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GCI's Nidiffer keeps data services hot in the Klondike state

Wed, 06/30/2004 - 8:00pm
Karen Brown, Senior Editor

Terry Nidiffer, Internet services manager, GCI

Terry Nidiffer
Terry Nidiffer
In a state where the temperature can dip south of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the population density is the lowest in the nation, connecting residents to a broadband lifeline requires a little more effort and no small amount of creative thinking.

Alaska's GCI has done just that. Under the watch of Internet Services Manager Terry Nidiffer, the MSO has nurtured a service that uses coax, copper and wireless networks to draw in more than 100,000 customers of the state's total 648,000 population–from Anchorage's suburbs to the remote North Slope oilfields.

For leading a data services division that uses creativity to bring broadband to a harsh land, CED is awarding Nidiffer the 2004 Pacesetter Award in the High-Speed Data category.

Just looking at the range of GCI's broadband offerings gives you the idea Nidiffer and his crew have opened up the pipeline of possibilities for high-speed data services. That includes upwards of a half-dozen cable modem data tiers, along with some digital subscriber line and fixed wireless options.

GCI offers cable modem service in all of its 15 cable markets, and with 51,700 subscribers, that constitutes roughly half of its broadband base. GCI has even extended cable modem service to the frigid North Slope oilfields in cooperation with a resident petroleum company.

Where other cablers may offer two or three cable modem data tiers, GCI offers a minimum of six to seven, ranging from always-on, 64 kilobit-per-second and 128 kbps LiteSpeed dialup replacement services to four broadband tiers ranging from 512 kbps to 2.5 Mbps.

A major focus these days is upgrading GCI's cable modem network from the now-defunct Com21 Inc.'s proprietary ComUnity scheme to one driven by DOCSIS gear from a variety of vendors. In January 2003 it debuted the first DOCSIS 1.1 network in the country, and as of now "we are about 50-50 on locations of DOCSIS and Com21," Nidiffer says, adding that the three largest markets in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks are still Com21-ruled.

Speed ramp-ups going forward are made possible by the increased efficiency of the DOCSIS replacement network.

"As we convert more and more to DOCSIS, our speeds will go up, too," Nidiffer says.

Coax isn't GCI's only broadband connection option, however. It also offers DSL service on lines it leases in Anchorage from the local incumbent Alaska Communications Systems. There, the DSL service is offered to about 800 commercial customers.

"GCI actually started out as a competitive long-distance operator, so we certainly have that telecommunications orientation along with the cable orientation," Nidiffer says. "We use fixed wireless also to deliver broadband. It all depends on the situation and how can we most cost-effectively still provide the service to the customer."

Indeed, the fixed wireless project extends an 802.11 Wi-Fi connection to 85 remote Alaskan villages where wireline simply can't go. GCI uses a satellite broadband connection to connect to the villages, and from there a wireless access point distributes access to about 1,383 subscribers. It is one of the few possibilities for broadband for these villages, which range in population between 2,000 and a few hundred residents.

"We have a fairly active program through the schools and library fund providing Internet to schools, and also a fairly active telemedicine program," Nidiffer says. "And so because of that we go into a lot of villages with IP connectivity and that way we can essentially establish a hub in the village and offer the service to the consumers along with the businesses that are there."

Nidiffer and GCI's efforts to expand broadband Internet's reach is especially critical to many Alaskans because it's not only a link, it is a lifeline to the outside world.

"It's huge up here. It's one of the reasons why we offer broadband out in those little villages, because they are absolutely isolated," Nidiffer says. "A snow machine and an airplane is about the only way to get things. So for them to be able to get on the Internet and work at broadband speeds is just a huge boon for them, and it makes life much more achievable out there."

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