail addresses costs $19.95 a month in Anchorage. In the other markets, the same service costs $35 for TelAlaska long-distance customers or $45 for others.

TelAlaska joins other providers in reaching some outlying parts of the state, but many Alaskans have no phone lines or cable modems, let alone a convenient road connection. For them, Tom Brady of Micronet has a solution.

Using a four-foot satellite antennae dish with a retail price of $899, Star-Band satellite service offers two-way, always-on, high-speed Internet access virtually everywhere for about $70 a month, said Brady who distributes the system.

The single satellite dish antenna allows unlimited data transfer and can accommodate both the Internet and EchoStar's DISH Network[R] satellite TV programming.

The StarBand Web site claims it works 10 times faster than the fastest dial-up service with download speeds of up to 500Kbps and upload speeds of up to 150Kbps, but actual speed can slow during peak hours.

The Virginia-based company began operations last year with the help of strategic partners, Gilat Satellite Networks, Microsoft Corp. and Echostar Communications. The company planned to move into Alaska soon, but Brady accelerated the schedule when he installed two dishes in January, one for a family near Healy with three homeschooled children who saw their educational resources explode.

"This is the leading edge of four or five satellite-based systems," said Brady, manager of data services for Microcom, a distributor of Dish Network, StarBand and cable TV systems. "It's cheaper, faster and has more bandwidth."

The biggest hurdle involves the installation price. Twenty or so people around the state are certified to do the job, but travel and other expenses can boost the initial cost of StarBand by a few thousand dollars, admitted Brady.

Even so, people like Morris of GCI recognize the possibilities. Though he considers satellite service like StarBand too expensive and cumbersome for most people, he knows the future will bring wireless technology of one form or another.

"We certainly welcome any type of technological innovation," said Morris, "but I can't say we're too worried about it because we're confident in the product we sell."

After all, a customer can pick up a box and install cable modem in less than an hour, he said, so the niche market consists of people who don't have that option.

That niche market covers a vast stretch of Alaska that Brady considers his sales area. It also demonstrates the size of the gap in communications between urban and rural Alaska.

"I'm going to fill that gap, with or without help," Brady said.

A Comparison of Internet Service Providers

Since many Internet service providers often combine a number of telecommunications products or utilities into one package, comparisons get tricky. For simplicity, this table reflects basic Internet access rates without taking into account discounts for buying other services, paying ahead of time, joining calling plans, etc., which can actually cut the price considerably.

Most of these companies provide packages with more or less speed, Web space, e-mail addresses, tech support and other features. Many also provide other types of Internet technology.
 Rates and Features Offered by
 Some of the State's Internet Providers
Provider Type of Service Web Space in MB E-mail Addresses Speed
ACS Internet Dial-up 5 2 56k modem
ACS Internet DSL 5 [*] 2 320/240k
Chugach dial-up 10 4 56k modem
GCI dial-up 10 4 56k modem
GCI cable modem 5 [**] 1 256/64k
MTA dial-up 10 4 56k modem
nome.net dial-up 2 1 56k modem
TelAlaska dial-up 5 2 56k modem
StarBand satellite NA 1 500/150k
Provider Tech Support Price Per Month [***]
ACS Internet daily, 7-11 $19.50
ACS Internet daily, 7-11 $54.95
Chugach M-F, 9-9 SS, 10-7 $19.95
GCI 24/7 $24.95
GCI 24/7 $54.99
MTA 24/7 $19.95
nome.net online $30
TelAlaska live 24/7 $19.95
StarBand live 24/7 $74.99 [****]


StarBand maintains the right to limit Internet activity like downloading music or videos, which can take up a lot of bandwidth. Since it is on all the time, it does not allot Web space, though users can host their own personal Web pages.

(*.)5 MB of file server space, 5MB e-mail storage and unlimited data transfer

(**.)5 GB of data transfer per month

(***.)Price based on urban service except for nome.net and StarBand, which costs the same throughout the state.

(****.)Plus the initial cost of the dish ($899) and installation.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Smith, Downell
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:2155
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