Voice, LTE and Alaska: 4G LTE Arrives in the Last Frontier

Four months before Verizon launched 4G LTE in 37 U.S. cities in December 2010, the company purchased spectrum in the state of Alaska—the one state where Verizon had no network footprint of its own. The news sparked rumors that Verizon would buy its local wireless roaming partner, Alaska Communication Systems (ACS). Instead, Verizon bought a plot of land across the street from ACS’ Anchorage headquarters, which would soon house the company’s all-new, entirely 4G LTE switch facility.

The discussion around whether to purchase an existing wireless network or build one from scratch in the nation’s most sparsely populated state, with its extreme weather, was probably spirited.

Alaska is two and a half times larger than Texas, with more miles of coastline than all other states combined. Yet it’s home to only 750,000 residents, mostly in Anchorage and Fairbanks. There are roads between some cities, but none connecting others, especially in southeast Alaska, where travel between Skagway and Haines can only be accomplished by a 15-mile boat ride, a 350-mile drive that includes two Canadian border crossings, or a plane ride.

As it turns out, the decision to build a single 4G LTE network for voice and data was an expression of confidence by the Verizon’s network engineers and their ability to innovate with numerous suppliers and manufacturers.  

Choosing to design and build one network instead of several was also a vote for efficiency and simplicity. LTE is far more efficient at delivering data to millions of customers than any previous technology. The decision to invest roughly $130 million to build a brand new network and prepare for launch was at least partly due to feedback from Verizon customers who visited Alaska and complained about the quality of wireless coverage there.

The Alaskan construction season is usually limited to the summer months, which prompted competitors to predict years of misery for Verizon’s network build team. In fact, that team faced the heaviest snows in the history of the city of Anchorage (133 inches) during the winter of 2011/12, and also endured a few weeks’ delay while a moose used the switch construction site as its personal maternity ward. But construction crews kept working during the record snowfall with help from giant plastic tarps that covered the site and helped keep things warm enough to continue the switch project.

Building a network from the ground up took a few extra years than buying an existing network would have, but allowed the company to control network quality and reliability.

Scott Charlston is a public relations manager for Verizon Wireless. Follow him on Twitter at: @VZWScott.