Alaska wireless war heats up as 4G service rolls-out across the tundra

A fiber optic cable. Photo: NISTAT&T continues to beef up its Alaska mobile network, announcing this week that it’s bringing faster service to the Arctic North Slope, as competitor Verizon Wireless prepares to move into the Last Frontier.

Meanwhile, Alaska Communications has quietly rolled out its own LTE service to better compete with the national telecommunications giant.

In a press release, AT&T said that it would be introducing “4G” service to Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse, which are populated by oil company employees who spend two or more weeks up north working shifts before returning home to other communities in Alaska or out of state. According to the Alaska Community Database, the region boasts a population of just over 2,100 employees.

Rolling out 4G on the North Slope seems like an odd choice given the area’s relatively small, largely transient population, and the fact that many full-time Alaska communities continue to suffer from slower mobile data speeds. But Alaska AT&T spokesperson Andy Colley said that the move is just one in a line of continued improvements to the system.

“Many Alaskans travel to the North Slope for work, including the areas of Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay,” Colley said in an email. “Our aim is to make it easier for slope workers to keep in touch with their families across Alaska and the Lower 48. Investment in our wireless network continues to be a priority and there are other communities that will benefit from expanded and improved coverage.”

He didn’t say which communities are likely to see improved service next, but he did say that AT&T has recently upgraded its systems in areas like Soldotna, Wasilla, and provided new 3G coverage along stretches of the Parks Highway.

Though the new service will be significantly faster than the previous network, the “4G” being delivered to the North Slope is still much slower than the other, faster “4G” that is being rolled out in Anchorage and much of the rest of the country. The network on the North Slope is what’s known as a High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) network, faster than the typical “3G” network, but still significantly slower than Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks, which are becoming more common across the U.S.

Technically, neither LTE nor HSPA are true “4G” networks, but telecommunications companies tend to market the services as “4G” to differentiate the faster speeds from the slower 3G networks that consumers might be used to.

AT&T introduced LTE to Alaska back in September, rolling it out in Anchorage.

Meanwhile, ACS, which has long been promising to deliver LTE of its own to the Last Frontier, did so very quietly earlier this month. According to ACS spokeswoman Heather Cavanaugh, ACS activated its LTE network in Juneau, Soldotna, Anchorage and Fairbanks on Oct. 12.

Cavanaugh said that this “soft rollout” isn’t uncommon for a major network upgrade, and the quiet unveiling was for the sake of a smooth customer experience. ACS currently offers two devices capable of supporting the faster speeds of LTE.

At the same time, ACS also introduced the HSPA+ service in Palmer, Wasilla, Kenai, Seward and Whittier.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)

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