On Thursday, the company held a community barbecue in Bethel to celebrate the completion of the ring of more than 100 cell towers. The company says the circuit ensures that if a tower goes down in one community, service can be rerouted.

TERRA now connects 45,000 Alaskans in 84 different Alaskan villages to the rest of the world, GCI says.
With a more than $300 million price tag, TERRA is one of the most expensive projects of its kind in the country. Its installation required working through challenging terrain and weather conditions.

GCI's Senior Vice President and COO, Greg Chapados, says the TERAA project is now being eyed as an example for other communities across the globe.

"It has a lot of attention paid to it from the perspective of the people that focus on sort of extreme and innovative uses of telecommunications technology," Chapados said. "It might also be very much applicable to areas that also don’t have a lot of road infrastructure, like places in Africa, other rural parts of the world."

The project is providing new opportunities in tele-medicine and tele-education in western Alaska.

 

"We’re just not going to be able to have a physics teacher in Kwethluk," said Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, who appeared at the celebration. "But to be able to bring that expertise out to the villages through distance delivery, this is going to be the great equalizer."

But beyond those aspects, Bethel Search and Rescue says TERRA is potentially saving lives.

"We’re an all volunteer organization and if we don’t have that fast communication, it means a longer amount of time before people are assigned areas to search and it would take a whole lot longer," said Perry Barr, a member of Bethel Search and Rescue.

Barr says TERRA has allowed the organization to use Facebook for recoveries.

"We’ll take pictures and text it to people in the building and we’ll contact family members and show them the pictures and say, “Is that what they were wearing?’”, Barr said.

While TERRA has made service in Bethel and other parts of the region more comparable to that of Alaska's larger cities, like Anchorage, Chapados says GCI still won't be able to offer the same price for the same plan.

"We’re not all the way to having rural Alaska have the same capacity across the board as urban Alaska, but we’re chipping away at the stone. We’re improving the service incrementally year after year," Chapados explained.

Editor's note: GCI is KTVA's parent company.