The Alascom Story

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: From our archives, fifteen years ago, this report, originally from Fidnonet (remember that network!) dealing with Alaska's telephone service in those days ... written by Don Kimberlin, also a regular Digest contributor in those days. PAT] Date: Sun, 05 Apr 92 10:06:31 CST From: (Mike Riddle) Subject: The Alascom Story

From the Fidonet FCC echo: Originally posted: 02 Apr 92 23:45:00 Originally from: Don Kimberlin

Here's some info for those who get propagandized about how "the phone company" or "AT&T" is the only telecommunications entity in the world that accomplishes anything. The following was received here today from Alascom, the original "interstate" and "international" common carrier for Alaska, that, in addition to a pretty illustrious history, has today become one of the world's most called-upon "fast response" providers of transportable satellite stations for public communications, even down to being the real communications earth station provider during Desert Storm, operating quietly behind the scenes while AT&T and MCI beat their breasts about "providing the troops with phones from Saudi Arabia":


"From telegraph wires strung across vast stretches of wilderness to the emergence of satellites, fiber optics and solid-state digital technology, telecommunications in Alaska have made a quantum leap in a relatively brief span of time.

"What is now Alascom began as the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), a "talking wire" strung overland across Alaska's wilderness and linked to a submarine telegraph cable connecting Seattle with Juneau, Sitka and Valdez.

"Congress passed the act that created WAMCATS in 1900 in order to open communication channels between Alaska's isolated military outposts and the rest of the nation. A provision in the bill set the conditions for the eventual foundation of a civilian system. That year the first operational telegraph link was completed, with 25 miles of line (part of a $450,000 plan by the Army Signal Corps) strung from Nome Military headquarters to the Port Safety outpost.

"Three years later, land lines connected western Alaska, Prince William Sound, the Interior and Southeast. An unsuccessful underwater telegraph cable had been laid in 1900 across Norton Sound from Port Safety to Fort Saint Michael. This early effort was ripped apart by ice blocks, but replaced in 1903 with a new wireless system. The Norton Sound radio link was the world's first application of a permanent radio-telegraph link for public communications, earning it a place in telecommunications history.

"By 1905, 1500 miles of land lines, 2,000 miles of submarine cable and 107 miles of wireless links comprised WAMCATS' unique and growing network.

"With the discovery of gold and subsequent law enforcement problems at this early part of the century, WAMCATS' telegraph linked San Francisco and Washington military headquarters with their far-flung Alaskan outposts.

"The military allowed commercial and non-military traffic on the system, providing it did not interfere with military operations. The Alaska Railroad, completed in 1923, pushed development from the port of Seward through Anchorage and into the Interior. Eventual increase in commercial traffic led to a telegraph link with Ketchikan and established that community as the main relay point between Seattle and Seward.

"By 1916, half of WAMCATS' land line were abandoned in favor of wireless stations, which reduced costs and increased communications reliability in the harsh climates that made maintaining wire lines so difficult. For the next two decades, little growth was experienced as Alaska withdrew from the limelight of the post-goldrush era.

"During the 1930's, submarine cables, supplemented by radio links, slowly replaced the `talking wire'. To reflect the changing technology, Congress renamed WAMCATS as the Alaska Communications System (ACS) in 1936.

"With the outbreak of World War II, Alaska's geographic importance became evident to the nation`s leaders and substantial activity in communications began once again. The Alaska Highway project was pushing forward and communications with the outside world were vital to the war effort.

"Communications links with the Lower 48 were upgraded in the mid-1950's when AT&T laid a submarine telephone cable between Ketchikan and Port Angeles, Washington.

"When Alaska was granted statehood in 1959, Western Electric had been operating the strategic White Alice Communications System (WACS) for the government. WACS provided circuits for remote military installations and to villages that had been beyond reach of the Alaska Communications System.

"WACS provided the technology that could relay voice communications over high mountain ranges. This system functioned by bouncing strong radio signals off the Earth's troposphere, a costly process due to the huge amounts of power required to produce sufficiently strong signals at a distance. Used in conjunction with the Distant Early Warning line of radars (DEW line), White Alice sites featured ten-story-high troposcatter antennas, some of which are still standing as silent monuments to a bygone technology.

"Meanwhile, RCA had established itself in the state by winning contracts to supply personnel and maintenance to scattered armed forces communications sites. As private enterprise became more involved in Alaskan communications, the Federal government decided to stop providing communications to the commercial and private sectors.

"In 1969, Congress passed the Alaska Communications Disposal Act. Among interested bidders to purchase the Alaska Communications System were General Telephone, Continental Telephone and RCA Global Communications. RCA was the successful bidder at a price of $28.5 million in cash and a pledge to immediately invest an additional $30 million for badly needed improvements to the then seriously overtaxed and outdated ACS.

"RCA had purchased rights to provide the state's commercial traffic with a network including toll centers at Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan; a network of marine radio stations, a submarine cable terminating in Southwest and a scattering of high-frequency (HF) radio communications sites.

"Concurrent with the purchase of ACS, RCA's pioneering satellite technology in long distance communications made its debut on the international scene.

"RCA renamed its Alaska operating unit Alascom, and in 1973 purchased the Bartlett Earth Station, then the only one in Alaska and Alaska's sole satellite link with the outside world. Shortly thereafter, Alascom constructed its own first satellite station at Lena Point, near Juneau, bringing Alaska into the era of modern satellite technology.

"The first functional domestic satellite system in the nation appeared later that year when Alascom began using the Canadian Anik II satellite on a regular basis. Howard Hawkins, the forward-thinking president of RCA Alascom's parent company, RCA Communications, pushed full speed ahead on plans to construct earth stations across Alaska on a substantial scale.

"By 1974 Alascom had constructed earth stations at Prudhoe Bay, Nome, Bethel and Valdez. The same year, RCA launched its own satellites, SATCOM 1 and 2, and all of Alascom's satellite traffic was switched to the new "birds."

"In July 1976 RCA Alascom entered into an agreement with the Department of the Air Force to lease most of the military's antiquated White Alice facilities and replace them with 22 modern satellite earth stations.

"Replacement of the military's aging communications system was largely completed by Alascom in the late 1970's; the earth stations built to replace the White Alice system required construction in formidable places. For example, a year of pre-planning was needed to get equipment to Shemya in the Aleutian Islands on the once-a-year supply barge.

"In the late 1970's, the federal government was beginning to look at reshaping the domestic telecommunications industry to foster competition. The giant RCA Global Communications, which also operated worldwide communications of many sorts, was ordered by the FCC to divest itself of domestic satellite communications -- of which RCA Alascom was a foremost part. RCA American Communications (RCA Americom) was formed as a totally independent corporation and given the responsibility for handling all domestic satellite business of RCA.

"In June, 1979, RCA Alascom was purchased by Pacific Power and Light Company (now PacifiCorp) of Portland, Oregon. The purchase price was $200 million cash and taking over $90 million of Alascom's long term debt.

"Meanwhile, Alascom had expanded its service by constructing more than 200 earth stations and serving even the smallest rural communities in the state. Company pride and commitment to Alaska was never more evident than on October 27, 1982, when Alascom launched its own satellite -- Aurora I -- the only satellite of its kind and devoted exclusively to use by a single state -- Alaska.

"Along with the new `bird,' Alascom's plant improvements had vastly upgraded its satellite and terrestrial links within the state and to interstate points. A new multipurpose building in Anchorage was constructed on Government Hill, consolidating all local Alascom components in one complex.

"Always forging ahead with new technology, Alascom established the first satellite communications for offshore oil rigs in the mid-1980's, developing a gyro-stablized satellite antenna that compensated for the pitch and roll of the drilling vessels.

"Live television, a given anywhere else in the United States, arrived late in Alaska. Entertainment programs were a week or two late arriving in Anchorage by film or tape. After showing in Anchorage, the material was sent onward for even later showing in Fairbanks and then Juneau. National news was taped off the air in Seattle and put on the first available northbound plane. In most cases, Walter Cronkite addressed his Alaskan audience a day later than the Lower 48.

"Today, live programming is beamed throughout Alaska using Alascom's Aurora I, and events of interest to the world are beamed out from Alaska; events like the visit of Pope John Paul, the rescue of the trapped whales, and coverage of the Valdez oil spill all traveled out via Alascom's Aurora I. The same Alascom satellite is used to relay long distance learning to remote sites throughout the state.

"Presently, Alascom employs more than 700 people in Alaska and operates more than 300 sites statewide with microwave and satellite communications. Alascom also works under contract for several companies that require specialized communications at remote mining and oil drilling sites. Alascom also operates the state's marine radio network and an aviation weather service for pilots.

"In the last few years, Alascom has become known throughout the global telecommunications industry as the experts on rapid deployment of transportable earth stations, delivering them to remote sites by air freighter or helicopter and setting up operation within hours. Alascom was called upon by the oil industry in Alaska to provide remote communications from the tragic spill site in Prince William Sound when the tanker Exxon Valdez lost its cargo in the pristine Alaskan waters.

"In 1989, Alascom was called upon by the U.S. Navy to fly its transportable earth station to Puerto Rico to re-establish communications devastated by Hurricane Hugo on that Caribbean island. The same year, Alascom transportable earth stations and personnel were deployed to Panama in support of the U.S. forces in Operation Just Cause.

"One year later, as the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, Alascom was once again thousands of miles from home providing satellite communications support to our Armed Forces operating in the Saudi theatre as part of Desert Shield, and then Desert Storm.

"On May 29, 1991, Alascom launched its second satellite -- Aurora II -- as a replacement for the aging Aurora I which was almost out of station-keeping fuel after nine years of faithful service. The new satellite, more sophisticated and powerful than its predecessor, will continue to provide a variety of telecommunications services to Alaska's growing population.

"More recently, Alascom entered the era of international submarine fiber optic cables by linking its communications network with a spur that runs off the North Pacific Cable that runs between Portland, Oregon and Japan. The Alascom spur, which lands at Seward, Alaska, proceeds underwater to a point 1,900 miles south, where the transPacific portion of the cable is tapped, using methods like those employed for joining multiple European nations on transAtlantic cables. This connects Alaskans not only with the Lower 48 but also directly with the Orient via the latest in digital fiber optics technology.

"The story of Alascom has been the story of growth. In 1971, when the company took its first few steps, Alaska's long distance telephone traffic amounted to 5 million calls per year. Today, Alascom handles in excess of 95 million calls annually and is doing so at substantial rate reductions from jsut 20 years ago. Over that short history, Alascom has lowered its interstate calling rates by 85% while reducing intrastate calls by 25%. A call that cost $10.00 in

1971 today costs only $1.56.


"The years ahead are full of promise and excitement. As Alaska enters the last decade of this century, plans are already being laid for Alascom to enter the twenty-first century in the way WAMCATS entered the twentieth century, full of dedication and committed to serving its state and its people -- and now increasingly expanding that scope to the world, wherever and whenever needed.

Origin: The Nebraska Inns of Court ( (1:285/27)

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