GCI turns on Alaska's first 5G service

GCI is using a mix of low- and mid-band spectrum for 5G NR, including its 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 850 MHz, PCS and AWS holdings. (Getty Images)

GCI has made good on its pledge to launch 5G service in Alaska this spring, turning on its first 5G cell sites in Anchorage Friday.

Last summer GCI announced plans to deploy Ericsson’s 3GPP standards-based 5G New Radio hardware and software to 82 macro cell sites across Anchorage, and now says it’s the northernmost 5G wireless carrier in the nation.

"In June of 2019, we committed to launching 5G service in the spring of 2020. I am proud to announce today we have delivered on that commitment," said GCI CEO and co-founder Ron Duncan in a statement.

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GCI has upgraded its wireless core and plans to upgrade “the vast majority of cell sites” in Anchorage, including Eagle River and Girdwood, to its 5-band 5G solution by the end of the year.

“At that point, we will have created essentially a brand-new wireless network in Anchorage, comparable in quality and performance to GCI's industry-leading cable modem network,” Duncan continued.

Future GCI 5G expansion plans across Alaska include Wasilla, Fairbanks and Juneau, though no timeline is set.

The operator is using a mix of low- and mid-band spectrum for 5G NR, including its 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 850 MHz, PCS and AWS holdings. Overall GCI controls 210 MHz of wireless spectrum in Anchorage. It said it’s outfitting every sector of every cell site with five radios to use GCI’s spectrum holdings and deliver speed improvements and coverage, particularly in-building.

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GCI’s metro fiber network is providing backhaul services to upgraded sites, including both tower and building locations.

The project, which the carrier dubs “Hometown 5G,” is giving GCI’s network a boost that it says is five times faster than before.

"This increase in wireless speeds and coverage comes at a time when data connectivity is more important than ever," Duncan said in his statement. "I want to emphasize that this increase will also benefit our LTE customers, not just users of 5G handsets. This is a win for all GCI wireless customers and for all of Anchorage."

GCI already sells devices that it said will be able to support 5G service following a software update in the coming weeks. Additional 5G handsets will be available later this year. According to its website, GCI is currently offering the Samsung Galaxy S20, S20 Plus and S20 Ultra 5G.

The operator is not charging customers extra for 5G on an unlimited plan, but noted there may be future products and services that could fall under different rates.

Alaska is also looking beyond mobile service, with Duncan adding that: “As it matures, 5G will support innovative consumer and business applications, including IoT (internet of things), smart cities, connected vehicles, and eHealth."

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The 5G project represents tens of millions of dollars of investments in Anchorage’s economy in GCI’s latest effort to bring connectivity to the state of Alaska, as the city aims to turn itself into the northernmost smart city.

Hometown 5G will inform GCI’s network modernization efforts in other parts of the state, according to Duncan, as it integrates wireless and wireline networks to support microcells, and managed Wi-Fi, along with other technologies.

"Anchorage has always aspired to be on the cutting edge of communication and the extension of 5G service in our community helps us get there," said Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz in a statement. "The COVID-19 pandemic brings home how critical high-quality, high-speed communication is for our businesses and our families."

GCI said it continues to work closely with Ericsson to complete its 2020 cell site upgrade plan.

"Ericsson and GCI have had a long-standing partnership to connect customers in some of the most remote communities in Alaska, and we look forward to continuing our collaboration with GCI to turn the Last Frontier into the First Frontier with 5G," said Rob Johnson, head of Customer Unit Regional Carriers for Ericsson North America, in a statement.

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