United Utilities begins “DeltaNet” construction in Bethel

From the Delta Discovery

by Tommy Wells

Carla Green,Eek VTS 02/06

Within a few weeks, the Yukon-Kuskokwim region is going to become a much safer place to live … well, at least part of it will when the new telecommunications tower in Eek becomes operational.

United Utilities’ construction crews are expected to complete work on the 300-foot tower in a few weeks by installing the electronic portions. When complete the tower will give Eek and several surrounding villages the ability to have telemedicine and broadband Internet services.

“Right now, we’re done except for installing the electronics,” said United Utilities’ President/CEA Steve Hamlen. “The electronics have been ordered and should be in place within the next few weeks. When that is completed, this tower will improve the connectivity of the villages to Bethel and those services.”

Hamlen said UUI hopes to have the system in operation by Nov. 1 in an effort to provide telemedicine services to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation clinics in Eek, Tuntutuliak and Quinhagak. The tower will also enable individuals in Eek to obtain broadband Internet services.

The Eek tower is just the first communications structure in UUI’s “Delta Net” project for the Y-K region, Hamlen said. UUI, with help from a multi-million dollar grant from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, is scheduled to build towers at various sites throughout the area over the next five years with the goal of creating an infrastructure that will improve the region’s overall connectivity, safety, and to lessen the dependence on the current satellite sytems.”

Read archives of the Grant Program here

Construction on the Eek tower was a length project for UUI. The company began shipping supplies to Bethel last fall. The materials were transported to Eek this spring with construction beginning in the latter part of June. Work on the tower was completed in the first week of August.

In addition to providing telemedicine services, the tower will also aid Y-K search and rescue operations and educational institutions. Hamlen said emergency rescue workers would be attaching VHF antennaes to the tower as a way of improving their efforts, while the tower will enable distance-learning programs to be accessed in the villages.

Hamlen said UUI, which had already completed towers in Bethel, Akiak and Tuluksak last year, will begin construction of towers in Kongiganak, Kwigillingok, Kipnuk, Chefornak, Toksook Bay and Tununak will begin this winter. In the summer of 2006,
UUI plans to add telecommunication towers in Mekoryuk, Nightmute and Newtok, he said.

“We’re creating infrastructure that will lessen the dependency in our region on satellite services,” said Hamlen of UUI’s plan to link 47 villages in the region with the tower network. “We’re looking to build an intranet between Bethel and the villages and, in the process, improve the overall connectivity of the region.”

The towers will enable Y-K residents to avoid delays in telecommunication activities and save taxpayers money in the long run by reducing the use of satellite systems, which have to be replaced about every 12 years.

Once all the towers are completed in 2009, Hamlen said rural residents in the Y-K Delta would also be able to utilize cellular phone services.

“We feel this is going to be something very beneficial to the area,” Hamlen said. “It will improve the communication system we have and offer a number of other options.”
In recent weeks, United Utilities, Inc. began construction on a 215’ microwave antenna tower in Bethel that will serve as the “gateway to DeltaNet”, the future of internet and telecommunications services on the Y-K Delta.

The highly trained crew is erecting the state of the art tower on the western outskirts of Bethel, beyond the abandoned Bureau of Indian Affairs school complex. Dangling hundreds of feet above the ground, the skilled workers have made quick work of assembling the massive structure that will soon extend broadband internet services to 12 Kuskokwim communities.

The Bethel tower, along with several others planned for construction by Fall 2006, will establish a terrestrial wireless network connecting the 12 villages to one satellite feed in Bethel. The network is commonly referred to as DeltaNet.

The affected communities currently rely upon satellite-based internet services. Those villages are Eek, Chefornak, Kipnuk, Kwigillingok, Kongiganak, Lower Kalskag, Upper Kalskag, Mekoryuk, Newtok, Nightmute, Tununak, and Tuntutuliak.

The communications towers are being constructed with approximately $2.5 million in grant funds from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska who received the monies from the United States Department of Agriculture – Rural Development.

According to Chuck Russell, Engineer for UUI, reaching the village communities terrestrially will substantially improve internet service. Russell said that terrestrial connection means increased bandwidth, reduced facility costs and reduced latency or satellite delay. Reducing satellite dependence will also decrease the number of outages caused by interference from the sun.

Once the network is established, UUI plans to offer 256 Kbps downstream and 64 Kbps upstream broadband internet access at a rate of $49.95 per month with a $99.95 hook up fee. As stated in the RCA grant, UUI is committed to not increase the rates for five years after the beginning of service.

Under the terms of the RCA grant, UUI will also provide free service for 18 months at a public access site in each of the 12 villages. The sites, chosen and provided by tribal governments, will include five personal computers and be managed by locally hired technicians.

The grant also stipulates that UUI must fund the training of the site managers at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus.Internet service could be just the tip of the iceberg of the services DeltaNet provides. According to Steve Hamlen, President and CEO of UUI, the infrastructure being established could eventually support cellular telephone, telemedicine and distance learning programs.

The University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus, Association of Village Council Presidents, Yuut Elitnaurviat and school districts in the region have all voiced support for the DeltaNet project and the distance learning opportunities it could provide.

Read Supporting Public Testimony
US Congress, Stevens
Association of Village Council Presidents, Naneng
Calista Corporation, Nicolai
Bethel Native Corporation, Stemp
Alaska State, Hoffman
Kuskokwim Campus NSF, Leonard
Kuskokwim Campus, Morgan
ATUC, Moore
Yukon Kusko Health Corp, Peltola
Bethel Search and Rescue, Atchak
Bethel Broadcasting, Inc, Siebert
Lower Yukon School Dist, Robertson
Yutt Elitnauviat, Kuhns

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation has also been a proponent of the improved telecommunications services. YKHC is currently seeking funds to establish an advanced telemedicine program that will be made possible by the DeltaNet infrastructure.

Hamlen said that YKHC has played a big role in getting the DeltaNet project off its feet. UUI and YKHC have made an agreement to pursue telemedicine as the future of health care on the Y-K Delta.

If implemented, the Y-K Regional Hospital will use DeltaNet to communicate with village clinics, improving the timeliness and quality of care in remote communities.

According to Hamlen, the Bethel tower will eventually support terrestrial communications to 47 Y-K Delta communities.

“The Bethel tower is the great gateway to DeltaNet.” The grant funded project to extend terrestrial services to 12 Lower Kuskokwim communities is Phase 1 of UUI’s long term plan to link the entire Y-K Delta.

Delta dwellers will see several more towers sprout up in the coming years, and will be looking at them for a long time to come.“During Phase II we plan on extending DeltaNet by constructing towers in 22 additional Y-K communities,” said Hamlen.

The state of the art communications towers have been designed to withstand the most brutal Alaskan cold and winds up to 110 mph. They are built to endure the effects of global warming and have a life expectancy of over 50 years.